Different types of plastics and when to use them in material design

pink and blue stadium plastic seats

Different types of plastics and when to use them in material design

When we think of “plastics”, we are often immediately reminded of landfills filled with waste and undesirable materials that are bad for the environment. However, when used appropriately in design, plastics can be used with great success and produce minimal waste.

To make the most of plastics in design, it is important to understand the difference between the two main plastic categories and how they could be effectively used. Let’s take a look.

Thermoset: best for longevity

Thermoset plastics are thermosetting polymers, resins or plastics that, once hardened and cast, cannot be reshaped due to the structure of its polymers. These plastics are usually hardened with heat, high pressure or by using a catalyst during the process. Therefore, it is best to use these plastics for objects that are meant to retain their frame and not melt or warp when heated.

In a typical home, you will likely find examples of thermoset plastics used in devices and appliances that you use daily:

Epoxy resin can be used for circuit boards and is a fantastic electric insulator.

Melamine formaldehyde is often used to laminate work surface and can also be found in tableware

Polyester resin can be found in car sections.

Urea formaldehyde is regularly used in electrical fittings.

* Phenol formaldehyde is often used to make saucepan and kettle handles.

Thermoplastics: best for recycling

Unlike thermoset, thermoplastic polymers can be heated and reshaped as they soften when heated. Luckily, about 80% of plastic in the world falls into this category, which means it is easier to recycle articles made with these types of plastics. Therefore, it is ideal to use these types of plastics for disposable items such as water bottles and cutlery that can be reshaped or repurposed and used again.

Here are some examples of thermoplastics find in familiar designs:

Polymethyl methacrylate can be used for car light covers and aircraft windows.

High impact polystyrene can be used for vacuum forming or small external project structures.

Polypropylene is often used in medical equipment and for plastic chairs.

Low-density polythene is typically found in-store shopping bags.

High-density polythene is sturdier and used in objects such as crates and bottles.

PVC can often be found in shoe soles.

Choose the right plastic according to the design requirements

Although both types of plastics can deliver great results, it is important to consider the strengths and weaknesses of each type.

Thermoset plastics are more resistant to high temperatures, they are usually cost-effective and they make for a great look in final products. However, it is important to note that these plastics cannot be recycled and their strong frames are not ideal when used in vibrating appliances.

Thermoplastics, on the other hand, can be recycled, have a good impact resistance and are great for electrical insulation, to name a few. However, these plastics might be a little more expensive than thermoset plastics and can easily soften in high temperatures.

Once these pros and cons are considered, informed decisions can be made for the best possible outcome for material design. It is clear that both types of plastics come with big benefits – and with smart design, they can be used optimally!

At Moss&Schmidt, we take every care to ensure that we consider the best materials for every project. Contact us today if you would like to find out more about our design processes.