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Materials: introducing plastics and polymers

We’re all familiar with plastic. It is a ubiquitous material in all of our lives. But how much do we know about it?

What is Plastic?

To understand the significance of plastics, we’ll first learn what plastics are made of.

Plastics are a group of materials, either synthetic or naturally occurring, that may be shaped when soft and then hardened to retain the given shape. Plastics are polymers.(1)

What is a Polymer?

We define a polymer as: A chemical compound where molecules are bonded together in long repeating chains. These materials, polymers, have unique properties and can be tailored depending on their intended purpose. Polymers can be either man-made or naturally occurring.

The word polymer comes from two Greek words: poly, meaning many, and meros, meaning parts or units. A polymer can be thought of as a chain in which each link is the “mer,” or monomer (single unit).(1)

Polymers can appear naturally in forms such as wool, cotton, silk, tar, shellac, cellulose and wood. There are also synthetic polymers, which became prevalent in the 20th century as chemists were able engineer desired properties (strength, stiffness, density, resistance to heat and electrical conductivity) out of the materials. (1)(2)


  1. Science of Plastics [Internet]. Science History Institute. 2019 [cited 13 May 2019]. Available from: Science of Plastics (web link)

  2. Polymers and plastics: a chemical introduction [Internet]. Chem1.com. 2019 [cited 13 May 2019]. Available from: Polymers and plastics (web link)

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How to Survive on Earth: Energy Materials for a Sustainable Future

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