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The future is rosy for polymers

High levels of growth forecast for plastics

When in autumn this year the world’s No. 1 trade fair for plastics and rubber brings industry experts flocking from all continents to Düsseldorf between 24 and 31 October, the current significance of polymer materials will o­nce again be plain for all to see. Plastics make cars safer and more comfortable, lighten the weight of jet aeroplanes and allow them to fly higher, give packaging its transparency and ability to lock in aromas, provide sound and heat insulation for buildings and even prevent burning in many frying pans. Over a period of little more than half a century, the global consumption of synthetic materials has shot up from virtually nothing to more than 200 million tonnes. And growth is expected to continue in the coming years. Many experts are predicting a rosy future for plastics.

John Feldmann , BASF

Whenever the subject of plastics’ virtues and their contribution to energy efficiency arises, then John Feldmann, Member of the Board of Executive Directors at chemicals group BASF, has o­n the tip of his tongue the story of the remarkable reduction in heating oil consumption in the renovated Luwoge houses. The real estate company within the BASF Group owns a residential quarter in Ludwigshafen that was built around 1920. Average annual consumption of heating oil in the apartments was about 25 litres per square metre. Following extensive renovations, that figure was pushed down to under three litres. Aside from the use of a fuel cell in addition to a heat-recovery ventilator, it was above all the thorough insulation of the exterior walls with plastic foam and the installation of highly insulating windows with PVC frames that achieved this miracle.
In conclusion, Feldmann likes to add that today systematic insulation of renovated old buildings can successfully reduce average consumption to o­ne litre per square metre. Which goes to show not o­nly how effective plastic foam is but also just what potential still lies within these man-made materials. Especially considering that in Germany alone, an estimated 20 million timeworn and insufficiently insulated homes are waiting for thorough renovations to cut back o­n heating oil costs and CO2 emissions. But there is also an abundance of untapped opportunities in transport – opportunities for plastics to make cars, planes, ships, trains and buses lighter, more comfortable and safer. And let’s not forget packaging – no other material packages as many products and at the same times consumes so little material.
An increase of 5.5 percent per year
Qualified chemist Feldmann, and with him BASF, foresee a generally bright future for plastics full of growth opportunities in many markets and for many applications. “Plastics are energy-efficient materials and for that reason, if for no other, will continue to experience high demand,” said Feldmann in early July at o­ne of his company’s press conferences in the run-up to K 2007. He pointed out that global demand for polymers has expanded by o­n average 5.5 percent annually since 1990. He further anticipates that this trend in yearly growth of roughly five percent is likely to hold until 2015. This constant growth will be a common feature in all regions. The biggest gains, according to BASF, will be in Asia.
Looking at the per capita consumption of plastics o­n the various continents, it becomes clear that Asia, above all, has the potential for further significant and sustained growth. With the progressive development of Asian economies and rising levels of individual prosperity in these countries, demand will continue to flourish past 2015. It is therefore equally clear that the focus of future plastics activity will be in Asia and the Middle East. It’s here that in the coming years capital will be directed at new plants as well as high-performance research and development centers.
Experts in the plastics producing industry predict that per capita consumption of plastics in Asian countries will climb to about 24 kilograms a year by 2010, compared to 2005 when it was a mere 15 kilograms. With a population count far exceeding 2.5 billion, that would add up to consumption of some 23 million additional tonnes each year. Although the well-known standard materials such as PE, PP and PVC will account for the majority of that figure, manufacturers of high-quality speciality plastics will also be able to look forward to strong sales. Not least because in the coming years, this region is anticipating robust growth in automotive and drive technologies as well as packaging and industrial applications in general.
Crossing the 300-million-tonne mark
PlasticsEurope, the association of European plastics producers headquartered in Brussels, also assumes that global plastics consumption will swell by somewhere in the region of five percent year o­n year until 2010. The rates of increase, however, are expected to be very unevenly distributed. Asia (excluding Japan) and Eastern Europe are the regions where the association predicts the biggest escalations of over six percent. For Europe and America, in contrast, increases of about 3.5 percent are o­n the cards and a mere two percent in Japan. Nevertheless, global plastics production is set to break through the 300-million-tonne mark sometime around 2010. For the sake of comparison – in 1950 not much more than o­ne million tonnes of plastics were being produced worldwide. A quarter of a century later in 1976, production levels had just reached 50 million tonnes.
About a quarter of the plastics currently manufactured originate in Western Europe. With eight percent of global output, Germany is the top producer in the European Union. France comes a distant second contributing three percent of the global total. North America (the USA and Canada) is responsible for roughly 24 percent of the polymers manufactured around the world and Asia (excluding Japan) generates 30 percent. Japan weighs in with 6.5 percent while Africa and the Middle East produce six percent – a figure which is likely to change in the coming years. The Middle East and Saudi Arabia, in particular, are poised to boost output substantially in the coming years. At the same time, the desert nation plans o­n investing heavily in its plastics processing capabilities in order to profit more directly from the wealth in its oil wells.


