June 10, 2021 | Blog

Polycarbonate, Acrylic, PVC, PETG… which see-through plastic is right for me?

No two kinds of wood are exactly the same, nor two metals, and so it goes for clear plastic materials. Many people may mistakenly assume that plastic is plastic and can be used interchangeably in various applications, but that isn’t the case! Plastic is a generic term for a large group of semi-synthetic or synthetic materials. Plastic, due to the nature of monomers and the length of polymer chains, has numerous types and uses. The available options for see-through plastics include polycarbonate, acrylic, PETG, and PVC. These materials have become an indispensable part of modern society and are frequently recycled

The demand for clear plastic has drastically increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for plastic barriers in schools, restaurants, grocery stores, entertainment venues, and many other places to help stop the spread of the virus. Not knowing the differences between the most commonly used materials could result in significant problems for your project and prevent you from making the most out of your materials. 

Why Know the Difference?  

There are a variety of brands, attributes, production techniques, ingredients, and additives for all see-through plastics. With so many alternatives offered, it is no surprise that there is some confusion. Here are the benefits of recognizing the distinctions in materials: 

  • Save Cash. Understanding the options and what specific material will work best can save you from costly replacement or down time on your project. 
  • Reduce Risk of Cracking or Breaking. Some plastics are stronger than others. Choosing the correct material and fabrication for your project conditions could save it from crazing or cracking while in use. 
  • Extend Material Life. Certain see-throughs can stand up to temperature highs and lows, UV exposure, and chemical contact. Don’t make the mistake of buying a material that can’t take the heat.  

See-Through Plastics At Cope 

At Cope Plastics, we stock many product options that offer the characteristics needed for your specific application: 

Polycarbonate

  • Polycarbonate (PC) is a synthetic plastic that is tough, durable, lightweight, and significantly stronger than plate glass and acrylic plastic. 
  • Benefits: At the same thickness, polycarbonate is 30 times stronger than acrylic and over 200 times stronger than glass. Often considered “unbreakable” in most applications, it has the best resistance to breakage due to its high impact strength. It also has the highest maximum service temperature. Coatings can improve flame resistance. Exhibits great machinability and can be easily thermoformed. 
  • Negative Features or Disadvantages: This material needs protection for UV stability. Softness renders polycarbonate very susceptible to scratching unless coated. This material is also the highest cost in comparison to other clear plastic materials. 
  • Common Applications: Some applications include exhibits, POP displays, signage, skylights, and windows. Today, polycarbonate is often used for medical face shields, temporary partitions, lightweight lenses, and eye protection. 
  • Common Brands: Some common brands of polycarbonate include PALSUN®, TUFFAK, and Lexan.

Acrylic (PolyMethyl Methacrylate) 

  • Acrylic (PMMA) is a transparent and rigid thermoplastic material widely used as a shatterproof replacement for glass. 
  • Benefits: It is optically clear, UV stable, and exhibits glass-like quality at half the weight with up to 10 times the impact resistance. Easily shaped, glued, and polished. Very scratch resistance versus PC due to hardness—also a versatile and cost-effective material.  
  • Negative Features or Disadvantages: Exceptionally hard and clear, but the hardness results in brittleness compared to other plastic materials like polycarbonate. 
  • Common Application: Some common acrylic applications include automotive trim, protective cases, lenses, light fixtures, signage, and POP displays. Recently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, acrylic has been used for safety partitions, desktop barriers, and other shields and sneeze guards. 
  • Common Brands: Some common brands of Acrylic include Plexiglas®, Excelon, Futurplast, OPTIX, and Polycast

Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol (PETG) 

  • Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol (PETG) is a thermoplastic polyester that is durable, virtually unbreakable, affordable, and well-suited for fabrication techniques. 
  • Benefits: A strong and cost-effective material when compared to either acrylic or polycarbonate. Thermoformable, vacuum-formable, and can tolerate a lot of pressure without cracking. It fabricates easily, and damage resistance is far higher than acrylic.
  • Negative Features and Disadvantages: PETG has a softer exterior, which can lead to negative effects such as stickiness when cutting. Bendable and more impact resistant, PETG is a less dense material with lower scratch resistance, similar to PC. 
  • Common Applications:  The applications of this material include POP displays, store fixtures, interior images, and exhibits. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, PETG plastics have been used for medical face masks and plastic protective barriers in schools, offices, restaurants, and other public spaces. 
  • Common Brands: Common brands of PETG include SPECTAR and VIVAK.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

  • Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is a high-strength thermoplastic material that is economical and versatile. It is the world’s third-largest thermoplastic material by volume after polyethylene and polypropylene. 
  • Benefits: This durable material can withstand many harsh chemicals and does not conduct electricity. Both rigid and flexible forms of PVC are abrasion-resistant and lightweight with good mechanical strength and high toughness. Fire and mold resistant, PVC can be easily thermoformed, shaped, and cut in a variety of styles. PVC can be machined to tight tolerances and multiple finishes.
  • Negative Features and Disadvantages: PVC has poor heat stability and low continuous service temperature. The lightweight nature of the material can also be a disadvantage as it is more prone to cracking and not recommended for outdoor applications. Can release toxic chlorine fumes when burned. 
  • Common Applications: Typical applications for PVC are booths, enclosures, containers, corrosion control equipment, and desktop partitions. Ideal for industrial applications like barriers, wet-process guards, and safety glazing. 

Quick Reference Chart of Clear Plastics

PVC (Clear/Rigid) PETG Polycarbonate PMMA (Acrylic)
Cutting/Fabricating Can cut, weld, and bend into molds and fittings Easy to form and die-cut; can be sticky More likely to scratch or mar More likely to chip or craze
Strength/Durability 1.0 ft-lbs./in. 1.7 ft-lbs./in. Break-resistant Scratch-resistant
Clarity Not Bad Good Better Best. Can also be polished.
Stiffness/Flexibility Rigid
481,000 psi
Thermoformable
310,000 psi
Easily Molded
345,000 psi
Rigid
480,000 psi
Chemical Resistance Resistant to many alcohols, fats, oils, aromatic free petrol, and common corroding agents including inorganic acids, alkalis, and salt. May not be used with esters, ketones, ethers, or chlorinated hydrocarbons. Can be sterilized with radiation or compatible chemicals, but cannot be autoclaved. “Fair” rating of chemical resistance. When coated, can be resistant to highly aggressive chemicals at room temperature including mineral and organic acids and oxidizing agents, but decreases with increased temperatures. “Good” chemical resistance to most detergents, inorganic chemicals, hydrocarbons, fats and lipids, and acids at room temperature, but not alcohol or methylene chloride.
UV Resistance Will not change color under sunlight. May change color over long periods of time. Yellows over time when exposed to sunlight (without additives) Will not yellow
Temperature Resistance Low Lowest High Medium
Tensile/Pull Strength 7,500 psi 7,700 psi 9,500 psi 10,000 psi
Insulation/Dielectric Strength Low Lowest High Medium
Cost $ $$ $$$ $
Masking Options Plastic/Film Plastic/Film Plastic/Film or Paper Plastic/Film or Paper
Forms Available Sheet & Tube Sheet Sheet, Rod, & Tube Sheet, Rod, & Tube
Recycled Into Flooring, piping, decking, fencing, paneling, gutters Food packaging & synthetic fibers (carpet/microfiber) Electronics housings/cases Nail polish, paint, colored acrylic material

Finding the Right Material For You 

The process of choosing the right material for your application is complex and critical to the success of your project. To find the ideal material for your application, you can also use our simple and easy online Graphic Material Selector or contact a Cope material expert directly. Reach our team at 1-800-851-5510 or corp-web@copeplastics.com.

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