bags of spices in a market

What is a polyolefin?

About John Ducard
View all posts by John Ducard

Polyolefin shrink wrap is a widespread shrink wrap material, but what exactly polyolefins are can be confusing. Here at Kempner, we have written a brief guide to polyolefins to explain what they are and why they are so popular around the world, not least for shrink wrapping solutions.

What are polyolefins?

bags of spices in a market

Polyolefins are probably the most important component of the petrochemical industry, which is, in turn, the largest part of the global chemistry business today. It is impossible to imagine all the technologies we currently rely on in the world without polymers. Polyolefins have been such a versatile material that they have been used in everything from grocery bags, industrial pipes, prosthetic implants and, of course, shrink wrap.

Polyolefins come from the word ‘poly’, meaning many, and ‘olefins’, referring to an unsaturated hydrocarbon. The most common olefins come from converting crude oil and gas in a refinery to (eventually) make compounds like ethylene. These olefins are then polymerised – lots of short molecules are joined together to form very long ones. Ethylene, for example, is polymerised to make polyethylene – the most popular plastic in the world. Likewise propylene is polymerised to make polypropylene, the second most common plastic.

Simply put, then, polyolefins are very long synthetically made hydrocarbons (or resins). This means they have special properties that make them extremely versatile and can be used in many different businesses.


Polyethylene or Polypropylene?

Lots of looms with arabic script

Polyethylene itself comes in many different densities. Thirty million tons of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) is made every year to create fireworks, plastic bags, for facial surgery and even to shrink wrap boats. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is often used for smaller or more flexible purposes like making cartons, shipping drums, snap-on lids, hard disk drives and more. Both are commonly used alongside shrink wrap machinery: while HDPE is used to wrap very large items and big pallets of goods, LDPE is more often used for small pallets, six-pack rings and other smaller items.

Polypropylene is the other major polyolefin. It is most often used for wall injection moulding or electronic parts because it is tougher and stiffer than polyethylene. Polyethylene is more chemically resistant and also able to be either transparent or opaque, while polypropylene is almost always a pigmented translucent material, making it harder to work with if you want a particular colour. Very flexible depending on what you need, polyolefin shrink film is extremely popular among suppliers.

Today, the polymer industry is worth more than $180bn. Global production today sits comfortably in the hundreds of millions of tons, with demand rising every year as more developing countries like China and India grow. While other polyolefins exist, these two dominate the global thermoplastic market, making up more than 62% of the industry between them.


Why do businesses prefer polyolefins?

Plastic bottle containers

The market for polyolefins is growing rapidly because of rising demand for eco-friendly packaging and the ease of availability of raw materials in developing nations. Polyolefins meet both of those requirements. Polyethylene and polypropylene are produced in droves around the world, which means acquiring the stuff is easy and cheap. In addition, government regulations which seek to optimise fuel efficiency and reduce C02 emissions have fuelled demand for polymers to replace less efficient metal substitutes – the automotive and pipe making sectors, in particular, prefer using HDPE and polypropylene. In many cases for these companies as well, polyolefins more lightweight, durable and resistant to chemical reactions than their metal substitutes.

As a result, Market Research Future found that the global polyolefin market is expected to grow in every continent, 7% a year worldwide. Asian-Pacific countries have a share of over 46% in the polyolefin market due to the high demand for the material when exporting goods abroad and as part of the natural development of poorer economies. That said, North America and Europe are both spending more and more on polyolefin and polyolefin research to find more innovative uses for the flexible material.


In short, polyolefin are essential in how our modern world works. The plastics industry is huge and is mostly made up of polyolefin suppliers. Not only is the market huge, however, but it is also growing at a rapid rate as non-Western countries economically develop. If you think your business might require polyolefin shrink film, please get in touch and we will be happy to help provide you with the right solution for your needs.

Enquire Now