Making our life better—plastics today
Building it better
It was just about a year ago when you settled on your new
home. Construction took only a few months thanks largely to
poured concrete foundation walls, prefabricated roof trusses
and modular wall and floor components. Checking construction
progress on weekends, it was easy to see that time and
technology haven't really diminished the importance of wood
in home building. After all, wood comprises just about all
of the structural elements.
But coursing through those new walls and floors, almost
unnoticed in the construction process, is the lifeblood of
any new home—a maze of drain and water supply pipe, copper
and aluminum wiring. And the material that makes them
possible isn't wood or concrete—it's plastic. From the PVC
drain pipe to the PB or PE water supply lines and the tough
PVC/nylon insulation jacketing thousands of feet of wiring—plastic expedites the construction process and helps make
today's homes safe and affordable.
When you think about it, nothing epitomizes the evolution of
homebuilding more than plastic. Houses are framed with wood,
and most still feature asphalt or metal roof materials. This
hasn't changed in a long, long time. But drain pipes have
evolved from clay to iron to PVC. Water supply lines have
evolved from iron to copper to PB and PE tubing. Wiring has
come from cloth-coated knob-and-tube to metal-encased
armored cable to the standard of today—non-metallic,
plastic sheathed cable. The reason is clear—plastic is
simply unrivaled in the building industry when it comes to
price, durability, flexibility and ease of transport.
Of course, you couldn't help but notice the aesthetic and
maintenance advantages of plastics once your new home was
complete. From the clean lines of maintenance-free vinyl
siding and soffits to the vinyl-clad windows and fiberglass
doors that promise durability and energy savings for decades
to come, plastics meet the diverse demands of today's home
buyers and builders.
But just one week after moving in to your new home, your
eight year-old has decided to test the new concrete sidewalk
with his skateboard—and his knees and wrists as well.
While you didn't see the fall, you're worried because
today's composite boards with polyurethane wheels offer
speed and flexibility that just weren't possible with the
rigid wood and metal board you grew up riding.
Fortunately he's up and walking, although in tears and
doubled-over with his left arm pulled toward his side. It
doesn't look to be a 911 emergency, but a hospital visit
probably is in order. You grab the car keys, fasten him into
his booster seat and head for the emergency room without a
thought as to why child safety seats—first employed in
England in 1962—are so good at saving lives.
A safer and lighter ride
Today's safety seats work incredibly well because they're
made from polypropylene, a hard plastic that flexes on
impact without cracking. Child safety seats reduce fatal
injuries in passenger cars by 71 percent for infants less than
one year old and by 54 percent for toddlers one to four
years of age. For children four to seven, booster seats
reduce injury risk by 59 percent compared to safety belts
alone, according to
Safe Kids USA.
Of course, these seats wouldn't do much without the belts
that hold them in place—a polyester/nylon weave with a
tensile strength of more than three tons.
In just a few decades, plastics have reduced the weight of
the average automobile by 500 to 750 pounds, yielding
tremendous fuel savings. For every 10 percent reduction in
weight, gas mileage can improve as much as six percent,
according to the American Chemistry Council's
Plastics web site.
In fact, plastics are now considered among the most
high-end, highly engineered automotive products in the
world. Since the 1980s, Formula 1 racing car bodies have
been constructed of lightweight, super strong carbon fiber.
Even more remarkable—scientists today are discovering how
to turn plastic bags into carbon fiber materials. According
to a March, 2012
New Scientist article,
chemists at the Oak
Ridge National Laboratory have "found a way to recycle the
polyethylene used in bags and other plastic rubbish into
carbon fibres in a wide range of sizes and shapes," writes
Jeff Hecht. The scientists mix polyethylene with polylactic
acid, heat the mixture, "and spin it into bundles of fibres
0.5 to 20 micrometres thick. Each bundle is dipped into an
acid-containing chemical bath where it reacts and forms a
black fibre that won't melt," explains Hecht.
But you don't need to be on a Formula 1 racetrack to
appreciate good plastics technology. En route to the
hospital you pass white dashed lines that look like dots of
paint at highway speed. In fact, they're thermoplastics—
dry mixes of resin, plasticizer, glass bead and pigments
heated and applied with special equipment. The glass beads
bind to the plastic, providing the reflectivity that makes
night driving much easier than it used to be when road
markings really were just paint.
Of course, roadway markings are a quickly-passing thought
when your child's hurting and your focus is entirely on
getting to the nearest emergency room. After a seemingly
endless 15-minute ride, you finally arrive. Some brief
paperwork is followed by compulsory plastic work—blood
pressure, eye, ear and temperature checks using a variety of
plastic devices. The doctor comes in and quickly makes her
diagnosis…a mild sprain to accompany the obvious scrapes.
She smiles and says it could have been much worse. "It's a
good thing he was wearing a helmet, wrist and knee pads,"
Indeed it is. While more than 15,000 skateboard related
injuries are reported each year according to the
Product Safety Commission, serious injuries are the
exception thanks to plastics. Helmets made from
impact-resistant ABS or polycarbonate, with EPS liners and
polypropylene chin straps, greatly reduce the risk of
concussion from a spill. Wrist and knee pads with PVC caps
designed to slide on impact reduce the risk of broken bones.
But what child would consistently don protective pads
without a fastener as easy to use as Velcro? Swiss engineer
George de Mestral came up with the idea in 1948 when he
examined how burrs would cling incessantly to clothing and
his dog's fur. Using synthetics, he was able to recreate the
tiny hooks found in burrs and the tight loops found in
fabrics such as velour. Within a few years de Mestral had a
patent—and a name that would stick. "Velcro" is derived
from the French words velours (velvet) and crochet (hook).
Velcro has found widespread use in the medical world as
well, perhaps most visibly as the cuff-keeper for blood
pressure checks. In just about every corner of the modern
world, it's hard to miss the role plastics play in modern
medical care. From disposable steriles such as nitrile
gloves and syringes to multi-million dollar testing and
treatment devices, plastics are literally a lifesaver.
On your way out of the hospital, you pass a 64-year old
Vietnam veteran recovering from recent heart surgery. The
implantable cardioverter defribillator that will help him
back to his feet features a silicone-polyurethane insulation
on the electrical leads. Plastics form crucial components of
proven cardio-assist devices like pacemakers, and they are
the building blocks for cutting-edge medical advancements
such as the artificial heart, insulin pump and artificial
Fortunately, your son will just need an elastic compression
wrap and a few adhesive bandage strips today. Both
compliments of plastic, of course. Band-Aid brand adhesive
bandages actually date to 1920 when they were hand-made. In
1938, sterile Band Aids were introduced, and in 1951 the
ubiquitous little bandage went plastic—and it's been that
way ever since.
Once back home, you tell your son he'll have to live without
the skateboard for a few weeks. Between his iPod and
numerous gaming consoles, you figure he'll probably be OK.
Plastics to the rescue—again!
© 2012 Plastics Color Corporation