In his recent national stand-up tour ‘Craic Dealer’, Irish funnyman Dara O’Briain included a segment which highlighted how people today take the apparatus of modern life for granted. To illustrate his point that very few people really understand – or care – how the modern gadgets, materials and labour-saving devices in their lives function, O’Briain showed how the phrase ‘…by plugging a cable into the wall!’ can be used to explain how most of today’s domestic consumer devices work.
This observation is funny because it is insightful. Indeed, it is a fact that most people these days do not know how even the most ubiquitous twenty-first century items work, or what they are made from. In short, the people of Britain are used to taking the things which make their lives so comfortable for granted.
Plastic is perhaps the classic example of this.
The fact that plastic of one kind or another can be found everywhere nowadays means that most people simply fail to notice products made from it. So, really, how many people – if asked – would be able to answer the question ‘what is plastic?’ with any degree of accuracy?
A little help..?
What is plastic then?
In essence, a plastic is a wholly or partly synthetic organic material which can be moulded into any shape a plastics manufacturer chooses. Whilst most plastics are made from petrochemicals, there are some which occur in a partially natural state. It is often the case that other materials are blended into plastic during the manufacturing process (these materials depend on what the final material will be used for). For instance, a fire retardant may be blended into a plastic to reduce its overall flammability, while chalk may be added as inexpensive filler, thereby making the resulting plastic cheaper to purchase by weight.
Types of plastic
So what kind of plastics are there available these days? Well, whilst most people will have heard of nylon plastic, acrylic plastic and engineering plastics, they would be wrong to assume these are de-facto ‘types’ of plastic as such. Broadly speaking, there are two main types of plastic: thermosetting polymers and thermoplastics. The main difference between the two is that thermosetting materials undergo irreversible molecular changes when they are heated (this basically means that once they become solid, they stay solid). Thermoplastics on the other hand can be melted down and reshaped time and time again.
As mentioned earlier, plastics are used in a whole host of different applications these days. To be sure everything from car bumpers and bicycle helmets to games console casings and children’s toys are made from plastic of one kind or another as no other material is able to offer the same degree of performance, reliability and versatility.
So now that this information is out there, might we expect the nation to have a better understanding – and perhaps even a greater appreciation – of plastic?
Well, it was worth a shot..!
About the author – Bo Heamyan blogs regularly about the quirkiness of life in twenty-first century Britain, and has written extensively about the underappreciated benefits of plastic for a number of industry leading companies, including Aiinternational.co.uk.