Plastics are polymers.
What is a polymer? The most simple definition of a polymer is something made of many units. Think of a polymer as a chain. Each link of the chain is the "mer" or basic unit that is made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and/or silicon. To make the chain, many links or "mers" are hooked or polymerised together. Polymerisation can be demonstrated by linking strips of construction paper together to make paper garlands or hooking together hundreds of paper clips to form chains.
Polymers have been with us since the beginning of time.
Natural polymers include such things as tar and shellac, tortoise shell and horns, as well as tree saps that produce amber and latex.These polymers were processed with heat and pressure into useful articles like hair ornaments and jewellery. Natural polymers began to be chemically modified during the 1800s to produce many materials. The most famous of these were vulcanised rubber, gun cotton, and celluloid.
Even with these developments, it was not until World War II that significant changes took place in the polymer industry.
Prior to World War II, natural substances were generally available; therefore, synthetics that were being developed were not a necessity. Once the world went to war, our natural sources of latex, wool, silk, and other materials were cut off.
In the 1930s, a plastic polymer was invented that could be drawn out into strong fibres, like silk. This plastic became known as nylon. Nylon is lightweight, strong and durable and became the basis of many types of clothing, coverings (tents), luggage, bags and ropes.
The use of these early polymers became widespread following World War II and continues today. They lead to the creation of many other plastics, like Dacron, Styrofoam, polystyrene, polyethylene and vinyl.
The simplest definition of a polymer is something made of many units. Think of a polymer as a chain. Each link of the chain is the "mer" or basic unit that is made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and/or silicon.