While some people are perfectly content to spend their holidays in their own garden or on their own balcony, others love to travel. Many of the latter like to relax by the seaside or in the mountains, which are probably two of the most important holiday destinations of all. Anyone who goes away on a trip doesn’t just have plenty of stories to tell when he returns – whether he has been to the North Sea, the South Sea, the Alps or the Andes; in most cases, he also has plenty of plastic with him in his luggage when he sets off. And it is safe to say that holidays would be only half as enjoyable without customised polymer materials and synthetic fibres.
Globetrotters generally have plenty of stories to tell: about distant countries and faraway beaches, about their experiences in, on or under the water, about adventures in tropical climes, about dizzying heat in desert regions or swimming in refreshingly clear mountain lakes, about difficult climbs to icy heights and the breathtaking views in all directions when the summit is reached. But there is one thing you can bet on: the word “plastic” will rarely if ever be mentioned in the context of any of the many reports about their holidays after they come home again – even though holidays would in all likelihood only be half as enjoyable and quite a few distant holiday destinations would be difficult or impossible to reach without the help of polymer materials and synthetic fibres.
Sun, sand and sea
The sky is satisfyingly blue and not a cloud is to be seen, the temperature of the Mediterranean air is 31 degrees on land and it is pretty humid. The Mediterranean itself feels pleasantly cool in the midsummer heat even though the water is in actual fact rather warm at 25 degrees. Holidaymakers don’t go all this way to the beaches simply to cool down, however. That would be possible under the shower at home instead. What beach vacationers particularly enjoy are all the different things a day at the coast has to offer, which can be made especially pleasant with the help of various plastics. Let us make an imaginary excursion to the Mediterranean. Pretend you are on a busy beach in a little bay, flanked on the left and right by rocky but appealingly green ridges on which a bungalow can be seen here and there. The sea is calm, with no sign of stormy weather. On the contrary, ...
We look around at the people on the beach and see what we might call typical beach vacationers, in this particular case a small family: mother and father (in swimsuits) and two teenage children (a boy and a girl). Loaded with all sorts of beach equipment, they are making their way towards the water past other groups of people who have already set their colourful umbrellas, towels, straw mats and blankets up in or on the hot sand.
Mother is wearing an ankle-length dress made entirely from viscose fibres that is a red colour which blends in perfectly. Thanks to its flowing, off-the-shoulder design, it is blown into a figure-hugging shape when a stiff breeze comes in off the sea and provides brief relief from the heat on the beach. She has tied her curly brown hair back into a ponytail with a scarf in a matching colour. Lost in thought, she is looking towards the horizon – which can be seen clearly in the distance where the dark blue water and light blue sky meet - through sunglasses with two extra-large, brown, Perspex lenses.
In her fascination for the endless expanse of the ocean, she overlooks what is right in front of her: the sandcastle that has been built by a roughly four-year-old child who has stripped off completely. With her left foot, she destroys a turret, which has been topped until now by a flag created from ice cream packaging and a plastic drinking straw. In stumbling, she loses a shoe – the left one of a pair of black, polyvinyl chloride flip-flops with beads on the straps. As she bends down to pick up her flip-flop and put it back on her foot between the toes, her dress slides up, so that the father of the child is distracted briefly from comforting his son when he catches a glimpse of the bright red bikini the woman is wearing underneath her dress, a bikini which is made from a blend of cotton and elastane.
The woman’s partner is wearing aviator sunglasses, black flip-flops and turquoise, knee-length boardshorts with a check pattern and a mesh lining made entirely from polyester. He has an impressively large and very hairy chest. His son to the right is wearing boardshorts like his father, although they are of a smaller size and are worn droopy style, i.e. with the crotch somewhere around the knees. In line with the latest fashion trend, the elastic waist of a pair of blue underpants can be seen above the waistline of the boardshorts. His sister, who is four years older and has rushed on ahead, obviously loves nature and is very fit: she is running barefoot through the hot sand without sunglasses in a form-fitting, high-necked, sporty bathing suit with a zip on the back, which is made from a fabric consisting of 80 per cent polyamide and 20 per cent elastane.
When they find a space, the family lays its turquoise towels down on the sand. These towels are made from synthetic microfibres that are finer than the finest natural fibres (i.e. spider webs). By way of comparison: one gram of spider web has a length of 10,000 metres, whereas only 0.5 gram of microfibres reaches the same length.
