A plastic is made up principally of a binder together with plasticizers, fillers, pigments, and other additives. The binder gives a plastic its main characteristics and usually its name. Thus, polyvinyl chloride is both the name of a binder and the name of a plastic into which it is made. Binders may be natural materials, e.g., cellulose derivatives, casein, or milk protein, but are more commonly synthetic resins. In either case, the binder materials consist of very long chainlike molecules called polymers. Cellulose derivatives are made from cellulose, a naturally occurring polymer; casein is also a naturally occurring polymer. Synthetic resins are polymerized, or built up, from small simple molecules called monomers. Plasticizers are added to a binder to increase flexibility and toughness. Fillers are added to improve particular properties, e.g., hardness or resistance to shock. Pigments are used to impart various colors. Virtually any desired color or shape and many combinations of the properties of hardness, durability, elasticity, and resistance to heat, cold, and acid can be obtained in a plastic.
There are two basic types of plastic: thermosetting, which cannot be resoftened after being subjected to heat and pressure; and thermoplastic, which can be repeatedly softened and remolded by heat and pressure. When heat and pressure are applied to a thermoplastic binder, the chainlike polymers slide past each other, giving the material "plasticity." However, when heat and pressure are initially applied to a thermosetting binder, the molecular chains become cross-linked, thus preventing any slippage if heat and pressure are reapplied.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.