This Is Plastics: Plastics Enable Innovation and Efficiency in Modern Cooling and Refrigeration


Plastics Enable Innovation and Efficiency in Modern Cooling and Refrigeration

Refrigeration and specialty air conditioning systems rely on plastics thanks to their durability, affordability and unique chemical properties.


Plastics are essential to modern refrigeration and are increasingly popular for use in heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems (HVAC) that are used in highly specialized settings. Manufacturing essential household appliances like refrigerators with plastics has dramatically improved their performance, all while increasing affordability and energy efficiency. Additionally, in specialized settings, such as laboratories, plastics’ unique chemical properties improve the efficiency and durability of HVAC systems that filter chemicals and other potentially harmful impurities from the air, enabling safe scientific advancement.

Plastics make modern refrigerators more effective and energy efficient

Modern refrigeration technology has enabled the development of global food production chains, increasing access to critical foods that were historically inaccessible to certain regions. Household and commercial refrigerators are the most familiar component of the cold food production chain to the majority of consumers, and plastics are critical to the efficiency and effectiveness of these essential appliances, comprising up to 40 percent of a refrigerator’s total weight. Insulation, which allows modern refrigerators to keep food products fresh and reduces food waste due to spoilage, is now more effective with the use of plastic polymers. Modern refrigerators use thin strips of polyurethane, a plastic polymer, around refrigerator doors to seal air between layers of harder plastics and ensure that internal temperatures remain constant, preserving food products. In the past, refrigerators relied on less-effective fiberglass for insulation, which caused air leaks that led to condensation buildup, food spoilage and damaging water leakages.

Aside from insulation, manufacturers are able to leverage the versatility of plastics to form the exteriors and interiors of refrigerators. A strong and rigid plastic called polycarbonate is commonly used to form refrigerator doors, handles and body panels, while more flexible, affordable plastics—like acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)—are used to make interior shelves, drawers and walls. Plastic refrigerator components are not only easy to clean but also remain durable when exposed to moisture and temperature fluctuations as refrigerator doors are opened and closed throughout the day. Overall, a variety of plastic applications ensure refrigerators can sustain their performance for over a decade on average, minimizing unnecessary appliance purchases.

Plastic refrigeration and HVAC components are cost-effective and save energy  

Beyond performance, plastics make residential and commercial refrigerators more affordable and sustainable, too. New appliances that rely on plastics can be 50 percent less expensive than more commonly used stainless steel-based appliances. These cost savings on vital appliances are especially pertinent for consumers who are facing record-high inflation and increased product prices. Furthermore, refrigerators that rely on plastics instead of traditionally used metals and glass are more lightweight, reducing transportation emissions as they travel from manufacturer to retailer to consumer. Additionally, refrigerators made with plastics are often smaller, reducing energy consumption. In fact, the energy consumption of a household refrigerator has dropped by 65 percent over the last 15 years, in large part thanks to plastics.

Plastic HVAC systems are a smart investment; systems made from plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) have an average lifespan of 50 years, as they are less susceptible to corrosion, whereas traditional metal-based systems would require a mechanical overhaul two or three times during the same period. Replacing a traditional HVAC system for a small space can cost upwards of $10,000, and this price rises steeply when specialty settings are considered, such as scientific laboratories. Plastic helps to reduce the cost of HVAC overhaul and maintenance, lowering overhead costs for innovative research facilities.

Plastics support the efficiency of HVAC systems in laboratory settings

In addition to increasing affordability, plastics’ unique chemical resistance, durability and improved insulating abilities make them an ideal group of materials for HVAC systems in highly technical industries like chemical engineering. Research laboratories require consistent and effective ventilation to filter strong and potentially harmful chemicals from the air to protect scientists. Ducts and vents made from plastics, which resist chemical-induced corrosion, are more durable and require less maintenance than alternatives, leading to improved performance and long-term cost benefits. Comparatively, HVAC systems that use metals like galvanized steel and aluminum are highly susceptible to chemical corrosion, impacting system performance and posing potential risks to laboratory researchers. In addition, PVC and CPVC-based systems are more energy efficient, because plastics are better insulators than metals and are able to better maintain desired air temperature before it exits an air vent, avoiding unnecessary system reheating or cooling.

By keeping food fresh and ensuring air purity, plastics provide consumers, businesses and researchers alike with affordable, sustainable and high-performance refrigeration and HVAC systems—just one of the many innovations made possible with plastics.

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