The male head of the family needs all the strength he has got to force the pole of the umbrella into the sand, after which he attaches a bright yellow umbrella to it. When he went shopping, father put a lot of effort into finding an umbrella of the right design and quality, so that he could rely on it staying put in the sand even when there was a strong wind. His decision-making process was based not only on the screwing mechanism, however. The spinneret-dyed acrylic fabric, that maintains its diffusion and air circulation properties as well as its colour even when exposed to intensive sunshine, was the key feature that finally convinced him.
The sun is now past its peak for the day but is still extremely hot. Father and mother are sweating and so are the children. Father takes four 0.5-litre polyethylene bottles of mineral water out of the cooler bag he has carried on his shoulder. This bag is made of nylon with a polyvinyl chloride coating on the back and is particularly practical because it is collapsible. He passes the bottles on to his wife and thirsty children before taking a large gulp out of one himself.
Mother does not want anything to drink yet. As soon as she has taken her dress off, she grabs the only air mattress – a brightly coloured yellow model made from ultralight, non-slip polyester. With a brief shout of excitement, she rushes off into the water and jumps onto it.
Her daughter picks up her red swimming cap, which is made from non-allergenic silicone with special spaces for the ears and recesses on the inside to make sure that the hair is not pulled unpleasantly. She uses her fingers adeptly to pull the cap over her hair, which is just as curly as her mother’s. After she has put on a clip to protect her nose and professional anti-chlorine goggles (non-fogging, 100% UV protection, sealing around the eyes and with a wide, elastic, silicone headband) to protect her eyes, the vivacious teenager starts to crawl away through the water in aesthetic and very stylish fashion once she has got used to the lower temperature of the salty sea.
Her brother has discovered two buddy divers at the edge of the bay, who are standing in the water surrounded by children helping each other to maintain their balance while putting on their fins, which are made from technical polymer and thermoplastic rubber. The divers are sweating in the sun; they are already stewing in their own juice, as it were – big drops of sweat are running down their faces, which are red from exertion. The men are wearing suits made from waterproof chloroprene (neoprene) several millimetres thick that cover their heads and feet too, so that they stay warm enough even when they are a long way underwater. The boy is interested to see that the buoyancy compensators made of nylon not only hold the compressed air bottle; they also make it possible to ascend and descend or maintain the diving position underwater by letting air in and out. The diver’s air supply is assured by rubber hoses and rubber seals/gaskets. Both divers are wearing goggles made of unbreakable safety glass, hypoallergenic, ultraflexible silicone and a technical polymer frame so that they can see perfectly underwater. They start their dive once all the equipment has been put on. The boy gets up off his towel on the family spot to take a closer look at what the divers are doing.
Father smiles in satisfaction as he finds himself deserted by all of his family. He takes a deep breath and is obviously delighted by the temporary absence of the members of his family and the indeterminable background noise on the beach. His eyes are in constant movement, however. He looks all around, watching children playing in the water with a polyvinyl chloride ball, people emptying the contents of plastic sunscreen tubes on naked backs and bodies lying on the sand or in the water.
One person is awkwardly trying to windsurf on a composite carbon/Kevlar board although there is not much wind – and fails comprehensively to do so. He falls backwards into the water, the mast made of glass fibre reinforced plastic – or was it carbon fibre? – and the sail made of transparent PVC sheet falling on top of him. Fortunately, he is wearing a lifejacket made from a polyester/neoprene fabric blend; the fall looked worse that it actually was too. An emergency rescue is not necessary. Somewhat further away on the open sea, someone else is trying out the new Olympic sport of kitesurfing on a comparatively short surf board and with the control bar for the kite in his hand. Fantastic, thinks the father of our family, that is something I would like to try, as he rolls his eyes and yawns hugely. He focusses, finally, on a white, 14-metre sailboat with a glass fibre reinforced plastic hull that is heading directly for the little bay, ignoring the two divers’ right of way. Without knowing exactly what makes it occur to him at this particular moment, the man starts to think what it would be like to be part of a team climbing the 8,848 metres of Mount Everest, before he falls asleep and starts to dream.
At high altitude: when the mountains call
Talking about which: anyone who spends his holidays in Alpine regions and enjoys mountaineering is aware of the need for customised materials. They may end up saving his life, after all! Although it is true that people were already climbing mountains long ago without high-tech materials developed in chemical laboratories and equipped only with what Mother Nature provided, such as wood, hemp, leather or wool. Hannibal succeeded in making what is probably one of the most legendary Alpine crossings in 218 BC. During the Second Punic War, the Carthaginian leader set off to ride over the snow-covered mountains in the depths of winter with about 50,000 soldiers, 9,000 horsemen and 37 military elephants, in order to prevent a Roman attack on Spain. Although it seems that Hannibal had as thick a skin as his elephants, half of his army and all of the elephants lost their lives during this forced march.
