Throughout the plastics industry's short history, processors have been able to count on one fact: Plastics growth will outperform the overall economy.
Processing has had its ups and downs, but plastics always has benefited from its reputation as a replacement material. Even when the economy looks old and crotchety, plastics finds a way to take market share away from glass, metal, wood and paper.
Now most end markets in North America are slumping. Processors are suffering from declining profit levels and a disturbing degree of machine overcapacity. Some may be wondering when they can expect plastics markets to grow once more.
We expect markets to start to pick up soon, and we know exactly the unstoppable force that will lift the economy back to its feet: the spending power of the baby-boom generation.
Sales of new homes, cars, appliances, compact discs and computers can't stay down for too long, because boomers (and our children) always seem to want new stuff.
Since boomers have grown up surrounded by plastics, it's only natural that processors will benefit. We baby boomers have plastic gadgets that help us do perfect sit-ups and to develop “buns of steel.” We've got cars loaded with plastic so we can drive in comfort, never feeling too hot or too cold, never having to turn our heads to see out of a mirror, or to answer the phone, or to change from a compact disc to our favorite “classic rock” radio station.
With that in mind, as well as the aging nature of the boomer generation, let's take an offbeat look at markets in which processors might want to stake out a position for the next 20-30 years:
* We'll want to stay active, so expect sports and recreational goods to be strong. Golf, of course, already is growing like gangbusters. Overcrowded links (and frustration with the game itself) also will encourage boomers to rediscover tennis, which was big in the 1970s during the Chris Evert/Jimmy Connors era.
* Talk is big. In this generation no thought goes unspoken and no gossip unshared. Boomers have late-night talk shows, books on tape (and CD) and talk radio. Cars started speaking to drivers in boomers' lifetimes, and before we die we'll find a way to talk back. Voice-recognition technology will change television remote controls, alarm clocks, microwaves, the Internet and probably just about every other gadget we take for granted today.
* Convenience and speed are important in shopping and dining, but so are quality and value. The braintrust at McDonald's Corp. already is struggling to come up with a hook to draw in boomer customers, because bland burgers and Happy Meal toys have run the course. Soon food companies will realize they can sell boomers exactly the same prepared-in-advance meals they sell at most chain restaurants. When that happens, the grocery business will change forever.
* What's next? Certainly nursing homes in the future will be nothing like they are today, with their spartan rooms and Muzak-filled common areas. In fact, those are starting to change already. So-called assisted-living centers are more like upscale college dormitories, with mini-kitchens and tiny washers and dryers. All those changes offer potential growth markets for new plastics products.
Even death won't be immune to changing boomer tastes, and new plastics products. Why spend all that money on brass or stainless-steel coffins when sheet molding compound can give a Class A finish at a lower cost?
Better yet, boomer environmentalists can save a tree by passing on the pine box and using post-consumer plastic lumber for final rest.