What Raw Materials Are Needed to Make Plastic?

Alexander Bihn Photography/Moment/Getty Images

The raw materials for plastics come from crude oil. While the term plastic describes any material one can shape or mold into any form, including some naturally occurring plastics, most of the plastics humans use today are man-made, according to HowStuffWorks.

Petrochemicals are rich in carbon, and most plastics are large carbon-containing molecules called polymers. A polymer includes repeating units called monomers, which are shorter chain carbon compounds. The arrangement of the carbon chains within the plastic determines its chemical properties. Once plastics form, they become chemically inert, making them ideal for storage of other materials. Alcohol, gasoline, water, soap and acids are often stored in plastic without dissolving the container. The highly moldable material forms bottles, cups, toys, car parts and insulation for electrical wiring.

Plastics are not without problems, however. As they don’t react chemically, plastics are slow to decay, even when buried under the soil. Materials made of plastic remain in landfills for centuries. Many government and environmental programs recommend recycling plastics.

A second problem with plastics is that crude oil is a non-renewable natural resource. In order to combat this problem, scientists are working on new technologies to make plastics from renewable resources. Corn oil and other biological sources are potential raw materials. Such plastics are more likely to biodegrade naturally, helping with the environmental problems of plastics, according to HowStuffWorks.