150 businesses representing over 20% of the global plastic packaging market have now agreed to start building a circular economy for plastics with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
As a first step, Coca-Cola has revealed that it produced 3MT of plastic packaging in 2017 – equivalent to 200k bottles/minute, around 20% of the 500bn PET bottles used every year. Altogether, Coke, Mars, Nestlé and Danone currently produce 8MT/year of plastic packaging and have now committed to:
- Eliminate unnecessary plastic packaging and move from single-use to reusable packaging
- Innovate to ensure 100% of plastic packaging can be easily and safely reused, recycled, or composted by 2025
- Create a circular economy in plastic by significantly increasing the volumes of plastic reused or recycled into new packaging.
The drive behind the Foundation’s initiative is two-fold:
- To eliminate plastic waste and pollution at its source
- To capture the $60bn opportunity to replace fossil fuels with recycled material
Encouragingly, over 100 companies in the consumer packaging and retail sector have now committed to making 100% of their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.
Perhaps even more importantly, they plan to actually use an average of 25% recycled content in plastic packaging by 2025 – 10x today’s global average. This will create a 5MT/year demand for recycled plastic by 2025. And clearly, many more companies are likely to join them. As I noted a year ago (Goodbye to “business as usual” model for plastics‘):
“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. 2017’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.”
PLASTICS INDUSTRY NOW HAS TO SOLVE THE TECHNICAL CHALLENGES
The issue now is around making this happen. It’s relatively easy for the consuming companies to issue declarations of intent. But as we note in the latest pH Report, it’s much harder for plastics producers to come up with the necessary solutions:
“The problem is that technical solutions to the issue do not currently exist. It is possible to imagine that new single-layer polymers can be developed to replace multi-layer polymer packaging, and hence become suitable for mechanical recycling. It is also possible to believe that pyrolysis technologies can be adapted to enable the introduction of chemical recycling. But the timescale for moving through the development stage in both key areas into even a phased European roll-out is very short.”
Already, however, Borealis and Indorama have begun to set targets for using recycled content. Indorama plans to increase its processing of recycled PET from 100kt today to 750kt by 2025. And as Dow CEO Jim Fitterling said last week:
“The industry needs to tackle this ocean waste and develop ways to reuse plastics. There are no deniers out there that we have a plastics-waste issue. The challenge is that the plastics industry has developed around a linear value-chain. A line connects the hydrocarbons from the wellhead to either the environment or to landfills once consumers discard them. The discarded plastic does not re-enter the chain.
“The industry needs to adopt a circular value-chain, in which the waste is reused. For this to be successful, some kind of value needs to be attached to plastic waste. Without this, consumers have little incentive to recover plastic waste in a form that would be useful to manufacturers.”
As McKinsey’s chart shows, this is potentially a $60bn opportunity for the industry. It is also likely, as I noted back in June, that the ‘Plastics recycling paradigm shift will create Winners and Losers‘:
“For 30 years, plastics producers have primarily focused upstream on securing cost-competitive feedstock supply. Now, almost overnight, they find themselves being forced by consumers, legislators and brand owners to refocus downstream on the sustainability agenda. It is a dramatic shift, and one which is likely to create Winners and Losers over a relatively short space of time.”
The Winners will be those companies who focus on the emerging opportunity to eliminate the physical and financial waste created by single use packaging. As the European Commission has noted, it is absurd that only 5% of the value of plastic packaging is currently retained in the EU economy after a single use, at a cost of €70bn-€105bn annually.
On a global scale, this waste is simply unaffordable, as the UN Environment Assembly confirmed on Friday when voting to “significantly reduce” the volume of single-use plastics by 2030.
The plastics industry now finds itself in the position of the chlorine industry 30 years’ ago, over the impact of CFCs on the ozone layer. The Winners will grasp the opportunity to start building a more circular economy. The Losers will risk going out of business as their licence to operate is challenged.
