Other plastics emerged in the prewar period, launching off the success of nylon, though some would not come into widespread use until after the war.
Another important plastic, polyethylene (PE), sometimes known as polythene, was discovered in 1933 by Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett at the British industrial giant Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). This material evolved into two forms, low density polyethylene (LDPE), and high density polyethylene (HDPE).
PEs are cheap, flexible, durable, and chemically resistant. LDPE is used to make films and packaging materials, while HDPE is used for containers, plumbing, and automotive fittings. While PE has low resistance to chemical attack, it was found later that a PE container could be made much more robust by exposing it to fluorine gas, which modified the surface layer of the container into the much tougher polyfluoroethylene.
Polyethylene would lead after the war to an improved material, polypropylene (PP), which was discovered in the early 1950s by Giulio Natta. It is common in modern science and technology that the growth of the general body of knowledge can lead to the same inventions in different places at about the same time, but polypropylene was an extreme case of this phenomenon, being separately invented about nine times. The ensuing litigation was not resolved until 1989.
Polypropylene managed to survive the legal process and two American chemists working for Phillips Petroleum, J. Paul Hogan and Robert Banks, are now generally credited as the “official” inventors of the material. Polypropylene is similar to its ancestor, polyethylene, and shares polyethylene’s low cost, but it is much more robust. It is used in everything from plastic bottles to carpets to plastic furniture, and is very heavily used in automobiles.
Polyurethane was invented by Friedrich Bayer & Company in 1937, and would come into use after the war, in blown form for mattresses, furniture padding, and thermal insulation. It is also one of the components (in non-blown form) of the fiber spandex.
Two chemists named Rex Whinfield and James Dickson, working at a small English company with the quaint name of the “Calico Printer’s Association” in Manchester, developed polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) in 1941, and it would be used for synthetic fibers in the postwar era, with names such as polyester, dacron, and terylene.
PET is less gas-permeable than other low-cost plastics and so is a popular material for making bottles for Coca-Cola and other carbonated drinks, since carbonation tends to attack other plastics, and for acidic drinks such as fruit or vegetable juices. PET is also strong and abrasion resistant, and is used for making mechanical parts, food trays, and other items that have to endure abuse. PET films are used as a base for recording tape.
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SPI Recycle Code for Plastics (Resins) – HERE
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