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Polyethylene (PE) is the simplest plastic chemically speaking. Because of this, it is very cheap to manufacture and this makes it one of the most common plastics with millions of tonnes manufactured each year. It is a thermoplastic that is created by the polymerisation of ethylene. The ethylene polymerises when it comes into contact with catalysts. It is a conversion that releases a lot of heat (exothermic conversion). One of the most common catalysts is called Ziegler-Natta catalysts. It is a polymer very similar to polypropylene, although there are some differences between polyethylene and polypropylene due to their chemical compositions.
Properties of polyethylene
Some characteristics that polyethylene has are as follows:
- Polyethylene is hardly reactive because it is chemically inert.
- It is translucent and whitish.
- At normal temperatures it is a tough and flexible material.
- It is a poor conductor of electricity and heat.
- Its melting point is between 100-146°C and its density in solid state varies according to the temperature.
Depending on the product to be produced, different processes can be used:
- Extrusion (cables, wires…).
- Injection moulding (3D parts with difficult shapes).
- Extrusion and blow moulding of hollow bodies (bottles of various sizes).
- Rotomoulding: tanks and large hollow shapes.
Types of polyethylene
As the density of polyethylene varies, two types of polyethylene can be differentiated according to their density and hardness:
- Low density polyethylene (LDPE/LDPE): used for many products such as bags, knobs, food packaging…
- High-density polyethylene (HDPE): its hardness and density is lighter. It is used among others for drums, gas pipes…
Polyethylene is a very versatile plastic and has many applications. It is used to produce: wires, cables, baby bottles, plastic bags, detergent containers…
Polyethylene is produced from ethylene, which is mainly obtained from oil and natural gas. As it is not easily biodegradable, it accumulates in landfills, which is why it is very important to recycle it. This would reduce pollution and help the environment.
HDPE plastic is rigid and its recycling process is simpler than that of LDPE, which often arrives in the form of film and requires specific processes of shredding and agglomeration. The resulting product in both cases is usually plastic pellets that are sent to processors to obtain a wide variety of products.
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