10 things you didn’t know about plastics

Did you know that the word Nylon is derived from New York and London?

Few of us stop to think twice about the pack we are about to open. All that our minds are focussed on at the time is to get to the contents, so when we experience difficulty in opening the pack we have lots to say about packaging in general.

Packaging plays such an important role these days in everybody’s life that consumers don’t for one minute stop to think about how they manage to apply deodorant in the morning, eat a bowl of cereal or buy a litre of milk. With this in mind, here are some tips to keep in mind when you’re considering what your next product’s packaging will look and feel like:

  1. When designing packaging, always design with the end in mind. Think of the full supply chain, from cradle to grave, and what the package will endure along the way. Thought should be given to shape and size at unit level so that containerisation can be maximised and overall costs reduced.
  2. Conditioning is essential before making tests on many materials and containers. Properties of certain materials are a function of the environmental conditions in which they find themselves. For example, the thickness, or caliper, of a piece of chipboard varies with the humidity of its environment.
  3. The word ‘Nylon’ is derived from ‘New York’ and ‘London’, where DuPont's research facilities were located in 1935.
  4. Karl Ziegler, a German chemist, developed polyethylene in 1953, and the following year Giulio Natta, an Italian chemist, developed polypropylene. These are two of today’s most commonly used plastics.
  5. ‘Plastic’ is used interchangeably with ‘polymer’. Usually ‘plastic’ refers to the finished formulated product, whereas the more correct word ‘polymer’ is used to describe the pure basic material.
  6. The word ‘polymer’ is derived from the Greek word poly meaning ‘many’, and the Greek word mer meaning ‘unit’, i.e. a polymer is a ‘many-unit’ material.
  7. Bakelite or polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, is an early plastic. It is a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin, formed from an elimination reaction of phenol with formaldehyde. It was developed by Belgian-born chemist Leo Baekeland in New York in 1907. It is one of the first plastics made from synthetic components. It was great for electrical components like plugs.
  8. Cellophane looks and feels like a plastic but is not a plastic. It is a thin, transparent sheet made of regenerated cellulose. It was invented by a Swiss chemist, Jacques Brandenberger, who in 1900 was inspired by seeing a wine spill on a restaurant's tablecloth, and decided to create a cloth that could repel liquids rather than absorb them.
  9. We incorporate additives into plastics in order to enhance or improve their performance both during processing and in use of the resulting mouldings or films. Examples are:
    Plasticisers – these are often necessary to reduce the rigidity of some plastics so that processing is easier at a lower temperature and so that permanent flexibility can be achieved.
    Stabilisers – these protect the polymers against physical or chemical deterioration when subjected to atmosphere effects or to high temperatures during processing.
    Slip additives – these are added to films in order to reduce the corffecient of friction between two film surfaces.
  10. If each Australian family used one less plastic bag each week that would be we’d use 253 million fewer bags in a year.

If more of us, both inside and outside the industry, thought about packaging a little more, and thoroughly appreciated and understood its advantages and real purpose in the supply chain, as a population we’d greatly reduce wastage and packaging pollution, and go a long way towards achieving the 3 Rs: reuse, recycle and reduce.

Pierre Pienaar Msc, FAIP
Education Coordinator
Australian Institute of Packaging (AIP)


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