Polythene often gets a bad press due to the length of time it takes to biodegrade. However, there are also plenty of benefits to be gained from its use, and great progress is being made towards producing a greener, compostable form of polythene, as well as finding new and inventive ways to recycle and repurpose this versatile material.
Fascinating Facts About Polythene
Here are 10 little-known facts about polythene, and how it became the most commonly used plastic in the western world.
- Polythene (also known as polyethene or polyethylene) is a durable, light, water-resistant, flexible synthetic resin. The word ‘polymer’ is Greek. ‘Poly’ means ‘many’ and ‘mer’ means ‘unit’. Hence, a polymer is a ‘many-unit’ material. Polymers are giant molecules which contain thousands of smaller molecules called monomers. Polythene is produced through a process called polymerisation, which links these monomers into long-chains. The gas that is polymerized is ethene – a form of gas which some fruits produce as they ripen.
- The discovery of polythene is attributed to two scientists – Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson – who first produced it by accident in 1933 at ICI’s chemical plant in Cheshire, when a polymers experiment took an unexpected turn. It took a further five years for ICI to successfully and consistently reproduce the chemistry at their Wallerscote plant near Northwich. After this, production was gradually refined until it became the revolutionary packaging material we know today.
- The first item ICI ever made from polythene was a cream-coloured walking stick in 1938.
- Polythene was used as an invaluable insulating material for radar cables during World War II, and the new substance was a closely guarded secret. It gave Britain an advantage in long-distance air warfare, most significantly in the Battle of the Atlantic, against the German submarines which threatened to starve Britain of food.
- After the war, polythene began to be produced commercially, for uses such as washing up bowls, bottles and dolls. It was also the original raw material of the hula hoop, kickstarting the first ever worldwide hula-hooping craze during the 1950s.
- Today, polythene continues to be used widely – in the manufacture of food packaging, carrier bags, plastic pipes, electrical cable insulation, and even artificial hips!
- Annual global production of polythene resins is around 100 million tonnes, accounting for 34% of the total plastics market.
- Polythene bags can be recycled to make other items such as milk bottle crates and playground equipment.
- Polythene can be burned to provide a source of energy as heating for buildings.
- Polythene’s strength and light weight makes it an excellent packing material. Fuel costs can be reduced significantly when polythene is used over other materials such as cardboard during distribution. It takes up less space on pallets, enabling more products to be packed in each shipment.
At J4 Packaging we offer a wide range of bespoke and all-purpose polythene packaging products – including bags, sacks, sheeting and layflat tubing – for nationwide delivery from our Birmingham warehouse.