Day of reckoning approaches for US polyethylene expansions, and the European industry

Planning for future demand in petrochemicals and polymers used to be relatively easy during the BabyBoomer SuperCycle. The team would consult the latest IMF forecast for global and regional growth, and then debate the right ratio to use to calculate product demand.

For polyethylene (PE), the ratio was generally just above GDP at around 1.1x, on the basis that relatively more plastic was likely to be needed as the economy grew.

So when the US shale gas opportunity came along, producers were very confident that it would provide them with major cost advantage over most other Regions. And they were under major pressure to use the ethane that might be produced from the new natural gas production, as it is explosive when mixed with air in concentrations between 3% – 12.4%.

Essentially this meant the ethane was a distressed product, and had to be used in ethylene production, as there are no other major applications.

Since those early days, the US polyethylene expansions have been “an accident waiting to happen”, as I first argued when the plans were still being finalised in March 2014:

“US ethylene producers need to work out where all the new ethylene production is going to be sold before embarking on the planned frenzy of cracker construction”.

Unfortunately, the pressures from Wall Street to exploit the apparent opportunity were too great. One by one, companies gave in to peer pressure and announced expansion plans, as shown in the ICIS graphic – and were rewarded by sharp increases in their share price. As one CEO said to me at the time:

“You may be right, but every time I mention shale on an earnings call, the share price goes up $5.”

Our major Study, ‘Demand – the New Direction for Profit’, jointly produced with ICIS, took the analysis a stage further in March 2016, warning that:

“The supply-led business model – build capacity and wait for demand to catch up – will no longer work in today’s low- or-no-growth marketplace.”

And it really did seem obvious then that the key assumptions behind the expansions were wrong:

  • Oil prices were no longer above $100/bbl and so US gas-based producers didn’t have a major cost advantage
  • Global growth hadn’t returned to SuperCycle levels; China was starting to move towards self-sufficiency and would not longer need need vast import volumes
  • Globalisation was being replaced by protectionism, and plants could no longer be sited half-way across the world from their markets

But companies went ahead anyway, due to the pressure from upstream gas producers to dispose of the product, and the enthusiastic support provided by investors.

The terrible hurricanes in 2017 postponed the moment of reckoning, as plants were delayed for months due to the damage.  But then, construction picked up again and most of the new capacity is now in place – and linked to new polyethylene capacity.

Polyethylene is the largest volume polymer, and the expansions are adding 40% (6.5 million tonnes) to US capacity between 2017 – 2019.  Other Regions are of course also expanding – particularly China, as it seeks to become more self-sufficient as a result of President Trump’s trade war. The ICIS price charts therefore show a depressing picture:

  • Asian HDPE CFR prices have fallen from $1350/t to $900/t over the past year
  • US HDPE prices have fallen from 64c/lb to 53c/lb over the same period
  • And European HDPE prices have started to tumble, down from $1150/t in June to $950/t today

The reason is not hard to find, as the charts from Trade Data Monitor confirm.   Total H1 ethylene exports in the shape of PE, PVC, styrene, EDC, ethylene and other derivatives almost doubled to 4 million tonnes. And suddenly, Europe has become the main importer, with volume up from 420kt in 2018 to 1.05MT.  Most of the volume is in PE, which doubled to 3MT on a global basis.

And there is still more volume to come, with ExxonMobil now starting its new 650kt plant and LyondellBasell starting its new 500kt plant in Q4. That’s more than 1MT of new  PE output which will have to be exported into an already over-supplied market.

In addition, it is clear that public opinion and the new EU Circular Economy directive are already starting to have a major impact on demand for single use plastics. Unfortunately, over 50% of  PE output goes into this application, along with nearly a third of polypropylene.

Volume is already disappearing as consumers make the shift to more sustainable forms of packaging. It is clear that recycled material now has the potential to replace virgin product as the feedstock of choice in the future.

In turn, these paradigm shifts are creating Winners and Losers.  Next year is likely to prove very difficult for US PE exporters, as they face up to the fact that export demand has not grown as expected, and they do not have a major cost advantage.

As the picture of Fido the dog illustrates, polymer producers are the ‘flea on the tail of the oil/gas markets’:

  • Producers integrated into US natural gas production, or EU refineries, will be able to ‘roll through’ margins to the wellhead and refinery as prices go lower
  • But non-integrated European players have much less protection. Their margins will get squeezed, at the same time as demand patterns shift away from the use of virgin product

Now is therefore the time for these producers to start accelerating moves to using recycled feedstock for their production.  In another 12-18 months, if prices and margins keep on falling at current rates, it may well be too late.

There’s a great future for the European plastics industry in recycled plastic

Europe’s plastics industry is under major threat from the growing legislative and consumer backlash against plastic packaging.

As with the global industry, its licence to operate is increasingly challenged by images of plastic rubbish polluting the world’s oceans, alongside photos of baby fish dying because their parents mistakenly fed them plastic instead of food.

