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Acrylic’s year on the frontline of COVID-19: what next?

When this year of twists and turns first started, how many of us could have predicted that acrylic would become the saviour of our everyday routines?

In the spring, we wrote about how schools, offices, shops, bars, restaurants and so many more places, even hospitals, were using ‘clearer-than-glass’ acrylic screens to help them continue operating safely.

As 2020 draws to a close, we asked experts from across the industry and around the world to give you an insight into how this life-saving new market for acrylic has developed.

How is this market looking now, many months later?

The wild ride described by Jay Smith, our Business Director in the USA, has lasted for most of the year! The demand for clear acrylic sheet in protective screens created a “demand tsunami that cleared every available sheet from every shelf in every part of the world during Q2 and Q3 of 2020.”

But are we seeing any glimmers of a return to normality? Jay certainly thinks so.

“This demand phenomenon was sustained into September before it steadied and stock could build again. Looking into early 2021, clear acrylic sheet demand will stay firm as parts of the US see a second wave of the virus, or as some areas open back up for the first time with protection measures needing to be in place.

“Sectors such as construction and automotive, which were completely dormant through most of 2020, are now working to catch up on a backlog of work. So, with the existing very strong acrylic sheet demand and with further strong demand from other segments, methyl methacrylate (MMA) supply is tight globally. The expectation is that by Q2 2021, demand will normalize following overall economic conditions.”

Michael Currell, Managing Director of Bay Plastics, a design and fabrication company based in the North East of England, has been at the very front of this rollercoaster with his team, dealing with orders every day to help keep public life moving. He says:

“That first wave of demand, March to September, was really hectic and saw us running at up to 140% of our usual turnover. Things calmed down a bit when the major retailer projects ended and most people had what they needed, but then the UK’s lockdown eased and people started flooding back into schools, universities and workplaces. This caused demand to rise again for acrylic desk dividers and similar installations. It’s been very, very unpredictable. The only certainty this year has been the uncertainty!”

The resourcefulness of companies like Bay Plastics has been key to unlocking countries around the world, and this hasn’t gone unnoticed by Luke Martyn, Marketing Manager at Perspex Distribution Limited:

“Our fabrication customers have quickly embedded these new screen applications into their core offering, as well as providing information graphics, sanitization stations and medical products. Many have done a fantastic job of developing their own designs, using traditional fabrication techniques to produce bespoke solutions.

“Even with the recent encouraging vaccine news, the demand we’re seeing for installations in large offices and high footfall locations suggests acrylic screening will become further integrated into future office and public space design.”

It’s a trend that Mickey Zheng, our Market Development Manager in China, has also followed closely. He says:

“As with other parts of the world, protective acrylic sheet demand in the Chinese domestic market reached its peak in spring of this year and then gradually decreased after the summer. However, China became a major exporter of acrylic sheet and protective screens in the spring and this export demand has continued.

“Though China’s restrictions have controlled COVID-19 very well since early summer, we’re still seeing cases being confirmed. Some measurements, such as social distancing, mask-wearing and partitioning, have been forming a kind of new normal social practice which we believe will last long after the pandemic. For this reason, acrylic’s role in protective screens here will remain for quite a long time.”

So, what will happen to all of these saviour screens?

That’s what’s on the mind of David Smith, our Circular Economy Lead, as we push towards opening an acrylic recycling plant in Europe by 2023. With the promise of mass COVID vaccinations rolling out in 2021, public places may soon be able to start removing their screens and, for David, this is a crucial moment to prepare for.

“When we look towards end-of-life for these screens, the single biggest challenge is how we collect and separate them from other plastics. We have already started conversations with customers and supply chains to determine the best way of recovering them for recycling, but this poses a number of challenges,” he says.

“For example, there’s a huge task ahead to educate retailers. Many are, understandably, focused on avoiding the use of single-use (disposable) plastics and are unaware that acrylic will soon be truly circular. So, we need to come up with a solution that makes it easy and compelling for them to send their acrylic to us for recycling.”

It’s a project that many in the acrylic industry welcome with open arms.

“It’s really interesting and can only be positive, particularly to help reverse the bad reputation of plastics. Anything we can do to show that acrylic is not like other plastics, and that it won’t end up in landfill or in the ocean, is a big plus!” says Michael at Bay Plastics.

“Clients are always asking about sustainability and what can be done about recycling, so it’ll be great to be able to show that there’s a route back for acrylic. It’s exciting that this will be truly circular acrylic and not a lesser solution with limited sustainability wearing a “green” label.”

There’s been a real sense of togetherness in the acrylic industry this year. While acrylic manufacturers, fabricators and customers have helped build a life-saving new market, it’s fantastic to see such positivity from all corners of the industry around the sustainable future lined up for it. The reputation of acrylic as a “good plastic” looks set to stay.