ABS is a terpolymer made by polymerising styrene and acrylonitrile in the presence of polybutadiene. The proportions can vary from 15 to 35% acrylonitrile, 5 to 30% butadiene and 40 to 60% styrene. The result is a long chain of polybutadiene criss-crossed with shorter chains of poly(styrene-co-acrylonitrile). The nitrile groups from neighbouring chains, being polar, attract each other and bind the chains together, making ABS stronger than pure polystyrene. The styrene gives the plastic a shiny, impervious surface. The polybutadiene, a rubbery substance, provides toughness even at low temperatures. For the majority of applications, ABS can be used between −20 and 80 °C (−4 and 176 °F) as its mechanical properties vary with temperature. The properties are created by rubber toughening, where fine particles of elastomer are distributed throughout the rigid matrix.

ABS's light weight and ability to be injection molded and extruded make it useful in manufacturing products such as drain-waste-vent (DWV) pipe systems, musical instruments (recorders, plastic clarinets, and piano movements), golf club heads (because of its good shock absorbance), automotive trim components, automotive bumper bars, medical devices for blood access, enclosures for electrical and electronic assemblies, protective headgear, whitewater canoes, buffer edging for furniture and joinery panels, luggage and protective carrying cases, small kitchen appliances, and toys, including Lego and Kre-O bricks. Household and consumer goods are the major applications of ABS. Keyboard keycaps are commonly made out of ABS.

ABS plastic ground down to an average diameter of less than 1 micrometer is used as the colorant in some tattoo inks. Tattoo inks that use ABS are extremely vivid.
When melted into a filament, ABS plastic is a common material used in 3D printers.
ABS quickly became the favourite choice as celluloid replacement in the production of table tennis balls