On the first day of NPE2018, which promises to be the largest plastics trade show in North America in 72 years, it's an appropriate time to take a big picture look at the plastics industry.
The bottom line: It's a good time to be a plastics processor.
The U.S. economy is chugging along, growing steadily and at a healthy rate. Plastics News economics editor Bill Wood predicts growth of 3 percent this year.
Consider this: If you were hired by a plastics processor in May 2009, you've known only growth, every month, during your entire career. That's a great record, if you can pretend for a minute that any processors were actually hiring people in May 2009, at the lowest point of the Great Recession.
On top of that, tax cuts have many processors thinking about investing in new equipment. And NPE exhibitors have a big menu to choose from, including new technology that promises to make them more efficient and profitable. It looks like two of the biggest themes for NPE2018 will be Industry 4.0 and automation.
But there are plenty of issues for processors to be concerned about. No. 1 on the list is a perennial bugaboo: the workforce. Processors around the country say they're being held back by a shortage of workers, especially trained workers.
Then there's trade. NAFTA is still a big question mark. And in the past few weeks, the possibility of a trade war with China has surfaced, which could have an impact on every sector of the North American plastics industry: resin exports, and imports of steel, aluminum, machinery and molds.
An optimist would say this could really help accelerate the reshoring trend. A pessimist would worry that this could be the monkey wrench that breaks the economy.
Some more snapshots of plastics in 2018:
• Low-cost feedstocks, thanks to shale gas, have resin companies continuing to invest in new capacity. Some resin suppliers have raised concern about the cost of steel and the uncertainty in their ability to export to China, but the investment announcements haven't stopped.
• Sustainability issues continue to generate headlines in the United States and around the world. Awareness of marine debris and litter has never been higher. Communities are banning straws, plastic bags, polystyrene food service, PET water bottles and more. There have been proposals from mainstream media to ban all single-use plastics. That may not get any traction, but it seems likely that more producer responsibility is on the horizon.
• Recyclers are trying to adapt to challenges from plentiful virgin resin and China's National Sword. Some are putting a happy face on the situation, saying it's creating opportunities for North American recyclers. But our upcoming special report on recyclers is going to show a significant number of recyclers and brokers have gone out of business in the past year.
There you have it: a picture that is largely positive but with some significant issues. It's hard to fight the biggest trends, and the NPE organizers at the Plastics Industry Association in Washington seem to have been blessed with good timing for a strong 2018 show.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.