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Types of Plastic

While many types of plastic are made and are possible, the vast majority of industrial plastic production falls into six main types: polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyurethane (PUR), PE terephthalate (PET), and polystyrene (PS). We explore the alphabet soup of plastic goops below. All numbers shown are approximate, and there can be ranges for melt temperatures based on stabilizers, impurities, and other variables in the making of the plastic.

Polyethylene (PE)

The major polymer produced worldwide, PE is generally categorized as High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) or Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE), or also Linear Low Density Polyethylene (LLDPE). Plastic bags and wrap are common uses of PE. PE is a low-strength plastic, with a low melting point (80 C or 176 F), but somewhat higher melting points are common for medium and high density PE, as high as 120 to 180 C or 248 to 356 F, all within the range of household heating devices. PE is typically white, unless dyed. PE is resistant to absorbing water.

HDPE has a density or specific gravity of 0.93 to 0.97 g/cm, which means HDPE will float in freshwater or seawater.

LDPE has a density or specific gravity of 0.857 to 0.925 g/cm, which means LDPE will float in freshwater or seawater.

Polypropylene (PP)

PP, also known as polypropene, is the second most produced polymer world-wide. It is strong and flexible, so often used to make plastic rope. However, pure PP can become brittle below 0 C or 32 F. The melting point of PP ranges from 130 C or 266 F to 171 C or 340 F.

PP has a density or specific gravity between 0.895 and 0.92 g/cm, which means PP will float in freshwater or seawater.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

PVC is the third-most produced plastic polymer world-wide. Typical uses include plumbing pipe and toy bricks.

PVC has a density or specific gravity of 1.1 to 1.45 g/cm (flexible PVC is typically less dense (lighter) than rigid PVC). Therefore, unless air is trapped in the PVC, PVC will not float in freshwater, and generally will not float in seawater. Still, there are regular reports of plastic toy bricks and related figures washing up on ocean beaches, so wave and current turbulence may be enough to keep this material near the ocean surface.

Polyethylene Terephtalate (PET, also PETE, PETP, PET-P, polyester, Dacron, Terylene)

PET is the fourth highest production plastic polymer worldwide. The density or specific gravity of PET is 1.38 g/cm, which means it should sink in freshwater and seawater. However, as much of the PET plastic which ends up in water is in the form of bottles, and if the forms capture even a little air, they tend to float. This is why photos of floating plastic garbage tend to include recognizable plastic bottles.

The melting point of PET is 260 C or 490 F.

Typical uses for PET include thin-wall (single-use) plastic drink bottles, especially transparent bottles. A variant which includes stronger composition (e.g. Mylar) is used where more strength is required.

Polystyrene (PS, Styrofoam)

PS is the fifth highest production plastic polymer worldwide. The density or specific gravity of PS ranges from 0.96 to 1.04 g/cm. At the higher end of the range, I would expect PS to sink in freshwater. However, I have never experienced a polystyrene product which sank in freshwater (expanded beadboard, extruded board, drink cup, packing 'peanuts', take-out food 'clamshells', etc.). In fact, large blocks of extruded PS are sold specifically to provide buoyancy for rafts and floating docks. The melting point of PS is 170 to 280 C or 340 to 535 F .

Polyurethane (PUR, PU)

Polyurethane is not used in many single-use consumer products. A generic density figure for polyurethane is meaningless, as many applications are foams with high degrees of air entrainment. E.g. one low density closed cell foam has a listed density of 0.160 g/cm, which would be extremely buoyant in water. Most polyurethanes do not melt, as they are thermosetting polymers. (Thermoplastic polyurethanes do exist but are uncommon in consumer plastic products.)

Table: denstiies of common plastics

The density of seawater is typically around 1.02 to 1.03 at the surface, depending on temperature.

For more on plastics identification and properties, Life Without Plastic presents a fairly complete, while succinct, guide.

In short, a lot of single-use consumer-market plastics float in water, at the interface between water and air, and there is a lot of life at the interface to ingest that floating plastic pollution.

Types of Plastic
The Science of Plastic Pollution
Media Items on Plastic Pollution
Some Interesting Approaches
Things That Don't Work
Things That Do Work
De-plasticizing the Ocean (2017 RESTCo 3-pager)
Removing microplastic from shoreline/beach (demo)
RESTCo Plastic Pollution Solution
Capturing Micro- and Nano-plastics from the Waste Stream
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