When watching TV, using a computer, traveling on a bus, train or plane, use plastic. When you go to the doctor’s office or the hospital or go to the grocery store, you rely on plastic again.

Where do plastics come from … and what are they?

Plastics are produced from materials found in nature, such as natural gas, oil, coal, metals and plants. The first plastics were made by nature – did you know that rubber from a rubber tree is actually a plastic?

Interest in plastics arose in the 1800s to replace rare materials such as ivory and turtle shells. The first synthetic plastics came from cellulose, a substance found in plants and trees. The cellulose was heated with chemicals and resulted in a new material that was extremely durable.

The raw materials for today’s plastics come from many places (some even use salt!), But most plastics can be made from hydrocarbons that are readily available in gas, oil and coal.


The chemistry of plastics can be complicated, but the basics are simple. Think about your high school science lessons about atoms and molecules (groups of people). Plastics are simple chains of similar molecules that are connected to each other. These chains are called polymers. This is why many plastics start with “poly”, such as polyethylene, polystyrene and polypropylene. Polymers are often made of carbon and hydrogen and sometimes oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, chlorine, fluorine, phosphorus or silicon.

The term “plastics” includes all of these various polymers.

Although there are many polymers, plastics are generally lightweight with significant strengths. Plastics can be molded, extruded, molded and molded into seemingly unlimited shapes and membranes or foams or even pulled into textile fibers. Many types of coatings, sealants and coatings are actually plastic.