Plastics – Trends and Perspectives

imageSince 1952, the K trade fair in Düsseldorf has been presenting tangible evidence of the plastics and rubber industry’s global success. The twentieth edition of the K trade fair in 2016 is no different: a benchmark and orientation point for the plastics and plastics processing industry.

Between 1950 and 2015, the consumption of plastics and rubber have risen by an average of 8.5 % per annum. Since the beginning of the new millennium, the growth rates have still been rising by between 4 and 5 %. They do, however, vary significantly from region to region, and change with the product and application.

imageThe rising global population and the overall improvement in living standards are the main factors that drive global growth. The effects of increasing prosperity can be seen in many markets for plastics application, spearheaded by packaging for food and convenience goods, but also in the variety of storage and shipping containers. Infrastructure and construction also require the use of plastics in water, electricity and gas supply systems, as well as in insulation, window profiles and many more. Another aspect is increasing mobility – in cars, lorries and airplanes. Medical engineering is one area of application where polymer materials have become indispensable: without safe, disposable and hygienic plastics products, technical dimageevices and systems, diagnostics, laboratory equipment and the safe application of medical drugs would not be able to comply with current quality standards. This also applies to our modern and widely appreciated sports and leisure products. In their markets, these applications, equipped with or entirely made of plastics or rubber, contribute to the global acceptance and proliferation of polymer materials.

In 2015, the association of European plastics producers, PlasticsEurope, reported a global plastics production volume of 322 million tonnes. A proportion of almost 270 million tonnes was attributed to polymer materials, i.e. materials used for the production of plastics applications. The remaining amount, about 50 million tonnes, were used for the production of coatings, adhesives, dispersions, lacquer or paint. Analyses of the same period published by the International Rubber Study Group IRSG show a global rubber production and consumption volume of almost 29 million tonnes, 12 million tonnes of which were attributed to natural rubber and almost 17 million tonnes were synthetic rubber.

Like all periods of soaring prices and economic crises experienced over the past decades, the short financial and economic crisis in 2008/2009 had only a minor impact and only marginally affected the sustained and positive development of the plastics industry. Since 2010, the year when plastics production experienced annual growth rates of only 3 to 5 %, the industry has returned to an upward growth trajectory.

At the end of 2015, KI’s capacity database Polyglobe reported global capacities of almost 305 million tonnes per annum for the production of thermoplastics, the largest and most important segment of the entire range of polymer materials. More than 90% of these were attributed to standard plastics, almost 9 % to industrial thermoplastics, while the proportion of other thermoplastics such as high-performance polymers bio-based biodegradable plastics only amounted to one tenth of a percent, respectively.

The enormous economic growth experienced by China and many countries from Southeast Asia has turned the Asian-Pacific economic region into the world’s largest growth region – with positive repercussions for the global plastics industry. Meanwhile, Asia represents 49% of all plastics products manufactured in the world. In 2015, more than 40% of the total number of plastics processing machines used all over the world came from Asia. Today, China has become the most important nation for all segments of the polymer industry: according to data recorded in 2015, China is responsible for 28% of the global polymer production, nearly 33% of the global plastics processing machinery production and also represents the largest individual proportion of the global plastics processing segment.

imageThe massive expansion of polymerisation capacities in the Asian-Pacific region and in the Middle East has caused a profound shift in the industry’s statistics: added up, China’s 28%, Japan’s 4% and the remaining Asian nations’ 17% represent an impressive proportion of 49% held by this region alone. Europe now holds 18% and the US 19%, which means that their share of the global production has shrunk by several percentage points. According to PlasticsEurope’s statistics, the Near and Middle East and Africa together represented 7%, Latin America 4% and the former CIS nations 3%. Between 2006 and 2015, Asia’s share of the global plastics production increased by some 9 percentage points, while the US lost 4 and Europe 6 points. The global rubber production presents a similar picture: Asia dominates the market. While it maintains its traditional 73% share of the world’s natural rubber production, it now also represents 61% of the global synthetic rubber production.

The machinery market
In 2015, the total production value of plastics and rubber machines amounted to EUR 33.9 billion (2014: EUR 32.5 billion). European plastics machinery manufacturers generated 40 (40)%, which constitutes a production value of EUR 13.6 (13) billion. According to Euromap, the association of machinery manufacturers from Austria, France, Germany, the UK, Italy, Luxemburg, Spain, Switzerland and Turkey, European manufacturers held their leading position with nearly 50% of the global market for plastics machines. Despite the market’s unpredictability, Euromap is confident that in 2016, the market will experience a 3% increase in global production to EUR 34.9 billion with European production figures rising by 2 % to EUR 13.8 billion.
In 2015, China was the largest individual nation in terms of production value, representing 32.5%, followed by Germany with 20.7%, Italy with 7.8% and the US with 7.2%. German machinery manufacturers are leading the global market, representing 22% of global export, ahead of China (15 %), Japan and Italy (both 9%) and the US (6%).

European plastics industry relatively stable
In 2014, the plastics industry of the EU-28, with a total of 1.45 million employees and 62,000 predominately small and medium-sized businesses, generated sales of EUR 350 billion and contributed EUR 18 billion to the EU’s trade surplus. These figures, compiled by PlasticsEurope, are based on Eurostat statistics. According to this data, the most important export markets (outside of the EU) for plastics raw materials and plastics products were Turkey, China, the US, Russia and Switzerland. The most important non-EU import nations for raw materials were the US, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Switzerland and Japan, and plastics products were mainly imported from the US, Switzerland, China, Turkey and Japan.

