A demand for plastic barriers that first surged in March from retailers such as grocery, hardware and auto parts stores needing to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic is continuing to grow and putting pressure on the supply chain.
Big-box retailers including Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowe's were among the first in line for sheets of clear acrylic to use as virus-blocking shields between employees and patrons of their thousands of stores.
While polycarbonate and thin-gauge glycol-modified PET can be used as substitutes, demand is also very high for those materials for face shields.
The run on clear, plastic barriers has caused an extreme global shortage of acrylic, PC and PETG sheeting at a time another wave of demand for the materials is about to crash.
Hung from ceilings or bolted to conveyor belt systems, plastic barriers stop air droplets from spreading the deadly respiratory illness when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.
Now another tier of businesses is reopening in some states and the search for plastic barriers is getting harder. Nail salons, hair salons, libraries, casinos and restaurants are placing orders for the protective products, but they won't likely be delivered until October or November.
Global demand for clear plastic has doubled from a year ago and lead times are as far out as six months, according to Craig Saunders, president of the International Association of Plastics Distribution and director of supplier relations and logistics for Irving, Texas-based North American Plastics.
Founded in 1956, the Overland Park, Kan.-based trade association serves the distributors, fabricators, manufacturers and recyclers of performance plastics, which have properties making them strong, lightweight, flexible, durable, sheer and environmentally friendly.
"Demand far exceeds the supply, and lead times for anything clear are out 22-24 weeks or more," Saunders said in a phone interview.
The acrylic shortage is exacerbated, he added, because use of the material had been steadily waning for about a decade.
"Roughly 60 percent of acrylic use historically went into retail signs, point of purchase and store fixtures, but demand had declined because of the Amazon effect," Saunders said of consumer shopping habits shifting away from brick-and-mortar stores to e-commerce.
"Now that's completely turned around. Now there's not enough capacity in the world to meet current demand," he said.
The extreme shortage of acrylic and other clear plastic materials doesn't even take into account the reopening of U.S. universities and schools in the fall, Saunders said.