What Is The Difference Between Commodity Plastics And Engineering Plastics

Plastics play a crucial role in modern life, shaping various industries from packaging to automotive. Among the diverse types of plastics, commodity plastics and engineering plastics stand out due to their distinct properties and applications. Understanding these differences can help industries make informed decisions about material selection for specific uses.

Commodity plastics are generally used in high-volume applications where cost efficiency is paramount. They are typically less expensive and used in everyday items such as packaging materials and household products. Engineering plastics, on the other hand, are designed for high-performance applications that require superior mechanical and thermal properties. They are commonly used in automotive parts, industrial machinery, and electronic components.

The key difference between commodity plastics and engineering plastics lies in their performance and cost. Commodity plastics are suitable for applications that do not require high durability or heat resistance, while engineering plastics are chosen for their strength, durability, and ability to withstand harsh conditions. These distinctions impact their manufacturing processes, applications, and market demand, making each type of plastic uniquely valuable in its own right.

Composition and Properties

Chemical Composition

Commodity Plastics Composition

Commodity plastics are made from simple and inexpensive polymers. These materials are derived from petrochemicals and are often used in high-volume applications. The most common types include:

  • Polyethylene (PE): Made from the polymerization of ethylene, PE is one of the simplest and most widely used plastics. It is known for its versatility and is found in products like plastic bags and bottles.
  • Polypropylene (PP): Produced through the polymerization of propylene, PP is slightly more complex than PE. It is used in products like packaging tapes, plastic containers, and automotive parts.
  • Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): PVC is made from the polymerization of vinyl chloride monomer. It is widely used in construction materials like pipes, cable insulation, and flooring.
  • Polystyrene (PS): Created from the polymerization of styrene, PS is used in products such as disposable cutlery, CD cases, and foam packaging.

Engineering Plastics Composition

Engineering plastics have more complex chemical structures, giving them superior properties compared to commodity plastics. These materials are designed for high-performance applications:

  • Polycarbonate (PC): PC is made from the polymerization of bisphenol A and phosgene. It is known for its high impact resistance and is used in products like eyewear lenses and safety helmets.
  • Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS): ABS is a terpolymer made from acrylonitrile, butadiene, and styrene. It combines strength and rigidity with toughness, making it ideal for automotive parts and consumer electronics.
  • Polyamide (Nylon): Nylon is made from the polymerization of hexamethylenediamine and adipic acid. It is known for its durability and is used in textiles, automotive parts, and industrial components.
  • Polyoxymethylene (POM): POM, also known as acetal, is made from the polymerization of formaldehyde. It is known for its high stiffness and low friction, used in precision parts like gears and bearings.

Physical Properties

Strength and Durability

Commodity plastics generally have lower strength and durability compared to engineering plastics. They are designed for applications where cost efficiency is more important than performance. For example, PE and PP are flexible and lightweight but lack the toughness needed for demanding applications.

Engineering plastics, however, are designed for high-performance uses. They possess higher tensile strength and can withstand more wear and tear. Materials like PC and nylon are used in environments where durability and strength are critical.

Flexibility and Toughness

Commodity plastics like PE and PP are known for their flexibility. They can bend and stretch without breaking, which is useful in products like plastic bags and packaging films. However, they lack the toughness required for more demanding applications.

Engineering plastics offer a balance between flexibility and toughness. ABS, for example, combines the rigidity of polystyrene with the toughness of polybutadiene, making it suitable for products that need both flexibility and durability, such as automotive parts and electronic housings.

Thermal Stability

Commodity plastics generally have lower thermal stability. They can deform or melt at relatively low temperatures. For instance, PE and PP start to soften at temperatures around 100°C.

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Engineering plastics, on the other hand, are designed to maintain their properties at higher temperatures. Materials like PC and nylon can withstand temperatures up to 150°C or higher without losing their structural integrity, making them ideal for applications that involve high heat, such as under-the-hood automotive components and electrical insulators.

Mechanical Properties

Tensile Strength

Commodity plastics like PE and PP have moderate tensile strength, which is adequate for many everyday applications. However, they are not suitable for high-stress environments.

Engineering plastics exhibit significantly higher tensile strength. For instance, nylon is renowned for its excellent tensile strength, making it suitable for mechanical parts that must endure substantial stress.

Impact Resistance

Commodity plastics like PS are prone to cracking and breaking under impact, limiting their use in high-impact applications.

Engineering plastics like PC and ABS are designed to resist impacts. PC, for instance, is used in safety equipment like helmets and bulletproof glass due to its exceptional impact resistance.

Wear and Friction

Commodity plastics often have higher wear and friction coefficients, which can lead to faster degradation in mechanical applications.

Engineering plastics like POM are engineered to have low friction and high wear resistance. This makes them ideal for moving parts in machinery, where reducing friction and wear is crucial for longevity and performance.

Chemical Resistance

Resistance to Corrosion

Commodity plastics generally offer good resistance to water and basic chemicals but may not withstand more aggressive substances.

Engineering plastics provide superior chemical resistance. For example, POM is highly resistant to many solvents and fuels, making it suitable for automotive fuel systems and other applications where exposure to harsh chemicals is common.

Resistance to Solvents and Acids

Commodity plastics like PVC are used in applications where they might come into contact with some solvents and acids but can degrade when exposed to stronger chemicals.

Engineering plastics like ABS and nylon can resist a wider range of chemicals. ABS, for example, is resistant to many acids, alkalis, and oils, making it a preferred material for components in harsh chemical environments.

Types and Examples

Commodity Plastics

Polyethylene (PE)

Polyethylene is the most widely produced plastic globally. It is versatile, used in products ranging from plastic bags and bottles to toys and kitchenware. Its low cost and ease of production make it a popular choice for manufacturers.

Polypropylene (PP)

Polypropylene is known for its fatigue resistance and toughness. It is used in packaging, textiles, automotive components, and consumer goods. Its ability to withstand repeated bending and stress without breaking makes it ideal for hinges, caps, and reusable containers.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

PVC is a versatile plastic used extensively in construction for pipes, window frames, and flooring. It is also used in medical devices and packaging. Its durability and resistance to chemicals make it suitable for long-term applications.

Polystyrene (PS)

Polystyrene is used in a variety of applications, from disposable cutlery and food packaging to insulation materials. It is valued for its clarity, rigidity, and ease of molding, although it is brittle and prone to cracking under stress.

Engineering Plastics

Polycarbonate (PC)

Polycarbonate is known for its transparency and high impact resistance. It is used in applications that require a combination of clarity and toughness, such as eyewear lenses, safety helmets, and optical discs.

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)

ABS is a tough, rigid plastic with good impact resistance. It is widely used in automotive parts, consumer electronics, and LEGO bricks. Its ability to be easily molded and machined makes it a favorite in manufacturing.

Polyamide (Nylon)

Nylon is a durable, flexible plastic used in textiles, automotive parts, and industrial components. It is valued for its high strength, resistance to abrasion, and ability to be easily dyed, making it versatile across various industries.

Polyoxymethylene (POM)

Polyoxymethylene, also known as acetal, is a high-stiffness plastic with low friction and excellent dimensional stability. It is used in precision parts such as gears, bearings, and fasteners, where tight tolerances and reliability are essential.

Manufacturing and Processing

Production Methods

Commodity Plastics Production

Commodity plastics are produced in large volumes using relatively simple and cost-effective processes. The most common production methods include:

  • Polymerization: The basic chemical process that creates the plastic resin from monomers.
  • Extrusion: Used to create continuous shapes like pipes and sheets.
  • Injection Molding: Used for creating detailed and complex shapes with high precision.

Engineering Plastics Production

Engineering plastics require more complex and controlled production processes to achieve their superior properties. These methods often involve:

  • Advanced Polymerization: Ensuring the molecular structure meets specific performance criteria.
  • Compounding: Adding fillers and reinforcements to enhance properties.
  • Precision Molding: Using advanced techniques to produce parts with tight tolerances and high performance.
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Processing Techniques

Injection Molding

Injection molding is a versatile technique used for both commodity and engineering plastics. It involves injecting molten plastic into a mold to create detailed shapes. This process is widely used due to its ability to produce complex parts with high precision and consistency.


Extrusion involves forcing molten plastic through a die to create continuous shapes like pipes, sheets, and profiles. It is commonly used for both commodity and engineering plastics, allowing for high-volume production of consistent products.

Blow Molding

Blow molding is used to create hollow plastic parts like bottles and containers. The process involves inflating a heated plastic tube until it takes the shape of a mold. This technique is primarily used for commodity plastics due to its cost-effectiveness and efficiency.

Applications and Uses

Common Uses of Commodity Plastics

Packaging Materials

Commodity plastics are extensively used in packaging due to their low cost and versatility. PE and PP are common choices for bags, films, and containers. Their flexibility and ease of processing make them ideal for high-volume packaging applications.

Disposable Items

Disposable items like cutlery, cups, and plates are often made from PS and PE. These plastics are inexpensive and easy to mold, making them perfect for single-use products that prioritize cost over durability.

Household Products

Household products such as kitchenware, toys, and storage containers are frequently made from commodity plastics. Their affordability and availability in various forms make them suitable for a wide range of everyday items.

Common Uses of Engineering Plastics

Automotive Parts

Engineering plastics are widely used in the automotive industry due to their strength, durability, and resistance to heat and chemicals. Materials like ABS and nylon are used in components such as dashboards, bumpers, and engine covers.

Electrical and Electronics

Engineering plastics like PC and ABS are used in electrical and electronic applications due to their excellent insulation properties and resistance to heat. They are found in products like mobile phone cases, computer housings, and electrical connectors.

Industrial Machinery

Engineering plastics are essential in industrial machinery for parts that require high wear resistance and low friction. POM is commonly used for gears, bearings, and other precision components that need to withstand harsh operational conditions.

Cost and Economic Impact

Cost of Production

Commodity Plastics Cost

Commodity plastics are produced in large volumes, making their production cost relatively low. These materials are synthesized from basic petrochemicals through straightforward polymerization processes. Their production involves:

  • Large-scale manufacturing: Utilizing economies of scale to reduce costs.
  • Simpler production methods: Techniques like extrusion and injection molding are cost-effective.
  • Lower raw material costs: Petrochemicals used are abundant and inexpensive.

Due to these factors, the price per unit of commodity plastics remains low, making them ideal for high-volume, cost-sensitive applications.

Engineering Plastics Cost

Engineering plastics have a higher production cost due to their complex chemical structures and advanced manufacturing processes. Their production involves:

  • Specialized polymerization: Creating polymers with precise molecular configurations.
  • Compounding with additives: Enhancing properties with fillers and reinforcements.
  • Advanced manufacturing techniques: Precision molding and other high-tech processes.

These factors contribute to the higher cost of engineering plastics. However, their superior properties justify the expense in applications that demand high performance and durability.

Market Demand

Global Market Trends

The demand for both commodity and engineering plastics is influenced by global market trends. Key factors include:

  • Population growth: Increased consumption of plastic products.
  • Industrial development: Higher demand for durable materials in various industries.
  • Technological advancements: Innovations driving the use of specialized plastics.

Commodity plastics continue to dominate the market due to their widespread use in packaging and consumer goods. However, the demand for engineering plastics is rising, driven by their application in high-performance sectors like automotive and electronics.

Industry-Specific Demand

Different industries have specific demands for plastic materials:

  • Packaging industry: Prefers commodity plastics for their cost-effectiveness and versatility.
  • Automotive industry: Uses engineering plastics for their strength, durability, and heat resistance.
  • Electronics industry: Requires engineering plastics for their insulation properties and stability.
  • Construction industry: Utilizes both types, with PVC being a major commodity plastic and nylon and PC as engineering plastics.

This industry-specific demand shapes the production and development of both commodity and engineering plastics.

Environmental Considerations


Sustainability is a critical aspect of modern plastic production and usage. Both commodity and engineering plastics face challenges and opportunities in this area.

Recycling of Commodity Plastics

Commodity plastics, such as PE and PP, are widely recycled. The recycling process involves:

  • Collection and sorting: Gathering plastic waste and separating it by type.
  • Cleaning and processing: Removing contaminants and shredding the plastics.
  • Re-melting and reforming: Melting the shredded plastics and molding them into new products.
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Despite these efforts, not all commodity plastics are recycled efficiently, leading to significant environmental concerns.

Recycling of Engineering Plastics

Engineering plastics pose more challenges in recycling due to their complex compositions. However, advancements are being made to improve their recyclability:

  • Mechanical recycling: Grinding and reprocessing plastics into new products.
  • Chemical recycling: Breaking down polymers into monomers for re-polymerization.
  • Thermal recycling: Converting plastic waste into energy through combustion.

These methods are helping to reduce the environmental impact of engineering plastics, although more innovation is needed to make the process more efficient and widespread.

Environmental Impact

Pollution and Waste

Plastic pollution is a major global issue. Both commodity and engineering plastics contribute to waste, but the extent and impact differ:

  • Commodity plastics: Due to their high volume and widespread use, they contribute significantly to plastic pollution, especially single-use items like bags and packaging.
  • Engineering plastics: While used in lower volumes, their complex structures make them harder to recycle and manage, leading to longer-lasting waste.

Efforts to reduce plastic pollution include increasing recycling rates, developing biodegradable plastics, and implementing stricter regulations on plastic usage.

Energy Consumption in Production

The production of plastics requires substantial energy, contributing to their environmental footprint:

  • Commodity plastics: Their production processes are energy-intensive but benefit from economies of scale.
  • Engineering plastics: Advanced production techniques and the use of specialized materials result in higher energy consumption per unit.

Improving energy efficiency in plastic production and shifting to renewable energy sources can help mitigate these environmental impacts.

Innovations and Future Trends

Advancements in Commodity Plastics

Biodegradable Options

One significant advancement in commodity plastics is the development of biodegradable options. These plastics are designed to break down more quickly and safely in the environment. Key examples include:

  • Polylactic Acid (PLA): Derived from renewable resources like corn starch, PLA is used in packaging and disposable items.
  • Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA): Produced by microbial fermentation, PHAs are used in medical applications and packaging.

These biodegradable plastics offer a sustainable alternative to traditional commodity plastics, reducing environmental impact.

Enhanced Properties

Researchers are continuously working to enhance the properties of commodity plastics. Innovations include:

  • Improved strength and durability: Developing new formulations that increase the toughness of PE and PP.
  • Better thermal stability: Enhancing the heat resistance of commodity plastics for broader applications.
  • Reduced weight: Creating lighter materials that maintain their structural integrity.

These enhancements help commodity plastics compete with engineering plastics in certain applications.

Advancements in Engineering Plastics

High-Performance Materials

Engineering plastics are evolving with the development of high-performance materials. These advancements include:

  • Carbon fiber-reinforced polymers (CFRP): Combining plastics with carbon fibers to create materials with exceptional strength and low weight. Used in aerospace and high-performance automotive applications.
  • High-temperature resistant plastics: Materials like polyether ether ketone (PEEK) that can withstand extreme temperatures, used in medical and industrial applications.

These high-performance materials expand the possibilities for engineering plastics, making them suitable for more demanding applications.

Smart Plastics

The development of smart plastics is another exciting trend in the field of engineering plastics. These materials can change properties in response to external stimuli. Examples include:

  • Shape-memory polymers: Plastics that return to their original shape when exposed to a specific stimulus, used in medical devices and actuators.
  • Conductive polymers: Materials that conduct electricity, used in flexible electronics and sensors.


What are commodity plastics used for?

Commodity plastics are commonly used for everyday products such as packaging materials, disposable items, and household goods. Their cost-effectiveness and ease of production make them ideal for high-volume applications where performance requirements are not stringent.

What are examples of engineering plastics?

Examples of engineering plastics include polycarbonate (PC), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polyamide (nylon), and polyoxymethylene (POM). These materials are used in demanding applications such as automotive components, electrical and electronic devices, and industrial machinery due to their superior mechanical and thermal properties.

How do the costs compare between commodity and engineering plastics?

Commodity plastics are generally less expensive than engineering plastics. This is because commodity plastics are produced in larger quantities and are used in applications with lower performance requirements. Engineering plastics, however, are designed for high-performance uses and thus have a higher production cost.

Are engineering plastics environmentally friendly?

Engineering plastics can be environmentally friendly depending on their formulation and the recycling processes available. Some engineering plastics are recyclable and can be reused in manufacturing, reducing their environmental impact. Innovations are also being made to develop biodegradable and more sustainable engineering plastics.

Why are engineering plastics preferred in the automotive industry?

Engineering plastics are preferred in the automotive industry due to their high strength, durability, and resistance to heat and chemicals. These properties make them suitable for components that must withstand harsh conditions, such as under-the-hood parts, interior components, and exterior body panels.


Commodity plastics and engineering plastics each serve vital roles in different industries, defined by their unique properties and applications. Commodity plastics are favored for cost-effective, high-volume production, while engineering plastics are chosen for high-performance requirements.

Understanding the differences between these two types of plastics helps industries make informed material choices, optimizing both performance and cost. As technology advances, both commodity and engineering plastics will continue to evolve, meeting new challenges and expanding their applications across various fields.

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