According to figures from PlasticsEurope for 2014, the European packaging industry consumed 39.5% of polymer materials, which constitutes the largest proportion in Europe, followed by the construction industry with 20.1%, the automotive industry with 8.6%, E+E with 5.7% and agriculture with 3.4%. The consumption rates for all other consumer industries such as furniture production, medical engineering and manufactures of domestic appliances, toys, sports and leisure articles amounted to a total of 22.7 %. Still at the top of all plastics consumers in Europe are Germany (25%), Italy (14%), France (almost 10%), UK (almost 8%), Spain (7%) and Poland (6%).

The shale-gas effect
imageEuropa is trying to reduce its CO2 footprint. Due to this change of course, fossil fuels are now on the decrease. This, in turn, has triggered the ongoing decline of oil refineries and the corresponding reduction of available raw material for the production of polyolefin, the most important polymer type in terms of volume. At the same time, the Gulf States have set up substantial polymer production capacities virtually on top of their oil wells, which are intended to supply Asia and the US. While Europe, already incapable of supplying the required polyolefin from its own resources, is dependent on imports, the shale-gas revolution in the US has now opened up a new source of fuel at prices that are second to none. This development is a veritable game changer. As a result of the investments made over the last few years, new capacities for gas-based polyolefin are predicted to come on-stream in 2017. At present, the US is installing capacities for the extraction of shale gas, which is used for the production of the required copolymers and for the polymerisation of target polymers. Another important aspect is the expansion of infrastructure for transport, storage and shipping of starter products and processible plastic pellets. The keen price/performance ratio of the new US products is expected to tip the scale for polyolefin exports between continents in favour of the US.

Global plastics sales: light and darkness
Not everywhere in the world shows steady and rising figures for plastic materials and products like the euro region. The small but exquisite Swiss plastics industry is still reeling from recent developments following the suddenly unpegging of the Swiss franc, which sent the local currency soaring. Particularly Swiss machine manufacturers and plastics processors were hit hard – and virtually overnight.

Outside of Europe, business was slower than expected, particularly in the BRIC states. China had to revise down its growth figures, while India is fighting against an ever-increasing pressure from imports. Russia’s industry is struggling with the volatile rouble, sanctions, renewed political insecurities and shrinking profits in the energy segment. Brazil and some of its neighbouring states are also suffering from the declining oil price, the export of oil being a major contributor to their national budgets, and have been sliding into economic crisis. In Latin America, plastics producers and many plastics processors have now taken to postponing their investments until things pick up again – when that will be, is highly uncertain. In the meantime, capital goods manufacturers are pinning their hopes on the emerging Asian markets, a strengthened US and Iran’s newly opened markets.

More recycling in Europe
In recent years, the issue of marine pollution with plastic products and so-called micro-plastics has attracted major attention from the media and the European population. It has become obvious that this unfortunate development has been caused by dysfunctional waste disposal systems and human misconduct.

Despite the fact that Europe does not range among the largest polluters, the European plastics industry has been making every effort to set up suitable collection systems and to enhance the existing systematic recycling of plastic production waste with viable strategies for re-using plastic post-consumer waste. As a result of legal directives and a variety of efforts and initiatives, recycling rates in Europe (i.e. EU28 plus Switzerland and Norway) have been rising steadily: in 2014, the rate was 69%, about 10 percentage points up from the rate for 2011 and even 21 points up on the recycling rate in 2006. European countries with landfill bans record particularly high recycling rates: while these nations – Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Luxemburg, Denmark, Belgium and Norway – reuse more than 96% of their plastic waste, five European countries still only manage to recycle less than 30% of their plastic waste.

In 2014, the most important recycling methods in Europe were distributed as follows: 39% went into energy recovery and 30% into material recycling, while about 31% of plastics waste went into landfill. Ten years previously, only 26% were used for energy recovery, 17% were recycled and 57% were deposited on landfill sites. In all European countries, the rate for packaging recycling has risen to more than 20%, half of these countries recycle more than 70% and some even 99% of plastics packaging.

Germany: technical leader in many areasIn terms of competing regions, the plastics and rubber industry of the three German-speaking regions of Europe is still maintaining its place at the top. For decades, it has been the unrivalled technology leader in many segments of the plastics and rubber production chain. The largest single market in Europe, Germany is also the home of the K trade fair.

In 2015, the German plastics and rubber industry reported total sales of nearly EUR 105 billion. With a workforce of about 470,000 employees, this industry is one of the most important economic segments and it represents 6% of the domestic industrial production. PlasticsEurope reports that in 2015, 18.5 million tonnes of plastics were produced in Germany. Plastics producers reported a sales total of EUR 24.4 billion. Over the last few years, both output rates and turnover figures remained relatively stable and showed only minor fluctuations. The resource base’s diminishing competiveness, and rising energy costs adversely affected the competitiveness of many German production sites.

Plastics and rubber machinery manufacturers in German-speaking regions have been maintaining their leading position in machine and processing technology. In 2015, German manufacturers recorded a total production value of EUR 7.0 billion for core machinery, which is even more than the result recorded for the record year of 2013. Representing 20.7% of global production, they were only outperformed by China (32.5 %) but ranged far ahead of Italy, which came third with 7.8%. In international trade, German machinery manufacturers reported a total export value of EUR 4.7 billion, which represented 22% of international export, outperforming China (15%), Japan and Italy (both 9%).

In 2015, German plastics processors posted total sales of EUR 59.8 billion. The overall processing volume amounted to about 13.6 million tonnes. German rubber processors reported a total processing volume of 1.56 million tonnes of rubber and total revenues of EUR 11.56 billion.