Plastic VS Titanium - The Ultimate Guide
In the return of our Titan Series, it’s time to continue our common outdoor gear material comparison. This week we are looking at potentially the most popular material, plastic.
In this article, I will give dive into the history of plastic, why it is so abundantly used in outdoor gear, both the advantages and disadvantages, and its comparison versus titanium. Get ready to learn more about plastic in this second round of our Titan Series - Plastic VS Titanium - The Ultimate Guide.
Plastic - A Modern History
Plastic is a synthetic material made from various organic polymers, such as polyethylene, polypropylene, and PVC. While plastic may seem like a modern invention, it has a long and complex history that dates back to the mid-19th century.
The origins of plastic can be traced back to natural materials such as rubber, which was discovered in the early 1800s. Natural rubber was widely used in manufacturing until the late 1800s when the demand for synthetic materials grew due to shortages of natural resources.
The first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was invented by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland in 1907. Bakelite was made from phenol and formaldehyde and was the first plastic to be mass-produced. Yes, you read that right - formaldehyde!
The use of oil in the production of plastic began in the 1930s when new materials such as polyethylene and PVC were developed. These materials were made from oil and natural gas, which were cheap and abundant at the time. The production of plastic skyrocketed in the post-World War II era, as demand for consumer goods increased and new plastic products were developed.
Today, the vast majority of plastic is still made from oil and natural gas where plastic is closely tied to the development of oil and natural gas as key raw materials.
Plastic and Outdoor Gear
The use of plastic in outdoor gear has increased significantly over the past few decades due to its lightweight and weather-resistant properties. Outdoor enthusiasts require gear that is durable, functional, and easy to carry, and plastic has proven to be a suitable material for a variety of products such as tents, backpacks, water bottles, and cookware.
One of the earliest uses of plastic in outdoor gear was in the production of tent poles. Traditionally, tent poles were made of wood or metal, which added weight and bulk to the overall camping gear. The use of plastic in tent poles allowed for a more lightweight and compact design, making it easier for campers to carry their gear on long hikes or backpacking trips.
Plastic has also become popular in the production of water bottles and hydration systems. The durability and lightweight properties of plastic make it an ideal material for outdoor enthusiasts who require hydration on the go. Plastic water bottles and hydration systems are now a common sight on hiking trails, camping trips, and other outdoor adventures.
For the remainder of this article, our main emphasis for plastic will be on polyethylene. This is because pretty much everything used in the outdoor industry from backpacking water bottles to sporks is made with this form of plastic.
The Material Properties of Plastic - Why Use It?
Plastic is a synthetic material made from a variety of organic polymers, which are long chains of molecules. The material properties of plastic vary depending on the specific type of polymer used. In addition, the manufacturing process and chemical additives affect the type of plastic produced. Some of the chemical additives can assist with strength, UV resistance, longevity, and so on.
Some of the key material properties of plastic include strength, weight, flexibility, durability, resistance to corrosion, and recyclability.
There are many different types of plastic, each with its unique properties and characteristics. Here are some of the most common types of plastic and their properties:
Polyethylene (PE) - This is the most widely used plastic, and is commonly found in products such as plastic bags and food packaging as well as many outdoor products. PE is lightweight, strong, flexible, and resistant to moisture and chemicals. This is great for outdoor gear especially cooking utensils or hydration products.
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) - PET is commonly used in food and beverage packaging, as well as in textiles and automotive parts. It is lightweight, strong, and resistant to moisture, but can be susceptible to degradation from UV radiation. This is a big advantage of Polyethylene enhanced UV protection. Have you ever had a hot water bottle on a scorching day?
Polypropylene (PP) - PP is commonly used in food packaging, textiles, and automotive parts. It is lightweight, strong, and heat-resistant, and is also resistant to moisture and chemicals.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) - PVC is used in products such as pipes, electrical cable insulation, and window frames. It is strong, durable, and resistant to corrosion. This form of plastic is used heavily in construction.
Polystyrene (PS) - PS is commonly used in disposable food packaging, as well as insulation and protective packaging. It is lightweight and rigid, but is also relatively brittle and can be susceptible to breakage. Also for those that hate the sound of polystyrene, that shriek when pulling it out of a box can be a big put-off!
Polyurethane (PU) - PU is commonly used in foam insulation, furniture, and footwear. It is flexible, durable, and resistant to abrasion and chemicals. If you look at almost any shoe manufacturer you will find the use of polyurethane, it has changed the industry and removed the dependence away from leather.
Polycarbonate (PC) - PC is used in products such as eyeglasses, electronic components, and automotive parts. It is strong, heat-resistant, and shatterproof, but can be susceptible to scratching and degradation from UV radiation.
As mentioned before our main focus is on Polyethylene but from the above other common types of plastic, you can see that each type of plastic is utilized for certain functions. This is what has propelled plastics growth, it’s versatile, functional, and cheaper than alternative options. Now that we have delved into the material properties let’s give an overview of the manufacturing process for Polyethylene.
