A few days at the Chinaplas trade show in late May felt like being dropped into the center of the plastics industry universe. Name a challenge and there it was.
Trade conflicts and tariffs, for example. Exhibitors said capital investment was hitting the pause button while Beijing and Washington try to work out their trade fight.
Or environmental issues — more so than in the past, executives talked about risks to future growth if they can't come up with answers to plastic waste problems.
Or technology — Industry 4.0 and digital manufacturing took prominent places for many exhibitors.
It shouldn't be a surprise that all that was front and center at Chinaplas, which ran from May 21-24 in Guangzhou.
The show drew 160,000 visitors and 3,500 exhibiting companies. It's one of the world's two-largest plastics fairs, along with Germany's K show.
China is also the world's largest market for plastics, so the fair is a good chance to take the pulse.
One thing that came through, particularly from talking with machinery manufacturers, was the caution in spending as companies in China wait to see what happens with the escalating tariffs.
President Donald Trump's imposition of new tariffs a few weeks before the show opened had thrown plans into turmoil.
The CEO of large Chinese machine maker Yizumi Precision Machinery Co. Ltd. said that move seemed to kill a nascent recovery in Chinese plastics machinery markets in March and April, when it looked like Trump and China's Xi Jinping were headed toward a trade deal.
U.S. extrusion equipment supplier Davis-Standard LLC said its Chinese customers had become much more cautious.
And Chinese compounder Top Polymer Enterprise said a $15 million investment in a new U.S. factory was pushed back, although it said it is still happening.
On environmental challenges, China and Asia are in many ways ground zero for plastic waste, and that was reflected at the show.
Studies say that more than half of the plastic waste that leaks into oceans comes from China and four other populous Asian nations that lack fully developed waste management systems.
A recurring theme in interviews and press events was how the industry can address that and contribute to sustainability.
Of course, most of those discussions started with how a company's products were themselves greener and more sustainable. Or how those products could help with a broader environmental goal, like packaging that cuts food waste or car parts that make vehicles lighter and more fuel efficient.
But scratch beneath the surface and there was a more bedrock economic anxiety, that public concerns over waste would start to be a drag on long-term growth, if consumers shy away from plastics.
Executives said they felt that if plastic waste issues are not addressed, the industry faces risks of some product deselection.
The main solution they were discussing at the show came back to using more recycled content. Machinery companies talked about R&D around building equipment to better handle harder-to-process recycled materials.
And machinery executives talked about ways to design virgin materials to better cope with significant levels of recycled content mixed in, in the range of 30 percent.
It reminded me of a McKinsey study from December that calculated that up to one-third of plastics demand could switch from virgin to recycled materials by 2030 and how that would be a drag on new plastics production.
That analysis made a few assumptions, like a lot more mechanical recycling, a takeoff of pyrolysis technology, and $75 a barrel oil, so who knows if it would pan out.
But it underscored, just like conversations at Chinaplas this year underscored, that there's a lot of change underway in the plastics industry.
And China, whose name translates in Chinese as "Middle Kingdom," remains in the center of many of them.
Toloken is news editor-international for Plastics News. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.