Good business strategies generally create good investments over the longer term. And so Aramco needs to ensure it has the best possible strategies, if it wants to maximise the outcome from its planned $2tn flotation. Unfortunately, the current oil price strategy seems more likely to damage its valuation, by being based on 3 questionable assumptions:
- Oil demand will always grow at levels seen in the past – if transport demand slows, plastics will take over
- Saudi will always be able to control the oil market – Russian/US production growth is irrelevant
- The rise of sustainability concerns, and alternative energy sources such as solar and wind, can be ignored
These are dangerous assumptions to make today, with the BabyBoomer-led SuperCycle fast receding into history.
After all, even in the SuperCycle, OPEC’s attempt in the early 1980s to hold the oil price at around today’s levels (in $2018) was a complete failure. So the odds on the policy working today are not very high, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) himself acknowledged 2 years ago, when launching his ambitious ‘Vision 2030:
“Within 20 years, we will be an economy that doesn’t depend mainly on oil. We don’t care about oil prices—$30 or $70, they are all the same to us. This battle is not my battle.”
As I noted here at the time, MbS’s bold plan for restructuring the economy included a welcome dose of reality:
“The government’s new Vision statement is based on the assumption of a $30/bbl oil price in 2030 – in line with the long-term historical average. And one key element of this policy is the flotation of 5% of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company. Estimates suggest it is worth at least $2tn, meaning that 5% will be worth $100bn. And as I suggested to the Wall Street Journal:
“The process of listing will completely change the character of the company and demand a new openness from its senior management“.
MbS is still making good progress with his domestic policy reforms. Women, for example, are finally due to be allowed to drive in June and modern entertainment facilities such as cinemas are now being allowed again after a 35 year ban. But unfortunately, over the past 2 years, Saudi oil policy has gone backwards.
SUSTAINABILITY/RENEWABLES ARE ALREADY REDUCING OIL MARKET DEMAND
Restructuring the Saudi economy away from oil-dependence was always going to be a tough challenge. And the pace of the required change is increasing, as the world’s consumers focus on sustainability and pollution.
It is, of course, easy to miss this trend if your advisers only listen to bonus-hungry investment bankers, or OPEC leaders. But when brand-owners such as Coca-Cola talk, you can’t afford to ignore what they are saying – and doing.
Coke uses 120bn bottles a year and as its CEO noted when introducing their new policy:
“If left unchecked, plastic waste will slowly choke our oceans and waterways. We’re using up our earth as if there’s another one on the shelf just waiting to be opened . . . companies have to do their part by making sure their packaging is actually recyclable.”
Similarly, MbS’s advisers seem to be completely ignoring the likely implications of China’s ‘War on Pollution’ for oil demand – and China is its largest customer for oil/plastics exports.
Already the European Union has set out plans to ensure “All plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective manner by 2030”.
And in China, the city of Shenzhen has converted all of its 16359 buses to run on electric power, and is now converting its 17000 taxis.
Whilst the city of Jinan is planning a network of “intelligent highways” as the video in this Bloomberg report shows, which will use solar panels to charge the batteries of autonomous vehicles as they drive along.
ALIENATING CONSUMERS IS THE WRONG POLICY TO PURSUE
As the chart at the top confirms, oil’s period of energy dominance was already coming to an end, even before the issues of sustainability and pollution really began to emerge as constraints on demand.
This is why MbS was right to aim to move the Saudi economy away from its dependence on oil within 20 years.
By going back on this strategy, Saudi is storing up major problems for the planned Aramco flotation:
- Of course it is easy to force through price rises in the short-term via production cuts
- But in the medium term, they upset consumers and so hasten the decline in oil demand and Saudi’s market share
- It is much easier to fund the development of new technologies such as solar and wind when oil prices are high
- It is also much easier for rival oil producers, such as US frackers, to fund the growth of new low-cost production
Aramco is making major strides towards becoming a more open company. But when it comes to the flotation, investors are going to look carefully at the real outlook for oil demand in the critical transport sector. And they are rightly going to be nervous over the medium/longer-term prospects.
They are also going to be very sceptical about the idea that plastics can replace lost demand in the transport sector. Already 11 major brands, including Coke, Unilever, Wal-Mart and Pepsi – responsible for 6 million tonnes of plastic packaging – are committed to using “100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025“.
We can be sure that these numbers will grow dramatically over the next few years. Recycled plastic, not virgin product, is set to be the growth product of the future.
ITS NOT TOO LATE FOR A RETURN TO MBS’s ORIGINAL POLICY
Saudi already has a major challenge ahead in transforming its economy away from oil. In the short-term:
- Higher oil prices may allow the Kingdom to continue with generous handouts to the population
- But they will reduce Aramco’s value to investors over the medium and longer-term
- The planned $100bn windfall from the proposed $2tn valuation will become more difficult to achieve
3 years ago, Saudi’s then Oil Minister was very clear about the need to adopt a market share-based pricing policy:
“Saudi Arabia cut output in 1980s to support prices. I was responsible for production at Aramco at that time, and I saw how prices fell, so we lost on output and on prices at the same time. We learned from that mistake.”
As philosopher George Santayana wisely noted, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
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Two major challenges face petrochemical and polymer producers and consumers in 2018:
- The likely disruption created by the arrival of the ethylene/polyethylene expansions in the US
- The growth of the circular economy and the need to dramatically increase recycling capacity
My new interview with Will Beacham, deputy editor of ICIS Chemical Business, focuses on both these key issues and suggests they will create Winners and Losers.
The new US product will likely change the global market. Its ethane feedstock is essentially a distressed product, which has to be removed to enable the shale gas to be sold. It is also clear that this 40% expansion of USA polyethylene capacity, around 6 million tonnes, cannot be sold into the US domestic market, which is already very mature:
- US net exports have actually been in decline in recent years, so it will also be a challenge to export the volumes
- President Trump’s apparent wish to start a trade war with China will make that market difficult to access
- It is likely, therefore, that a significant volume will end up arriving in Europe, causing a price war
We have seen price wars before, and the “Winners” are usually the integrated producers, who can roll through margins from the well-head or the refinery into ethylene and polyethylene sales.
The economics of this are relatively simple. In the US, producers will have to absorb lower margins on the small percentage of shale gas that is used as ethane feed into the cracker. Similarly in Europe, refinery-integrated producers will have to absorb lower margins on the small percentage of oil that is used as naphtha feed into the cracker.
As the chart shows, this development will be good news for ethylene consumers. As Huntsman CEO, Peter Huntsman noted a year ago:
“There is a wave of ethylene that is going to be hitting the North American markets quite substantially over the next couple of years. I’d rather be a spot buyer than a contract buyer. I can’t imagine with all of the ethylene that is going to be coming to the market that it’s not going to be a buying opportunity.”
In turn, of course, this will pressure other plastics via inter-polymer competition
Non-integrated producers clearly face more difficult times. And like the integrated producers, they share the challenge being posed by the rise of sustainability concerns, particularly over the 8 million tonnes of plastic that currently finds its way into the oceans every year.
This issue has been building for years, and clearly consumers are now starting to demand action from brand owners and governments.
In turn, this opens up major new opportunities for companies who are prepared to realign their business models with the New Plastics Economy concepts set out by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum.
The New Plastics Economy is a collaborative initiative involving leading participants from across the global plastic packaging value chain, as the second chart illustrates. It has already prompted action from the European Union, which has now set out its EU Strategy for Plastics in the Circular Economy. This aims to:
“Transform the way plastics and plastics products are designed, produced, used and recycled. By 2030, all plastics packaging should be recyclable. The Strategy also highlights the need for specific measures, possibly a legislative instrument, to reduce the impact of single-use plastics, particularly in our seas and oceans.”
Clearly this represents a paradigm shift for the industry, both producers and consumers.
It may seem easier to do nothing, and to hope the whole problem will go ahead. But the coincidence of the arrival of all the new US shale gas capacity makes this an unlikely outcome. Companies who do nothing are likely instead to become Losers in this rapidly changing environment.
But as I discuss in the interview, companies who are prepared to rethink their business models, and to adapt to changing consumer needs, have a potentially very bright future ahead of them. Please click here to view it.
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