Polyethylene Plastic’s Manufacturing Process
The manufacturing process of Polyethylene (PE) is relatively simple in contrast to other plastics and because of its popularity is also quite cheap. Nonetheless, the manufacturing process is still complex with many subtleties. I have summarised the basics in the 8 below steps.
Extraction - It all starts with the extraction or drilling of natural resources. Crude oil and natural gas are extracted from underground deposits using various drilling techniques.
Refining - After extraction the crude oil or natural gas is transported to a refinery, where it is processed to remove impurities and separate it into its component parts. This is typically done using a combination of distillation, cracking, and other chemical processes.
Cracking - The next step in the process is to crack the hydrocarbons in the refined crude oil or natural gas into smaller molecules. This is done by heating the hydrocarbons to high temperatures (up to 900°C) and exposing them to a catalyst, such as zeolite or aluminum oxide. This process results in the creation of ethylene gas, which is the primary raw material used in the production of polyethylene.
Polymerization - The first step in the manufacturing process of polyethylene after cracking and getting the ethylene gas is the polymerization of ethylene monomer molecules. This is typically done using a high-pressure process, where the ethylene gas is compressed and heated to high temperatures (up to 300°C) in the presence of a catalyst such as a transition metal compound. This process results in the creation of long chains of polyethylene molecules.
Purification - Once the polymerization process is complete, the polyethylene is purified to remove any impurities or byproducts that may have formed during the process. This is typically done using a series of filters and centrifuges.
Extrusion - With the purified polyethylene it is then extruded into the desired shape or form. This is done by melting the polyethylene and forcing it through a die to create a continuous stream of material, which can then be shaped into bags, bottles, or other products.
Cooling and cutting - After the polyethylene has been extruded into the desired shape, it is cooled using air or water to solidify it. The cooled material is then cut into the desired lengths or shapes using cutting blades.
Finishing - Finally, the polyethylene products are finished by adding any necessary features to the product. This could include handles for cups, lids for water bottles, or logo printing on the product itself.
Most manufacturers will directly purchase purified polyethylene after the purification step or after extrusion. This decision will depend upon the factory’s production capability and technology on-site. Then in their own manufacturing facility, they will create the products they wish to sell.
The quality of the final polyethylene product can be affected by the quality of the crude oil or natural gas used in the process, as well as the efficiency and effectiveness of the refining and cracking processes used to extract and convert raw materials into ethylene.
An interesting fact for you as we finish the manufacturing process. The majority of single-use plastic water bottles are made from Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). After processing PET they are cut into small pellets. These small pellets are sold to companies worldwide and then melted to form single-use bottles.
Why is Plastic so Abundant?
Plastic is abundant for several reasons. One of the main reasons is its versatility. Plastic can be molded into almost any shape and can be produced in a wide range of colors, textures, and finishes. Another reason for plastic's abundance is its durability. Plastics are durable and can withstand exposure to the elements, moisture, and chemicals, making them ideal for use in products that need to last for a long time.
Plastic is also lightweight and has a high strength-to-weight ratio, making it ideal for use in applications where weight is important. Additionally, plastic is relatively inexpensive to produce, and its low cost makes it an attractive material for many industries.
Plastic is easy to use and can be molded into a variety of shapes and sizes, making it a convenient material for many applications. As shown above, one single-use water bottle is made from just one small pellet of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET).
There is a high demand for plastic products due to their convenience and affordability. However, the abundance of plastic has also led to environmental concerns, such as the buildup of plastic waste in landfills and oceans. As a result, there is a growing awareness of the need to reduce the use of single-use plastics and develop more sustainable alternatives.
Let’s dive into the advantages and disadvantages of plastic to discover more.
The Advantages of Plastic
As I have already eluded to plastic is a pretty miraculous material. It is known for its durability and resistance to wear and tear, as well as being lightweight and strong. Polyethylene is resistant to water, UV radiation, and other weather conditions, making it ideal for outdoor gear that needs to withstand exposure to the elements.
Versatility and functionality are other advantages of plastic for outdoor gear. Plastic can be molded into almost any shape, which makes it ideal for outdoor gear that needs to have a specific shape or design. Examples of versatile plastic outdoor gear include kayaks, outdoor water bottles, tent poles, camping cutlery, and backpack straps/buckles.
Plastic is inexpensive to produce, making it an affordable material for outdoor gear. Additionally, many plastics can be recycled, which is an important consideration for environmentally conscious consumers. This means that plastic outdoor gear can be recycled at the end of its life, reducing waste and environmental impact.
The Disadvantages of Plastic
Plastic has many advantages for outdoor gear, but there are also some disadvantages to consider. One of the main disadvantages of plastic is its impact on the environment. Plastic is not biodegradable and can take hundreds of years to decompose, which can contribute to environmental pollution and damage ecosystems. One of the most remarkable projects I have seen in the 21st century is “The Ocean Cleanup”. When you see the scale of plastics’ environmental impact you want to switch to other materials or reduce your use.