EU legislation on plastic packaging is already in place to respond to this concern and promote the arrival of the circular economy. The industry therefore now needs to urgently reinvent itself by developing solutions to tackle these problems and help reduce carbon footprint.

History, luckily, is on its side.  There was a similar turning point in the 1960s, when it implemented the far-sighted decision to switch from coal to oil-based feedstocks. As a result, it transformed itself into a world-leading source of the products that have now become embedded in our daily lives. And it maintained this lead for more than fifty years, until finally China’s growth allowed Asia to overtake it.

But over the past twenty years, however, it has stagnated as China became the manufacturing capital of the world since joining the World Trade Organisation in 2001. Its newest steam cracker, a core technology for the production of chemicals and plastics, started up more than twenty years ago in 1994. And over the past decade, the North American industry has seen a $200bn renaissance due to the arrival of low-cost shale based feedstocks.

This decline matters as chemicals and plastics are central to the European economy, and a key enabler for a vast range of products from autos through to personal care. The industry directly employs 1.5 million people, and a much larger number indirectly in downstream manufacturing and service roles.

Plastics are also key to tackling a number of the challenges facing our society, as the EU has highlighted in its new Circular Economy strategy:

“Light and innovative materials in cars or planes save fuel and cut CO2 emissions. High-performance insulation materials help us save on energy bills. In packaging, plastics help ensure food safety and reduce food waste.”

But at the same time, the legislation highlights the urgent need to rethink the production, use and consumption of plastics in order to avoid the environmental damage currently being created.

The problem is that reuse and recycling of end-of-use plastics remains very low by comparison with other materials such as paper, glass or metals:

  • The Commission estimates that more than 2/3rds of plastics waste currently goes into landfill or incineration
  • As a result, 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, between €70bn – €105bn annually, is lost after a very short first-use cycle
  • It also estimates that recycling all global plastic waste could save the equivalent of 3.5bn barrels of oil each year, and help curb CO2 emissions

The European plastics industry is therefore now at a crossroads, as continuing with a business as usual strategy makes little sense. After all, the new EU legislation requires all plastics packaging to be reusable or cost-effectively recyclable by 2030. And the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is successfully encouraging the world’s major brand owners and retailers to make similar commitments with an even tighter deadline of 2025.

This paradigm shift gives the European plastics industry the opportunity to stage its own renaissance. It urgently needs to start the technical development programmes that will allow it to adopt the circular economy agenda, and start substituting recycled feedstock for oil.

China, after all, is already moving down this track, with Hainan planning to ban the production, sale and use of the 120kt  single-use plastics currently used each year in the province by 2025. And the government is starting to build dozens of local “comprehensive resource utilisation” centres to boost recycling, whilst at the same time restricting the use of single-use plastics by courier and food delivery firms.

Obviously there will be costs involved.  But in principle the industry’s assets are ageing and often below world-scale. The scale of the write-offs required is therefore manageable. And by beginning the transition today via the use of chemical and mechanical recycling technologies, these costs could be amortised over a longer timeframe.

The industry has a remarkable record of generating revenue and profit growth from innovation. Reinvention to become a more service-based industry, focused initially on making a major contribution to reducing marine pollution, would enable it to regain its global leadership in an area where long-term growth is assured.

And who knows, if Hollywood were ever to issue a remake of 1967’s The Graduate, maybe Mr McGuire’s famous advice to a young Dustin Hoffman would become “There’s a great future in recycled plastics”.

$60bn opportunity opens up for plastics industry as need to eliminate single-use packaging grows

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.

IKEA heads into the circular world with furniture subscription trial

“Once upon a time, Granny and Grandad used to go to a large shop on the motorway to buy their furniture. They used to stagger around carrying Billy bookshelves and Dombas wardrobes, before treating themselves to Swedish meatballs in the canteen. And then Grandad would spend the rest of the weekend trying to assemble the furniture, whilst Granny turned up the volume on her radio to drown out his swearing.

“What, Granny, you actually bought furniture?  But why did you buy when you could just rent it, and change it when you wanted something different?

That future isn’t very far away. In fact, if you live in Switzerland, you’ll be able to rent furniture from IKEA stores this month on a trial basis.  As the boss of Inter IKEA told the Financial Times last week:

“We will work together with partners so you can actually lease your furniture. When that leasing period is over, you hand it back and you might lease something else. And instead of throwing those away, we refurbish them a little and we could sell them, prolonging the lifecycle of the products. The trial is the first in a series of tests that IKEA hopes could lead to “scalable subscription services” for different types of furniture.”

Of course, IKEA aren’t the first company to be moving in the direction of subscribing rather than selling.  Not many people buy CDs or videos these days, after all, but instead subscribe to streaming services that enable them to download what they want, when they want it.

