Global polystyrene giant Styrolution Group GmbH is excited about prospects for the material in North America.
“North America is going to be a success story for polystyrene, after several years of being quite depressed,” CEO Roberto Gualdoni said in an interview at NPE2012. “Consumer demand is up and polypropylene is more expensive. Both of those work in our favor.”
It's still in the early going for Styrolution, formed in October as a joint venture of the styrenics units of BASF SE and Ineos Group. But Gualdoni said his Frankfurt, Germany-based firm is seeing low-single-digit growth in North America and expects that to continue. “We've got good momentum and a tailwind here,” he said.
Elsewhere around the world, Gualdoni said that European PS “is staying where it is” partly because it lacks a price advantage vs. PP in that market. By comparison, in Asia, “everything is booming,” as increased standards of living spur high growth in China and India, which are growing faster than “older economies” such as Japan and Korea.
The PS market also will continue to grapple with the volatility of benzene, a key feedstock used to make styrene monomer, which is then converted into PS.
“Benzene has been the most volatile commodity of the last 15 years,” Gualdoni said. “It moves around easily, and you're going to have to be able to have it in all regions. The challenge is to keep the styrene monomer plants up and running and in good condition. You have to put money into them.”
At NPE2012, held April 1-5 in Orlando, Styrolution's new products included a high-impact PS grade with higher gloss for the food-service market. The material can be blended with crystal PS or used as a stand-alone resin, account manager Bevan Basham said. It's being aimed at food-service cups and graphic-arts printing applications.
Styrolution also has commercialized a new, higher-heat-resistant grade of Terluran-brand ABS for auto interior and exterior applications. The grade already has received approval at General Motors Co.
Also at NPE, Styrolution spotlighted three PS grades with 25 percent post-consumer recycled content. NextLife Enterprises LLC of Boca Raton, Fla., is supplying Styrolution with recycled content for the new materials.
Gualdoni is managing Styrolution's ups and downs. Recent styrenics expansion moves in South Korea and India, as well as a technology investment in Germany, have been offset by a production shift that will result in the closing of a German PS and styrene monomer plant. It's all part of the challenges of a company with $8.3 billion in annual sales that employs 3,400 at 17 sites worldwide, he said.
“We had some theories in the back of our heads when we started the [joint venture] six months ago,” Gualdoni said of the closing of the German plant.
“Then we reviewed our hypothesis and saw that we had some good overlaps that would allow us to reduce the amount of [PS] grades that we made. We had capacity that wasn't fully utilized, and that allowed us to look at our less-efficient assets.”
He added that North American production wasn't affected much, since the Ineos plant in Joliet, Ill., originally had been a BASF plant, so there wasn't excess overlap between that plant and a plant BASF built and maintained in Altamira, Mexico.
At the six-month mark, Gualdoni said he thinks the Styrolution venture “is working well.”
“I think one of the facts that's bringing things together so smoothly is that our business has been very challenged for several years, so our people have gone through the ups and downs,” he explained. “They know what to do in almost every situation. They know how to handle volatility and they know that we need to invest in our assets.”