Q1 2023 US plastic scrap imports rebound from Q4, exports reverse trend

Emily Friedman


HOUSTON (ICIS)–Despite the global softening demand environment for recycled plastic resins, Q1 2023 US plastic scrap trade data shows increased import and export volumes in comparison to the lull seen in Q4 2022.

  • US plastic scrap exports uncharacteristically increase, driven by grades of polyethylene (PE)
  • US plastic scrap imports rebound marginally
  • Canada and Mexico continue to be strong trade partners

In light of the consistent downward trend in plastic scrap exports over the last 10 quarters, Q1 trade data from the US Census Bureau – noted by the HS code 3915 – shows a reversal of trend with a 10% increase in volume quarter on quarter.

In total, 107,714 tonnes of plastic scrap were exported from the US this past quarter.

The last time plastic scrap exports increased quarter on quarter was in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought extreme volatility to the recycled plastics markets.

Overall, the data suggests the decreasing trend will continue year on year, as Q1 2023 volumes remain 10% below those from Q1 2022.

In the last seven years, plastic scrap exports have experienced a 79% drop when comparing 2022 to 2015, which represents the period prior to the enactment of the Chinese National Sword policy.

Plastic scrap derived polymers of ethylene, HS code 3915.10, continues to be a primary driver of US plastic scrap exports and was noted to be one of the main contributors to the increase in overall export volume in Q1.

As a major producer of virgin PE, the US market heavily relies on the ability to export material in order to balance the domestic supply environment.

Among the top destination countries for US plastic scrap exports were Canada, Mexico, India, Malaysia and Indonesia, with Canada and Mexico accounting for 54% of the overall volume.

Intra-North American recycled plastic trade relationships continue to show strength, as Canada and Mexico not only dominate as plastic scrap export destinations but also as top sending countries for US plastic scrap imports.

In Q1 2023, Canada was responsible for 44% of the total US plastic scrap imports, including sending 40% of the total polyethylene terephthalate (PET) scrap volume at 13,766 tonnes.

This comes as little surprise due to the geographical advantages related to the transport of plastic scrap and finished recycled resins across US borders.

With respect to PET scrap imports specifically, other top sending regions include Asia and Latin America.

Overall, US plastic scrap import volumes increased only 3% quarter on quarter and remain down 14% year on year, coming in at 92,106 tonnes total.

Weakness in import volumes is likely linked to the extreme market softness several grades of recycled plastic continue to experience. Demand remains pressured by the darkening economic outlook, impacting all industries, from consumer goods to construction.

Focus article by Emily Friedman


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