Paris (AFP)

For only the third time since the turn of the 20th century and the industrial era, annual global plastic production has declined in 2020, due to the impact of the health crisis.

Last year, the planet produced one million tonnes of plastic less than in 2019: 367 million tonnes compared to 368 the previous year, according to the European association of plastics producers PlasticsEurope.

"This is the third global decline since the post-war period, after that which occurred in 1973 at the time of the first oil shock, and that of 2008, during the financial crisis of subprimes", according to Eric Quenet, Managing Director of Plastics Europe.

In Europe, where 55 million tonnes of new plastics left factories, the decline reached 5.1%, and the decline is even more pronounced in France, where production fell from 11% in 2020 to 4.5 million tonnes, according to an estimate by PlasticsEurope.

In France, overall consumption of virgin plastic fell by 7.5%, more sharply than the European average (-4.7%) and than in Germany (-6.5%).

The automotive sector, the third largest consumer on the old continent, behind packaging and construction, recorded the largest declines, with a 28% drop in its plastic consumption in France last year (-18.1% in Europe, 900,000 tonnes less), according to the association.

Packaging in Europe consumed 500,000 tonnes less plastic than in 2019, and construction, 100,000 tonnes.

"There has been a lot of talk about an increase in the consumption of medical plastic" due to the pandemic, linked to an increase in its use in the hospital environment, "but medical plastic represents only 1.5 to 2% of the volumes plastic totals ", underlined Mr. Quenet, during a press conference.

The global slowdown, "a significant marker of the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the economy", was mitigated by the continued growth in plastic production in China (+ 1% in 2020), notes the association.

China, which manufactured a quarter of the world's plastic in 2010, now supplies a third, after doubling its production in ten years (117 Mt in 2020 against 64 Mt in 2010).

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In recent years, the country has been developing its polymer production capacities, and has started exporting PVC for construction and other basic plastics, but remains an importer of specialty plastics, especially for the automotive industry.

Europe (27 EU countries, with the United Kingdom, Norway and Switzerland), which produced 21% of the world's plastic in 2010, produced only 15% in 2020, but has almost maintained its volumes (55 Mt in 2020 against 56 Mt in 2010), thanks to a move upmarket in high value-added specialty plastics (automotive, aeronautics, etc.).

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Europe remains a "structurally surplus" market, with an export balance of 6 million tonnes in 2020 instead of 4 Mt in 2019, its first customer outside the EU being Turkey.

Conversely, in North America, volumes increased over the decade (70 Mt in 2020 against 53 Mt in 2010) with new polymer units whose competitiveness is based on the exploitation of shale gas, but the percentage of world production has barely held steady, at 19% in 2020 compared to 20% 10 years ago.

Faced with the closures of certain units after maintenance postponements linked to the Covid and a drop in stocks, PlasticsEurope has also confirmed the sharp rise in prices in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the last quarter of 2020 (+ 8%).

In 2020, with low oil prices, prices had fallen by 6.9% on average in Europe.

This uptrend "should continue in the short term," Quenet said.

In France, PlasticsEurope, which claims to undergo "plasticbashing" is also asking for "clarification" and a "framework that gives visibility" to its investments.

"We are responding present on the chemical recycling of plastic, but prohibition measures in the climate bill may jeopardize our development," he said.

© 2021 AFP