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Françoise Pardos, Pardos Marketing, February 2006



For the last 70 years, plastics have been a success story, for their unique features. Plastics are the miracle materials, with almost infinite combinations of various molecules creating these multiple polymers, in the true heart of matter. The main characteristic of plastics is to offer a combination of many properties, none outstanding, but the synergy of all creating their very value to many applications. Plastics can be termed flexible glass and transparent metal.

In the vast and ever growing number of plastics, there are a few broad categories:

  • Commodity plastics, the large volume polymers, priced at $ 2 or much less per kilo, with world markets from 1 to over 40 million tons.
  • Engineering plastics, $ 3 to $ 8 per kilo, with markets between 250 000 and close to 3 million tons.
  • Specialty plastics, high performance polymers, from $10 to $100 and more per kilo, from a few hundred tons to 100 000 tons.
  • Structural high performance composites, with high performance reinforcements, such as carbon fiber, CF, aramid, high performance PE, R, S and T glass, and a high performance matrix, of specialty thermoplastics or of epoxy.

These four categories are the true plastics that take concrete forms by various conversion processes, extrusion, into film, sheet, pipes, molding, blow molding, and many others of lesser volume importance.

The total of all these plastics, as identified, is to be about 195 million tons in 2005.

This figure is slightly smaller that was is usually heard, currently just over 225 million tons, because it does not include the plastics in liquid forms. These polymers are used as majority contents in products such as paints, adhesives, binders, yet they often are made from the same molecules as the converted plastics, thermosets, acrylics, vinylics.

Some engineering plastics, such as nylon and saturated polyester, PET, have a large commodity base, in synthetic fibers.

The term “engineering” is not very clear. A number of commodity plastics may have engineering applications, there are many examples, such as PVC pipes for industry, molded electrical parts of PVC or PP, car batteries of PP, gas tanks of PEHD, technical parts of PS. There are many overlapping areas with ABS, UP, PMMA and PP directly competing with engineering plastics, in boxes, enclosures, supporting parts, car parts.

A number of plastics have applications both as commodity and as engineering plastics, like PP, PET in films and in moldable applications, PMMA.

These somehow esoteric distinctions are increasingly blurred, as new materials enter and polymers are combined to create the vast family of ABC, alloys, blends, composites.

The many new styrenic terpolymers further reduce the gap between commodity and engineering plastics. This was for instance the case of the SPS that aimed at replacing PBT. The same can be said about the best grades of PP.

The alloys of different polymers, the modification with elastomers, also tend to create entirely new materials that can compete with the engineering plastics. The largest volume alloys are PC/ABS, PC/PBT and PPE/PA.

Thermoset plastics, like unsaturated polyester, UP, can take many forms, SMC, BMC, PMC, or are converted with processes like injection molding that allow them to compete with the more efficient thermoplastics. Some of them, way down their maturity curve, like the old phenolic molding powders, might well be hailed as miracle materials if they were just discovered today instead of in the early 20th century. And, in a number of applications, thermosets are finding a new life for their performances, particularly in China in the last five years.

All this is to show the broad variety and complexity, and the ambiguity of definitions. The most distinctive feature of engineering and specialty plastics is the higher temperature resistance, combined with better mechanical, electrical and chemical properties.

Many polymers are thus at the border line between these categories. Over the years, continuous efforts, in the announcements of new polymers or of new grades, or blends, have been hailed as “filling a gap”, “bridging a price/performance ratio”, in marketing language.

About the figures indicated in this paper, they have been purposely selected as the current year, 2005, since estimates are only approximate anyway, and well balanced orders of magnitude are better than too precise figures that cannot be credible. Also, the concept of the various large areas is fuzzy at best, even in the old and well-known Europe, as countries that were just “terra incognita” not so long ago now are part of Europe.


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