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SINGAPORE — The seven-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations now accounts for little more than 4 percent of global thermoplastics consumption, but its plastics industries will grow 12-15 percent annually until 2000.

That growth is roughly three times the industry's estimated global growth rate of 4-6 percent, according to the ASEAN Federation of Plastic Industries.

Resin and monomer production capacity already is significant in the region and, along with compounding capacity, is increasing quickly. The ASEAN region has become a net exporter of resins.

Its plastics processing industries also are growing rapidly, driven largely by Asia's fast-growing automotive industry, and by its strong electronics, computer, medical, packaging, construction and appliance sectors.

ASEAN — made up of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and, since 1995, Vietnam — offers as diverse a collection of countries, in terms of both size and industrial sophistication, as one is likely to find anywhere.

AFPI data for 1995 bears this out: With a combined population of more than 400 million, the ASEAN spectrum ranges from highly advanced Singapore, with its mature, per-capita plastics consumption of 244 pounds, to Vietnam, with per-capita plastics consumption of nearly 8 pounds. Average per-capita consumption throughout the ASEAN region in 1995 was 24.4 pounds, according to AFPI.

Obviously, the potential for increased plastics use everywhere in the region except Singapore is enormous. Brunei, with a total population of barely a quarter-million people, has such an insignificant plastics industry that it is not represented within the 15-year-old AFPI, which consists of plastics associations from the other six ASEAN countries, according to Ronald Lim, secretary general of the Singapore Plastic Industry Association. AFPI's permanent secretariat is in Singapore.

Even the ASEAN group itself looks set to expand, Lim said, with Cambodia and Laos — with their combined populations of nearly 15 million — likely to be admitted as member nations, perhaps as soon as 1998.

As a rule of thumb, film extrusion is the dominant plastics process in the region, accounting for about 36 percent of plastics output, compared with 27 percent for injection molding. Singapore, again, is the exception. Driven by its long-time dependence on the electrical/electronics industry, Singapore generates more than two-thirds of its plastics products via injection molding.

This anomaly manifests itself also in resin consumption trends. Both globally and in the ASEAN region as a whole, polyolefins represent about 60 percent of total resin consumed, and engineering thermoplastics just 4-5 percent. But in Singapore, polyolefins represent just 37 percent of the resins used and ETP usage, at about 15 percent, is triple the global average, according to SPIA statistics.

Despite the ASEAN region's strong and sustained growth, North American manufacturers of plastics and rubber machinery have barely dented markets there — not least because of restrictive import tariffs. However, those barriers should start to fall, as the nations take steps toward liberalizing trade by implementing the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, or AFTA, by Jan. 1, 2003.