Analysts based in Houston with IHS Markit, speaking during a session at the 2019 Plastics Recycling Conference and Trade Show, said it’s shaping up to be a buyer’s market for virgin polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyethylene (PE) in 2019. While polypropylene (PP) “has been tight globally,” said Joel Morales, senior director of polyolefins, North America, for IHS Markit, it is “becoming more balanced” now that the U.S. is “swimming in supply.”

Unfortunately, this is not good news for reprocessors of these polymers as prime prices will be very competitive given their abundant supply and the availability of off-spec material at a discount, the analysts said.

Tison Keel, director of PET, purified terephthalic acid, ethylene oxide and derivatives at IHS Markit Chemical, said he sees four challenges for recycled PET (rPET) in the year ahead. “The cost for producing high-quality bottle grade rPET is really not going to change much,” he said. “If anything, it has gone up and it is more likely to go up than go down.”

The second challenge is competition from the fiber industry for PET bottle bales. “The fiber industry on a global basis consumes more than 75 percent of the PET that is currently recycled,” Keel said. “The appetite for scrap PET in the fiber industry is bottomless.”

Another hurdle rPET must overcome is the low North American recycling rate. “How are we going to meet the demand that is being laid out there by brand owners when the collection rates are so low?” Keel wondered. “I don’t have an answer for that.”

He also mentioned how virgin PET producers are integrating mechanical recycling. “It is a trend that is very interesting that we are going to have to watch to see how it plays out,” he said.

These same companies also are investing in chemical recycling that converts PET back into its component monomers. Keel said, “If technically and economically feasible—which we don’t know yet—these could be very big market disruptors” within eight to 10 years.

“How are we going to meet the demand that is being laid out there by brand owners when the collection rates are so low? I don’t have an answer for that.” – Tison Keel, IHS Markit Chemical

For prime PE, 2018 was somewhat unusual, Morales said. “The world got 3 million metric tons worth of demand from the scrap ban in China. They just turned that into prime usage.”

Despite China’s increase in prime PE consumption, the U.S.-China trade war has been “a disaster for U.S. PE producers,” Morales said. Since China implemented its tariff on this material Aug. 23, 2018, “U.S. producers have lost 3 to 5 cents per pound, maybe even more by the end of the year, on every pound produced, whether they are exporting or selling domestically.”

Buyers of virgin PE will enjoy more competitive prices, with recycled material pricing being stuck somewhere in the middle, Morales said. “Off-grade wide-spec has been at very aggressive prices,” he added. “We are seeing that bottom lift up and expect it to moving forward.”

The Plastics Recycling Conference and Trade Show, organized by Resource Recycling, was March 11-13 in National Harbor, Maryland.