Hikers and mountain climbers are well-advised to avoid throwing themselves blindly into Alpine adventures of any kind. No weather is completely safe, but the risks of climbing tours can be reduced to an unavoidable minimum with effective preparation. This requires appropriate experience, thorough planning, plenty of common sense and, last but not least, the right equipment.
It is an inevitable part of outdoor activities that one is always exposed to the unpredictabilities of nature for uncertain lengths of time. Hiking and mountain climbing may well be an untrammelled pleasure as long as the sun shines and the air stays warm. However, when the weather suddenly changes – which can regularly be the case in the mountains – it starts to rain cats and dogs, slush, snow or ice make every step difficult and hiking very quickly begins to become frustrating rather than enjoyable, then what is essential first and foremost is appropriate clothing – the be-all and end-all when up in the mountains.
People used to wear oil-impregnated linen to protect themselves against wind and weather. It was waterproof on both the outside and the inside. Although the rain could do you no harm, you stewed in your own juice inside too because of the vapour barrier. Fortunately enough, this is now a thing of the past – thanks to the waterproof, windproof and breathable functional clothing that is available nowadays, including underwear, gloves and headwear.
One way that functional clothing is made is by weaving an extremely thin film of Teflon (polytetrafluoroethylene) with microscopically small pores into the textiles. The pores in this film are about 20,000 times smaller than a drop of water, which has the effect that rain cannot penetrate and get through them. The pores allow sweat and body vapours to escape effectively, on the other hand. High-quality functional clothing stays dry on the inside and the outside, providing protection against overheating. It is comfortable and pleasant to wear too.
Not all functional clothing is the same, however. It can be manufactured in different ways, for example, e.g. by applying a layer of polyurethane to the textiles. The layer is either porous and lets water vapour through or it involves a blend of polyester and polyether, which permits water to diffuse from the inside to the outside in the form of vapour but effectively prevents rain from getting in.
Hiking and mountain climbing are torture if the wrong footwear is chosen. Hiking shoes and mountain climbing boots have to satisfy many different requirements. A good shoe combines high sole stiffness with good grip and comfort – and this combination is possible thanks to rubber research, which has led to the production of excellent rubber soles. Special materials, incorporating fibreglass, for example, enable crampons to be attached when the climb will be taking the wearer through ice and glaciers. Ideally, mountain shoes/boots weigh as little as possible and are waterproof, properties which – in turn – require the use of functional polymer materials. Even when the shaft extends above the ankles: gaiters made from synthetic fibres provide additional protection for the calves, when deep slush and snowfields lie ahead.
Anyone who will be spending a lengthy amount of time in the mountains takes at least the essentials with him in a rucksack: food, drink, a change of clothing, a sleeping bag, a mat to sleep on and a tent. Polymer materials play an important role here too: they make sure that the rucksack is light, is rugged enough to cope with even the worst of conditions and keeps the contents dry. Numerous straps, buckles and loops made of plastic guarantee the necessary comfort and make it possible to carry other things too, e.g. like an ice axe and ropes.
Talking about which: ropes to secure groups of mountain climbers used to be made from hemp. The disadvantage of this natural material was that it had certain weaknesses. The hemp swelled in the rain, which made it heavy and difficult to handle as soon as the water froze at sub-zero temperatures. It was not unusual for one of these hemp ropes to break under stress. Ropes and body harnesses made from polyamide provide guaranteed safety when mountaineering nowadays. Plastic ropes are tougher, i.e. they are more abrasion-resistant, they can be knotted more effectively, they absorb less water and they do not cause any problems even at temperatures below freezing. And they do all this with a considerably smaller diameter and weight.
When the day comes to an end up in the mountains, shelter is required that provides a certain amount of comfort in the ice and snow. Like a tunnel tent, that can be set up quickly and has enough space inside for a small group of three mountain climbers. The focus in the tent material is on functionality: the outer tent consists of water-repellent nylon, while the inner tent is made of breathable nylon. The groundsheet is also made of nylon, but it is coated with waterproof and dirt-resistant polyurethane. When the surface is reasonably flat, the sleeping mat made of foamed polyurethane coated with polyamide has been spread out and one has climbed into the mummy sleeping bag that is filled with a blend of goose down and nylon, anyone can be absolutely certain that he will enjoy a restful night’s sleep in a cosy atmosphere, even at 18 degrees below freezing.
Plastics at night, sleeper’s delight!
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