Global Plastics Sourcing: Where Do Plastics Come From?

Most of the plastic used in manufacturing in the United States is created domestically. But, like many other markets, plastics are becoming more globalized. This article examines issues and considerations for plastics sourcing.

Domestic Sources

North American resin production increased 0.5 percent to 108.1 billion pounds in 2014.

Top four uses for this resin:

  • Packaging (34%)
  • Consumer and institutional plastics (20%)
  • Export (19%)
  • Building and construction (16%)

According to Forbes, U.S. plastics production, comprised of mainly ethylene and propylene derivatives, is expected to soar over the next two years thanks to record plant expansions. This is largely due to shale drilling, which has increased U.S. production of crude oil and natural gas. Though American plastics prices have not quite seen the plummet that oil prices have, industry experts expect that to change. Many expect domestic resin prices to drop in the next few years.

Post-consumer resins, made from recycled plastics, are also gaining traction as source materials. For example, KW Plastics Recycling, the second largest plastics recycler in North America, reprocesses 570 million pounds of plastic annually.

International Sources

The United States exports approximately three times more plastic products than it imports. Resin production is a highly technical process, and a country’s technological advancement and its resin production tend to go hand in hand.

Here are some top international producers of plastic.

China

Imports of plastic from China to the United States have increased steadily since 2003. Though importing feedstock from China is often cost-prohibitive, China’s competitive edge may increase in the near future, with its expansion of coal-based plastics, according to Plastics News. However, many question the environmental impact of coal-based plastics production, calling into question its sustainability.

India

India is currently an “emerging market hot-spot” for resin makers and the plastics industry as a whole. India’s Union Minister of State for Chemicals and Fertilizers, Hansraj Gangaram Ahir, recently said, “In the future, plastic manufacturing is going to be the biggest industry.” But, India has a ways to go before they will reliably produce quality plastics that meet American production standards.

Saudi Arabia

With its rich oil trade, countries in the Middle East currently account for 7% of global polymer demand. Saudi Arabia is on its way to becoming one of the world’s top plastics exporters, largely due to new technologies allowing increased production.

Should you buy domestic or imported resins?

For now, North American resin producers have the upper hand:

  • Quality. Outside of North America, many countries make plastics from naphtha oil, while North American resin producers rely primarily on natural gas. Which is better often depends on the part performance needs.
  • Cost. North American producers sell resins at a delivered price, so foreign resins would need to be priced sufficiently lower for quality, freight cost, and time to make them attractive investments. According to the Boston Consulting Group, even with the price of crude oil bottoming out, naphtha-based production remains more expensive than production based on natural gases.

There are, however, areas where international plastics markets may potentially excel — in particular in developing niche resins for specialized uses.

Where you source your plastics depends on your unique needs and requirements. We can help you determine the best materials for your products. Learn more about plastics markets and resin pricing.