Goodbye to “business as usual” model for plastics

Consumer demand

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Polymer markets face two major challenges in coming months. The most immediate is the arrival of the major US shale gas-based ethylene and polyethylene expansions. The longer-term, but equally critical challenge, comes from growing public concern over plastic waste, particularly in the ocean.

The EU has set out its vision for a new plastics economy, where:

“All plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective manner by 2030”.

Similarly, China has launched a ‘War on Pollution’, which has already led to all imports of plastic waste being banned.

Together, these developments mean there is unlikely to be a “business as usual” option for producers or consumers. A paradigm shift is under way which will change business models.

Some companies will focus on being low-cost suppliers, integrated back to the well-head or refinery. Others will become more service-led, with their revenue and profits based on exploiting the value provided by the polymer (virgin or recycled), rather than just the value of the virgin polymer itself.

The next 18 months are therefore likely to see major change, catalysed by the arrival of the new US production, as I discuss in a new analysis for ICIS Chemical Business.

The second chart indicates the potential impact of these new capacities by comparison with actual production since 2000, with 2019 volume forecast on basis of the planned capacity increases. But can this new PE volume really be sold? It certainly won’t all find a home in the US, as ExxonMobil Chemicals’ then President, Stephen Pryor, told ICIS in January 2014:

The domestic market is what it is and therefore, part of these products, I would argue, most of these products, will have to be exported”.

And unfortunately for producers, President Trump’s new trade policies are unlikely to help them in the main potential growth market, China. As John Richardson and I noted a year ago, China’s $6tn Belt and Road Initiative:

“Creates the potential for China to lead a new free trade area including countries in Asia, Middle East, Africa and potentially Europe – just as the US appears to be withdrawing from its historical role of free trade leadership”.

The task is also made more difficult by the inventory-build that took place from June onwards as Brent oil prices rose 60% to peak at $71/bbl. As usual, buyers responded by building inventory ahead of price increases for their own raw materials. Now they are starting to destock again, slowing absolute levels of demand growth all around the world, just at the moment when the new capacity comes online.

SUSTAINABILITY CONCERNS ARE DRIVING MOVES TOWARDS A CIRCULAR ECONOMY
At the same time, the impact of the sustainability agenda and the drive towards the circular economy is becoming ever-stronger.  The initial catalyst for this demand was the World Economic Forum’s 2016 report on ‘The New Plastics Economy’, which warned that on current trends, the oceans would contain more plastics than fish (by weight) by 2050 – a clearly unacceptable outcome.

Last year’s BBC documentary Blue Planet 2, narrated by the legendary Sir David Attenborough, then catalysed public concern over the impact of single use plastic in packaging and other applications. Even Queen Elizabeth has since announced that she is banning the use of plastic straws and bottles across the royal estates, as part of a move to cut back on the use of plastics “at all levels”.

Single use plastic applications in packaging are likely to be an early target for the move to recycling and the circular economy. This will have a major impact on demand, given that they currently account for more than half of PE demand:

    • Two-thirds of all low density and linear low density PE is used in flexible packaging – a total of 33 million tonnes worldwide
    • Nearly a quarter of high density PE is used in packaging film and sheets, and a fifth is used in injection moulding applications such as cups and crates – a total of 18 million tonnes worldwide

Virtually all of this production is potentially recyclable. Producers and consumers who want to embrace a more service-based business model therefore have a great opportunity to take a lead in creating the necessary infrastructure, in conjunction with regulators and the brand owners who actually sell the product to the end-consumer.

Please click here to read the full analysis in ICIS Chemical Business.

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