Some common types of plastic

Content:

Plastics can have a variety of different looks and textures. For example, it can be soft, hard, transparent or colourful. Here, you can read about some common types of plastic and what they are made from.

Thermosets and thermoplastics

The many different plastic materials available today generally fall into two main groups: thermosets and thermoplastics. Thermosets are plastics that cannot be melted down or reshaped after they have been manufactured. Thermosets are often used in combination with glass or carbon fibre for larger objects, such as boats or gliders.

Unlike thermosets, thermoplastics can be both melted down and reshaped after manufacture. Thermoplastic is more common; some examples of thermoplastic products are plastic bags, plastic bottles, spectacle frames and mobile phone cases.

Polyethylene (PE)

Polyethylene is the most common thermoplastic and is mainly used in products such as kitchen utensils, toys, pipes, cables, plastic bags, plastic film (plastic wrap) and bottles. Polyethylene is often used because it is cheap to manufacture. Polyethylene is elastic, does not absorb water, has good mechanical properties and can withstand contact with many different substances.

Polyethylene can sometimes contain colourants (dyes and pigments) and is sometimes used flame retardants in applications where there is a risk of fire, for example, in cable insulation.

Polypropylene (PP)

Polypropylene is a thermoplastic used in products such as food containers, packaging, toys, furniture and textiles. Polypropylene is known for being durable, transparent and able to withstand chemical-related stresses, for example if acidic foods remain in the packaging for a long time.

Polyethylene can sometimes contain colourants (dyes and pigments), antioxidants and is sometimes used in applications where there is a risk of fire.

Read more about plastic in contact with food at the Swedish National Food Agency’s website External link.

Polystyrene (PS)

Polystyrene is a common, inexpensive thermoplastic that is found in many different types of plastic products. Common examples are food packaging, plastic cutlery, CD jewel cases and thermal insulation materials. Polystyrene has good electrical properties and is hard and rigid.

Expanded polystyrene (XPS) is used, for example, for thermal insulation.

The polystyrene material may contain plasticisers such as phthalates and organic phosphates or phosphate esters. It can also contain antioxidants, stabilisers and brominated flame retardants.

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) is a thermoplastic used mainly in electronic and technical products. Examples are computer monitors, keyboards and printers. ABS is easy to produce and shape and can be made into different variations so that it has a number different properties, for example, impact resistance.

ABS materials may contain plasticisers such as phthalates. It may also contain brominated flame retardants, colourants (dyes and pigments) and antioxidants.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is one of the most widely used plastics and is found in products such as cans and plastic bottles. The main characteristics of PET are that it weighs almost nothing and is impact resistant. PET is also used in textiles and packaging.

Materials made with PET may contain colourants.

Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)

Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), also called plexiglass, is often used in, for example, tail lights on cars, contact lenses and materials that need to withstand high stress, such as aquarium windows and hockey rink panels. PMMA is impact resistant, shatter-proof, weather resistant and is very similar to glass.

Materials made with PMMA may contain colourants.

Polyamide (PA)

Polyamide (PA) is widely used in the textile industry and is best known as the main material in stockings. But it is also used in products such as screws and gears, kitchen appliances, fishing nets and fishing lines, fuel tanks and in electronic equipment. Polyamide is colourless but is easy to colour, does not weigh much and is durable.

Materials made with Polyamide may contain colourants.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is the third most widely used plastic in the world after polypropylene and polyethylene. PVC is basically a so-called rigid plastic, meaning that it is hard.

Rigid PVC is widely used in water and sewer pipes and hard plastic toys. Soft PVC, i.e with added plasticisers, is used, for example, in hoses, floors, casings for electrical cables, print on clothing, in rainwear, shoes, bags and belts as well as in soft plastic toys and in medical materials such as ostomy bags and blood bags. PVC is also the plastic that was used for and gave the name to vinyl records.

Most of the plasticisers used in plastic materials go to the manufacture of soft PVC.

PVC materials can contain colourants, plasticisers, stabilisers and sometimes flame retardants.

Polycarbonate (PC)

Polycarbonate is used in products such as CDs, glasses and traffic lights. Polycarbonate is also used for bulletproof windows as well as for visors, machine guards and aircraft windows. Typical characteristics of polycarbonate are that it is transparent, impact and heat resistant and is electrically insulating.

Polycarbonate may contain additives such as plasticisers, brominated flame retardants, colourants and antioxidants.

Rubber materials

Plastic materials also include rubber materials. Like plastic, rubber consists of one or more polymers and a number of different additives and is characterised by its elastic properties. The polymer can be either natural or synthetic. Depending on the choice of polymer and additives, the rubber materials will have different properties, from soft to hard and rigid materials. Examples of additives in rubber materials are antioxidants, UV stabilisers, fillers, plasticisers and stabilisers. The rubber tyre is the largest single product that uses rubber.

Read about artificial turf made from recycled rubber tyres

Epoxy

Non-reinforced epoxy can be used in sealants and coatings, especially on steel and concrete. Fibre-reinforced epoxy is used for parts in cars, boats and aircraft, fuel tanks, floors and components in electronics.

Epoxy is a thermosetting plastic that has high resistance to solvents and bases and has good wear resistant properties. Epoxy also has good electrical and mechanical properties.

Materials made with epoxy may contain colourants and flame retardants. Bisphenol A is used in the manufacture of epoxy, and epoxy materials may therefore contain bisphenol A as a residue.

Polyurethane (PUR)

In most cases, polyurethane (PUR) is used as foam in insulation for district heating pipes, refrigerators and freezers, as well as for furniture, mattresses, floors and shoes. Rigid PUR foam has a range of uses including vehicle parts, for example, bumpers.

Materials made with PUR may contain flame retardants and biocides.

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)

PTFE has physical properties that make it very slippery (low friction). The material is known from brands such as Teflon and Gore-Tex.

PTFE is chemical resistant and can be used in a wide temperature range. It has good electrical properties and has a wax-like surface that virtually nothing sticks to. It does not absorb water and is not broken down by UV light, ozone or oxygen unlike other thermoplastics.

PTFE is used in, for example, frying pans to prevent food from sticking. PTFE is also used as a sliding layer in various forms of plain bearings and similar where you want a low friction. In the medical world, PTFE is used, for example, in implants. The material’s good chemical properties provide an implant with a long lifespan. In the world of optics, PTFE plastic can be used in certain types of lenses as it is transparent to infrared light.

Do you have any questions about a particular plastic article?

When you buy articles in the EU as a private person, you have the right to receive information from whoever is selling the article.

Companies have a responsibility

Last published 26 February 2021