Plastic is perhaps the most dominant industrial material on the market. From building supplies and consumer items to commercial packaging provisions and textiles, plastic is deployed in the fabrication of countless products. However, this foundational substance would not boast such value without plasticizers – the colorless and odorless chemicals that make it pliable and therefore usable across numerous applications. In 2017, organizations worldwide invested more than $12 billion in plasticizers, according to research from MarketsandMarkets. The market for this material is expanding at a compound annual growth rate of almost 6 percent, with analysts expecting plasticizer spending to reach $16.15 billion by 2022. Of course, this should come as no surprise to those familiar with this transformative substance.
Grappling with the plasticization process
Plasticizers are responsible for softening a variety of plastics – most notably, polyvinylchloride, more commonly known as PVC or vinyl. Businesses that produce and sell this material account for between 80 and 90 percent of the plasticizer market, according to IHS Markit. Phthalate esters are the most common plasticizer types, accounting for 65 percent of all the plasticizer products sold in 2017. These assets center on alcohol and phthalic acid, which combine with plastic polymers to reduce rigidity and support optimal chain flexibility. The acid’s low molecular weight makes these outcomes possible, cutting down on crystallization and supporting polymer elongation. In the end, this entire process lays the groundwork for great flexibility and strength, two qualities that make vinyl an immensely popular material.
Grasping the impact of plasticization
Vinyl and other plastics produced via plasticization hold great sway in the global marketplace, underpinning a variety of critically important industries. The homebuilding industry is perhaps the biggest consumer of PVC, as roughly three-quarters of all vinyl products are used in construction projects, analysts for the American Chemistry Council discovered. Where? Just about any homebuilding application imaginable. Synthetic products such as vinyl flooring are extremely popular among architects and builders, more than half of whom reported using these items in 2018, according to data from the American Institute of Architects. PVC is also an essential ingredient in many electrical wiring products, including conduit which is used to protect cabling. And vinyl is, of course, the linchpin component found in PVC plumbing fixtures, which is industry standard.
As mentioned above, the homebuilding sector is merely one of the many industries that leverage products derived from plasticizers. Packaging, for instance, is another industrial arena that relies heavily on PVC, the ACC found. As does the health care space, where hospitals and other medical entities take advantage of PVC-based intravenous therapy and blood bags that are flexible yet unbreakable. In all, this versatile material has an immense impact on consumers, playing a central role in the creation of key consumer products, some of which quite literally save lives.
Unpacking the plasticizer safety equation
Despite the widespread use of PVC and similar plastics, some question the safety of items fabricated via plasticization, Stephane Content, Sector Group Manager for the European Council for Plasticizers and Intermediates, explained in an interview with Chemistry Views. Why? Content said a small number of concerned customers and environmental health and safety analysts believe plasticizers leach out of PVC products, resulting in the release of harmful gases. In reality, in well-formulated compounds and products, this is not the case. Leaching of this kind only occurs in the event that vinyl is exposed to highly caustic solvents for extended periods of time, or in a compound that may not be properly and definitively compounded for its’ required application. For everyday items, the possibility of this occurring is slim-to-none. In addition to leaching, some outside of the plastics space have been known to claim that PVC dust is an active irritant or pollutant. Again, scientific studies have proven this to be false. PVC dust poses no harm.
On top of being safe, plastic materials produced via plasticization are heavily regulated, according to the ACC. The Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Food and Drug Administration and NFS International, a third-party product testing organization, manage PVC-related regulatory workflows and ensure all vinyl materials used in the American industrial space are safe to consumers.
How plasticization propels product advancement
Plasticizers and the polymer fortifying processes in which they are used are critical to numerous industries, lending enterprises across numerous spaces the ability to create and deploy sturdy assets that stand up to punishment and the slow march of time. And, as plastics carve out an even deeper niche in the global marketplace, plasticization will only increase in popularity and importance.