A renewed commitment to hygiene is propping up sales of previously out-of-favor plastics like polystyrene, as consumers relegate environmental priorities while trying to stay clear of the coronavirus.
For a plastics industry that’s grappling with a drop in demand for household goods and cars, the resurgence is a welcome break. Germany’s
“We didn’t see this coming at all,”
The highly infectious nature of the coronavirus has prompted governments around the world to order businesses to close and populations to stay at home. Yet even this has given a boost to plastic makers, with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security declaring the making of some single-use materials as “essential critical infrastructure.” Meanwhile New York -- a hotspot for the virus with thousands of fatalities -- is among states to postpone a ban on plastic-bags.
Consumer-driven demand for polymers used in packaging and medical gear was one bright spot for
About 15 million tons of polystyrene are produced globally every year, and the material is used widely in cars and hospital ventilators as well as takeaway coffee cups and food packaging.
The Dixie Cup, a single-use paper vessel invented more than a century ago to prevent germs spreading in schools, helped spawn polystyrene variants as an increasingly throwaway culture took hold from the 1950s.
Then came the environmental backlash that’s gathered pace in the last couple of years, with the reusable shopping bag and bring-your-own cup programs at coffee chains such as
“People wanted to ban polystyrene in a bit of a throwing the baby out with the bath water,” McQuade said. “There are things we need to do. We need to show it is recyclable and have systems in place to show we can collect and sort.”
The coronavirus is turning out to be an opportunity for polysterene makers to do just that, according to CEOs of both Trinseo and Styrolution. The two companies are rolling out de-polymerization plants, which break down the material to molecules for reconstituting into a polymer suitable for direct contact with foods such as yogurts, they said.
“The value of packaging to keep food safe has sometimes been overlooked,”
That said, the change in sentiment will probably be temporary, Heaulme said, as the passing of the Covid-19 crisis brings about a renewed call for action to prevent climate change and ocean pollution.
“One of the benefits of plastic is that it’s cheap,” Smuts said in an interview. “When consumers are hard pressed for cash and have no disposable income, there’s a risk they switch back to old bad habits and that might include single-use plastic.”
(Updates with packaging boost at LyondellBasell in fourth paragraph.)
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