Another disadvantage of plastic is its sensitivity to high temperatures. Some plastics can warp or melt when exposed to heat, which can be a problem for outdoor gear that is used in hot or sunny conditions. This problem is less of an issue now with new plastic technology innovation, but prior this was an issue, especially with chemical leaching.
Plastics can leach chemicals into food or beverages, especially when exposed to heat or acidic substances. This is most pronounced at the product’s end of life. Furthermore, because plastic is derived from oil and natural gas the chemicals are pretty nasty. Nowadays BPA’s aren’t an issue with BPA-free products everywhere, but once again there are some nasty chemicals present.
Plastic outdoor gear also has a limited lifespan, especially when exposed to harsh conditions or frequent use. When I was a teenager I had a Camelbak bottle and in fact, still do. That bottle lasted 7 years before having to replace it due to general wear. Although plastic is durable, it can be fragile and prone to cracking or breaking under pressure or impact. In contrast to stainless steel or titanium, plastic just isn’t as strong.
The final disadvantage of plastic is recycling. Although now many plastics can be recycled it is often too expensive to do so in many places. This is a major issue in developing countries but also crazily in developed nations too. Too often these products that were intended to be recycled still end up in a landfill.
Plastic VS Titanium
Now for the title match we all have been looking forward to - Plastic VS Titanium.
Plastic as we have seen is durable, lightweight, UV resistant, strong, and cheap. But this is where things become more personal with individual preferences. For me, the 2 biggest factors between both titanium and plastic are longevity and price. This is because they center around the thing a customer requires most - VALUE. With that being said let’s delve into the two material differences.
Titanium is a highly durable material that can withstand a lot of wear and tear. It is more resistant to bending, denting, and breaking than plastic. This makes it an ideal material for outdoor gear that is exposed to rugged conditions, such as backpacking stoves, camping cookware, and water bottles. Titanium can also withstand extreme temperature fluctuations, making it suitable for use in cold or hot environments. In contrast, plastic can be fragile and can easily crack or break under pressure or impact. It can also warp or melt when exposed to high temperatures, which can compromise its functionality and durability. One of the wonders of titanium is that you can boil water in a water bottle. You cant do this with a Nalgene or Camelbak!
One of the advantages of titanium over plastic is its low weight. Let’s compare a plastic 3 in 1 spork and the SilverAnt 3-in-1 spork. Our spork weighs 21.5g and the LightMyFire BIO plastic spork weighs 11g. Here the plastic is roughly 50% lighter than titanium. But when it comes to the strength and life of the spork titanium will last longer.
This moves me to price. And we shall continue with the same example. The LightMyFire BIO spork costs $4 and the SilverAnt Spork is $22.99. Here titanium is a lot more expensive. Almost 6 times more. But is the price worth it?
The plastic spork is a good option because of its biodegradable plastic derived from corn. This is a great option for those that want a product that is cheap and also sustainable. Nevertheless, this plastic spork won’t last 50-plus years. It will need to be replaced after cracks, or broken prongs on the fork. With titanium, this isn’t an issue. Titanium is much stronger and more durable.
Next, let’s discuss gradual wear and the elements. Titanium is highly resistant to corrosion, which makes it ideal for outdoor gear that is exposed to moisture or salt water. It does not rust or corrode like some metals, such as steel, which makes it ideal for use in marine environments or for water bottles that are carried on long hikes. In contrast, plastic can degrade over time when exposed to the elements, such as sunlight, salt, and water. It can become brittle, discolored, and degraded, which can compromise its functionality and durability. This ultimately leads to the plastic outdoor gear needing to be replaced.
Lastly, let’s discuss sustainability and longevity. Titanium is a highly sustainable material choice, as it can be recycled at the end of its life. Although of course it is still a mineral and needs to be mined the fact that we can recycle titanium and repurpose it is a great feat. This makes titanium an ideal choice for hikers and backpackers who prioritize sustainability and eco-friendliness. Plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose, contributing to environmental pollution and damaging ecosystems. It is also derived from non-renewable resources, such as oil or natural gas, which can contribute to climate change and environmental degradation.
Overall, titanium is the superior material choice for outdoor gear compared to plastic in terms of durability, weight, heat resistance, corrosion resistance, and eco-friendliness. While plastic may be more affordable and versatile, it may not be as durable or sustainable in the long run. Nevertheless, if you are just getting started with backpacking plastic gear can be a good option to get started.
I am optimistic about new material innovations where we will soon have biodegradable plastic and this will make a huge difference to the world. Or similarly, new innovations will be developed to help alleviate the plastic waste we humans have created.
Please let me know in the comments what materials the majority of your outdoor gear is made from. Check out our last Titan Series article Stainless Steel VS Titanium.
Stay tuned for our next installment Aluminum VS Titanium.
To your next adventure!