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The U.S. plastics industry is the third largest manufacturing industry in the country. It comprises three main branches: compounders (companies that prepare plastic formulations), resin suppliers, and suppliers of other materials. Each branch sells to processors or manufacturers, especially those in automotives, electronics, computers, telecommunications, and packaging, although plastics are used in some way in all industries and many consumer products, whether as essential parts or finished goods. The plastics industry as a whole generates $400 billion in shipments each year, maintains close to a million jobs, and supports close to another half million. It produces more than 100 billion pounds of plastics and resins annually.
Although the industry is little more than a century old, it has become integral to modern society. People rely on plastic containers for foods, beverages, and household products; plastic parts in appliances and vehicles; plastic components in digital devices; plastic toys and sporting goods; plastic elements in medical devices; and much, much more.
John Wesley Hyatt, in search of an artificial material for making billiard balls, created the first plastic material—celluloid—in 1868. Forty years later, Dr. Leo Hendrik Baekeland invented phenoformaldehyde plastics, known as phenolids, and a new material, Bakelite, which could withstand very hot or cold temperatures. The success of Bakelite spurred production of cookware and other household and industrial products of plastic. E. I. DuPont de Nemours & Company developed superpolyamide, otherwise known as nylon, still widely used today, in the 1920s. Plastics experienced further progress in the 1930s and 1940s with the development of many common thermoplastics: low density polyethylene, polystyrene, and polymethyl methacrylate, primarily used in packaging consumer goods. By the end of the 20th century, environmental concerns about non-biodegradable plastic polluting the land led to recycling programs. Today the industry looks to nanomaterials—materials manufactured and used at a scale down to 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair—to improved and advance their products.
Although the primary jobs in the industry include materials engineer, chemical engineer, product development engineer, and related technical and engineering positions, the industry employs a wide variety of workers, including sales and marketing professionals, managers, human resource workers, and others.
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