Peter Orth, Regional Director of the German section of PlasticsEurope, is confident that production and consumption of plastics worldwide will continue to rise. He is more hesitant about picking the dominant plastics applications of the future. Long-term predictions in this regard, he points out, have repeatedly missed the mark, especially when it comes to a material with as much innovative potential as plastics. After all, the truth is that many innovations have been made possible by plastics in the first place. “That’s why there can be no doubt for me that as an all-purpose material, plastics will flourish in every field.” The chemistry graduate foresees above-average growth everywhere that “plastics contribute directly to handling energy more efficiently”. He also believes that we can look forward to “some surprise or other”. A spontaneous final question comes to Orth’s mind: “Who of us would have guessed ten years ago that plastic bottles for mineral water would displace the conventional glass version so quickly?”
Plastics vs other packaging materials 
And who would have guessed a few decades ago that globalisation, self-service and the trend towards deep-frozen foods and pre-cooked meals as well as other features of modern life would alter the deeply embedded habits of centuries and totally turn around the need for packaging? The chief beneficiaries of the dramatic changes o­n the packaging market have been plastics. Increasingly, they are ousting conventional materials. According to the Gesellschaft für Verpackungsmarktforschung (Association for Packaging Market Research – GVM) in Wiesbaden, evidence of this can be found in the o­ngoing decline in the proportion of tin cans. For generations, the tin can was the packaging of choice for preserving fruit, vegetables and a most varied array of fish and meat products. But today, ever fewer of these are needed, leading to diminishing production numbers. Statistics provided by the GVM indicate that between 2003 and 2004, the manufacture of tin cans dropped by a total of eight percent. The cause of this trend, as identified by the Wiesbaden market researchers, lies in the unrelenting pressure o­n tinned preserves from encroaching refrigerated products in deep-drawn plastic containers.
Another example can be found in packaging materials for beverages. In Germany, thermoplastic polyester (PET) leads as the material of choice for 38 percent of drinks. More than every third beverage bottle is blown from PET. Glass ranks second with 27 percent followed by cans with 17 percent. Across the Federal Republic, the market for mineral water bottles has largely been cornered by polyester bottle blowing companies. Almost three quarters of natural spring water arrives o­n retailers’ shelves in Germany in PET containers. In contrast, this variety of polyester is seldom filled with beer. Here, there is still plenty of catching up to do and consequently another growth opportunity for plastics. In global terms, PET has a mere three percent share of the beer packaging market. Even PET’s six percent share of the German brewing market – twice the global figure – represents relatively slim pickings, leaving lots of room for further expansion.
But change and the resulting growth it represents for plastics is not o­nly a feature of the packaging and construction industries. In the automotive industry as well, the opportunities for implementing polymer applications and substitutions are far from exhausted. Here, too, a major goal over the coming years will be to make a substantial dent in fuel consumption and emissions through the increased use of plastic products. The Austrian Gesellschaft für umfassende Analysen (Corporation for Comprehensive Analyses – GUA) in Vienna has investigated to what extent plastics can decrease fuel consumption and emissions by cutting down o­n the weight of a car. It was discovered that around 88 percent of the total energy associated with a car over its entire life cycle is used to create motion. In contrast, the production of the car and the manufacture of the materials required employ o­nly about six percent respectively. Which makes it apparent that plastics can play an important role by reducing its weight and thereby slashing petrol intake and CO2 emissions during the dominant phase in a vehicle’s life cycle – its use. The substitution of 100 kilograms of plastics for distinctly weightier materials results in a marked saving in fuel of 0.3 to 0.5 litres per 100 kilometres. It makes sense that to achieve the ambition of building ever lighter cars through the use of appropriate materials, more plastics need to go into the automotive mix.
Polycarbonate glazing
Taking full advantage of synthetic alternatives is the key to saving fuel and easing the burden of emissions o­n the atmosphere. A good example is the replacement of the ponderous glazing with a vastly lighter plastic equivalent. GE Plastics (GEP) is currently pushing a development in this regard which has already been in the pipeline for years. The American raw materials group has recently opened a European “Automotive Glazing Center of Excellence” in Bergen op Zoom o­n the Dutch coast. Here, carmakers and their suppliers are presented with the compelling advantages of windscreens and windows made from Lexan, a GE Plastics polycarbonate (PC). Rick Pontillo, general manager of Global Application Technology at GEP, shows his customers the calculations proving that vehicle glazing is o­ne of the areas representing the largest potential growth for plastics in the automotive industry. If every side window and rear windscreen in all the cars registered in Europe were replaced with a PC alternative, 2.1 billion litres of fuel would be saved annually. Plus, some 5.2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions would be prevented. In other words, more than 200,000 additional tonnes of polycarbonate would suddenly be called for.
No doubt that would be an equally happy day for Bayer AG in Leverkusen, as o­ne of the companies within the German group is Bayer MaterialScience, which also boasts a polycarbonate in its catalogue: Makrolon. What’s more, Bayer MaterialScience is not o­nly active in developments relating to products currently in its portfolio but also potential applications for the future. In a word, the focus is very much o­n the markets of tomorrow and those of the more distant future, and the plastics they will require in ten or twenty years when the magical 300-million-tonne mark already lies in the past.
Within the Bayer MaterialScience New Business department, a Creative Center has been set up for the research of future trends. Its aim is the early identification and systematic investigation of technological and social changes. From these findings, concepts are derived that (potentially) highlight the need for development and market opportunities for new plastics applications. In parallel with the company’s product-specific research departments, the specialists in New Business set things in motion for ideas that will probably o­nly materialise in ten or more years’ time. These ideas may, however, make all the difference to whether or not the rosy future forecast by experts for polymers becomes a reality.
K 2007 Press Office