But what is new, as the chart from Prof Michael Wade of IMD shows, is that it illustrates a growing move by consumer product groups and manufacturers to follow this lead.  And behind the move is an early effort to put the principles of the circular economy into practice, as IKEA describe:

“You could say leasing is another way of financing a kitchen. When this circular model is up and running, we have a much bigger interest in not just selling a product but seeing what happens with it and that the consumer takes care of it.  He added that Ikea now designed kitchens so that it was possible to change the cupboard doors without needing to rip out the whole set-up.  “It’s interesting if you as a consumer say ‘I can change and adapt and modernise my kitchen if that’s a subscription model’”.”

It also marks a further departure from the concept of globalisation, which has dominated business for a generation. Globalisation was essential for the world of the BabyBoomers, where the world’s population went from 2.5bn in 1950 to 6.1bn by 2000. There just wasn’t enough “stuff” to go round in the rich Western countries, and so companies were forced to develop global supply chains to satisfy demand.

But today, as the chart describes, smart companies like IKEA are starting to plan for a world where services rather than products will be the main driver for revenue and profit growth.  Rather than building in obsolescence, so that the consumer was forced to make repeat purchases, the new business model is based on providing a solution that can evolve with the consumer’s needs.

It will also, necessarily, operate on a local scale. It will make no sense, for example, for IKEA to be continually shipping kitchen doors across the world, because the customer doesn’t want a pink colour any more.

The same principle is being applied by the Circular Plastics Alliance in Europe, which is focused on 5 key areas to turn 10 million tonnes/year of recycled plastics into new products within the next 6 years – Collection and sorting; Product design for recycling; Recycled plastic content in products; Monitoring systems; R&D and investments, including chemical recycling.

The days of Granny and Grandad choosing to actually “own” their furniture may well be coming to an end. And for companies, the challenge of developing new business models is no longer something they can put off till the future.  Those that recognise the opportunity created by the growing demand for products that are more sustainable, affordable and sustainable will be the Winners in this New Normal world.

Rising interest rates, volatile exchange rates, high oil prices and plastic waste challenge aromatics industry

Fears are rising about the risks of recession, as I discuss in a new one-page summary of the key issues facing the aromatics industry, ‘What does the future hold for Aromatics?‘.  Please click here to download it.

These issues will also be key topics at next month’s 17th World Aromatics and Derivatives Conference, jointly organised with ICIS, along with detailed coverage of the benzene and xylene value chains.

We have the usual strong line-up of speakers, and the Conference will also provide an excellent opportunity to exchange views with business partners and colleagues.  For further details and to book your place, please click here.

I hope to see you in Amsterdam next month.

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Petrochemicals must face up to multiple challenges

Europe’s petrochemical sector must prepare now for the trade war, US start-ups, Brexit and the circular economy, as I discuss in this interview with Will Beacham of ICIS news  at the European Petrochemical Association Conference.

With higher tariff barriers going up between the US and China, the market in Europe is likely to experience an influx of polymers and other chemicals from exporters looking for a new home for their production, International eChem chairman, Paul Hodges said.

Speaking on the sidelines of the European Petrochemical Association’s annual meeting in Vienna, he said: “The thing we have to watch out for is displaced product which can’t go from the US any more to China and therefore will likely come to Europe.

In addition to polyethylene, there is an indirect effect as domestic demand in China is also falling, he said, leaving other Asian producers which usually export there to also seek new markets and targeting Europe.

The US isn’t buying so many consumer goods from China any more – and that seems to be the case because container ships going from China to the US for Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t full. So NE and SE Asian chemical producers haven’t got the business they expect in China and are exporting to Europe instead.  We don’t know how disruptive this will be but it has quite a lot of potential.”

US polymer start-ups
Hodges believes that the new US polymer capacities will go ahead even if the demand is not there for the product. This is because the ethane feedstocks they use need to be extracted by the producers and sellers of natural gas who must remove ethane from the gas stream to make it safe.

For these producers some of the cost advantages have already disappeared because of rising ethane prices.

The exports of US ethane are adding one or two more crackers to the total. And without sufficient capacity ethane prices have become higher and more volatile.”

Hodges points out that pricing power is being lost as poor demand means producers cannot pass on the effect of rising oil prices. “Margins are being hit with some falling by 50-60%,” he said.

Circular economy
EU targets mean that all plastic packaging must be capable of being recycled, reused or composted in Europe by 2025. For the industry this could be a huge opportunity, but only if it acts fast, said Hodges: “We have to develop the technology that allows that to happen. We will need the [regulatory] approvals and if we don’t get moving in the next 12-18 months we are in trouble.”

Brexit beckons
According to Hodges: “We are in the end game for Brexit. We talk to senior politicians from both sides who don’t think there is a parliamentary majority for any Brexit option.”

He fears that if no deal can be agreed there is a chance the UK will refuse to pay its £39bn divorce bill.

Then what happens to chemical regulation and transport? Although the bigger companies have made preparations, only one in seven in the supply chains are getting prepared,” he added.  This is why we have launched ReadyforBrexit.

You can listen to the full podcast interview by clicking here.

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