Plastic is any synthetic or semisynthetic organic polymer. In other words, while other elements might be present, plastics always include carbon and hydrogen. While plastics may be made from just about any organic polymer, most industrial plastic is made from petrochemicals. Thermoplastics and thermosetting polymers are the two types of plastic. The name "plastic" refers to the property of plasticity, the ability to deform without breaking.
The word plastic is derived from the Greek πλαστικός (plastikos) meaning capable of being shaped or molded, from πλαστός (plastos) meaning molded. It refers to their malleability, or plasticity during manufacture, that allows them to be cast, pressed, or extruded into a variety of shapes—such as films, fibers, plates, tubes, bottles, boxes, and much more.
The common word plastic should not be confused with the technical adjective plastic, which is applied to any material which undergoes a permanent change of shape (plastic deformation) when strained beyond a certain point. Aluminum which is stamped or forged, for instance, exhibits plasticity in this sense, but is not plastic in the common sense; in contrast, in their finished forms, some plastics will break before deforming and therefore are not plastic in the technical sense.
There are two types of plastics: thermoplastics and thermosetting polymers. Thermoplastics are the plastics that do not undergo chemical change in their composition when heated and can be moulded again and again; examples are polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride and polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Thermosets can melt and take shape once; after they have solidified, they stay solid.
The raw materials needed to make most plastics come from petroleum and natural gas.
Plastics can be classified by chemical structure, namely the molecular units that make up the polymer's backbone and side chains. Some important groups in these classifications are the acrylics, polyesters, silicones, polyurethanes, and halogenated plastics. Plastics can also be classified by the chemical process used in their synthesis, such as condensation, polyaddition and cross-linking.
Other classifications are based on qualities that are relevant for manufacturing or product design. Examples of such classes are the thermoplastic and thermoset, elastomer, structural, biodegradable, and electrically conductive. Plastics can also be classified by various physical properties, such as density, tensile strength, glass transition temperature and resistance to various chemical products.
Due to their relatively low cost, ease of manufacture, versatility, and imperviousness to water, plastics are used in an enormous and expanding range of products, from paper clips to spaceships. They have already displaced many traditional materials, such as wood, stone, horn and bone, leather, paper, metal, glass and ceramic, in most of their former uses.
The use of plastics is constrained chiefly by their organic chemistry, which seriously limits their properties, such as hardness, density,heat resistance, organic solvents, oxidation, and ionizing radiation. In particular, most plastics will melt or decompose when heated to a few hundred degrees celsius. While plastics can be made electrically conductive, with the conductivity of up to 80 kS/cm in stretch-oriented polyacetylene, they are still no match for most metals like copper which have conductivities of several hundreds kS/cm. Plastics are still too expensive to replace wood, concrete and ceramic in bulky items like ordinary buildings, bridges, dams, pavement and railroad ties.
Plastic products play a major role in saving and conserving energy and power safety: