What is Polyethylene? - Properties & Uses

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  • 0:00 What is Polyethylene?
  • 0:40 The Structure of Polyethylene
  • 1:50 Properties & Types of…
  • 2:47 Popularity of Polyethylene
  • 3:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Danielle Reid

Danielle has taught middle school science and has a doctorate degree in Environmental Health

Expert Contributor
Dawn Mills

Dawn has taught chemistry and forensic courses at the college level for 9 years. She has a PhD in Chemistry and is an author of peer reviewed publications in chemistry.

When you grabbed that plastic grocery bag, I bet you didn't know it contained the compound polyethylene. Let's learn more about polyethylene, including its properties and uses.

What Is Polyethylene?

Plastic containers, plastic bottles, plastic bags, and plastic toys; everywhere we look, we see plastic items. Did you know that in 2012 alone, we managed to generate more than 32 million tons of plastic waste? Now, that is what most people would call a lot of plastic! Although plastic is composed of several different organic molecules, one in particular is called polyethylene. Polyethylene is an organic polymer made of several monomer subunits, and it is one popular compound. Before we address its popularity in industry, let's talk more about its structure.

The Structure of Polyethylene

As you can see here, polyethylene contains a lot of carbon and hydrogen atoms and serves as a great illustration of a polymer.

Polymers are gigantic molecules that have many repeating molecules, or subunits, bound together by bonds. Polyethylene is composed of several monomers called ethylene molecules. This is what one monomer of ethylene would look like.

You may be wondering what the n represents in the first image. In chemistry, n acts as a placeholder for a number. N gives you some idea about the potential length of the chain. As polyethylene molecules can be very long, this type of information can be very helpful, in that a typical polyethylene molecule can contain more than 500 ethylene subunits!

Polyethylene is a thermoplastic, and as such, plays a distinct role in the manufacturing of plastic products. A thermoplastic is any polymer that can be shaped and molded as a liquid and remain in that shape as a solid. Polyethylene performs this task quite well. Let's learn about some of the physical properties of polyethylene that allow it to perform this task.

Properties and Types of Polyethylene

The two most common types of polyethylene compounds are high density polyethylene (HDPE) and low density polyethylene (LDPE). Both compounds have very different physical properties. For example, while LDPE compounds have a melting point of 115º C, HDPE compounds melt at 135º C. LDPE is more flexible than HDPE, but when it comes to strength, HDPE is the winner. Although we know what a general polyethylene looks like, both HDPE and LDPE have their own unique structures, as shown here.

However, just remember that both are still polymers, and both contain ethylene subunits. Also, pay close attention to the fact that LDPE chains are branched, and HDPE chains are linear.

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Additional Activities


Polyethylene is a versatile polymer used in manufacturing many items. In this section, we will examine polyethylene further and consider its benefits and drawbacks.

Exercises and Questions

1. First, we will consider items that could be made of polyethylene in our daily lives. Wander around your house and collect a few items you think may be composed of polyethylene. Examples include plastic grocery bags, children's toys (eg. slinky), and even packaging for medications. If these items were made from a different type of plastic would they be as useful? For example, if your grocery bag was made of heavier plastic it might be more expensive but it is possible it could be more durable or hold more weight. Consider the benefits and drawbacks of the composition of each item.

2. Write down a few benefits of using polyethylene in many different types of materials.

3. Write down some of the disadvantages of using polyethylene in different materials.

4. Are the household items you gathered likely to contain low-density polyethylene (LDPE) or high-density polyethylene (HDPE)?


There are many benefits for the use of polyethylene. Polyethylene is cheap, flexible, does not contain heavy metals or produce toxic waste, has high insulation properties and has high processability among other advantages. Some disadvantages include flammability, low strength and stiffness as well as poor UV resistance (sun can degrade). LDPE items include grocery bags and wash bottles, while HDPE items include food packaging containers, hosewares as well as fibers and textiles.

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