N95 masks — regarded as the best mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other airborne diseases — have been in short supply, leading to price gouging even as major producers 3M and Honeywell have rushed to increase production. Both firms have U.S. production, but published reports have said that roughly half of global N95 production is based in China.
According to an N95 specification sheet on the 3M website, five of the six main components of the mask use some type of plastic. Its straps are made from thermoplastic elastomers, the nose foam is polyurethane and the filter is polypropylene fiber. The mask's shell and cover both are made of polyester. The shelf life of the 3M N95 mask is five years from the date of manufacture.
3M had some surge capacity in place at its N95 plant in South Dakota, but that extra production was quickly overwhelmed by the tidal wave of demand. Schmitt said he's also heard some concerns about supplies of DuPont Co.'s Tyvek material and other plastic films used in hospital gowns, containment suits and other protective equipment.
"I don't think this is going to be a blip," Schmitt said. "I think it's here to stay for at least three to five years. We could see people wearing masks at concerts, sports events, trade shows and airports."
In an email to Plastics News, economist Alan Tonelson said that he's "impressed with how many companies have been able to reconfigure production lines or create new production lines to turn out PPE and other health care goods that they've never made before."
But Tonelson added that "I also have to think that before too long a combination of new tax breaks and possibly tariffs will be approved to incentivize more production of PPE and other health care goods in the U.S., through some combination of reshoring and new domestic startups."
Tonelson, who is based in the Washington, D.C., area, has long been critical of unchecked international trade. An April 6 post on his RealityChek blog was titled "The CCP Virus is Also Killing the Economic Case for Free Trade." In that post, Tonelson said that because COVID-19 originated in China, "there's now an impressive case that trade expansion with China … has started reducing [U.S.] GDP."
Tonelson also said in his April 6 post that U.S. economic losses from COVID-19 will be greater than what the country has gained from free trade with China.
In a March 31 post, Tonelson cited the case of Prestige Ameritech, a North Richland Hills, Texas-based maker of N95 masks that had warned of a shortage of PPE but was unable to secure long-term government contracts.
"By now it should be abundantly clear that when it comes to U.S. national leaders and American health security, both Democrats and Republicans and liberals and conservatives and even populists have let the country down," he wrote.
At the Reshoring Initiative, a Chicago-area firm that helps U.S. companies with reshoring by assisting with their supply chains, founder Harry Moser recently wrote a column titled "COVID-19 Wake-Up Call for National Self-Sufficiency."
In that column, Moser said that even before the outbreak, global supply chains "that were once so appealing were becoming less attractive due to geopolitical turmoil, shifting priorities, rising costs, trade wars and environmental concerns."
"Then the coronavirus outbreak delivered an unprecedented, systemic, paralyzing blow to our tightly linked global supply chains," he added. "Our overdependence on imports became clear. As companies consider options for more resilient supply chains, they should consider reshoring."
Moser said shortages brought on by COVID-19 "have made Americans keenly aware of our overreliance on essential medical devices and pharmaceuticals."
Moser said that almost 90 percent of U.S. hospitals and health care systems are concerned about PPE shortages for front-line medical workers. He added that about 80 percent of all PPE is made in Asia and that PPE-producing countries like China, Taiwan, Thailand, India and South Korea have imposed at least temporary export restrictions.
"Lifesaving ventilators and key components for our limited domestic production are coming from offshore and are in short supply," he said.
As an example of PPE reshoring, Moser cited Atlanta-based G95 Inc., a manufacturer of outerwear with built-in filtration technology. He said that G95 has reshored its supply chain from China to a contract manufacturer in Grand Rapids, Mich., during the outbreak.
According to Moser, the disruption from the outbreak in China had left G95 with more than 1,000 unfilled orders.
"Reshoring shortens supply chains and reduces response time and our overreliance on imports, while maintaining or improving profitability," he said.