Plastics News: Plastics will be part of solutions in the future

Posted on April 27th, 2017 by plasticycle

Getty ImagesRoy Stormtroopers lined up in ranks. The Stormtroopers are action figures created by the Kotobukiya Toy company. Stormtroopers are enforcer characters from the Star Wars media franchise.

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the SPE, I am changing things up this week. Usually, I look for emerging trends in the latest economic data and then offer a forecast about how these trends will affect the demand for plastics products over the next few quarters.

But for this column, I am casting my gaze farther into the future, and I will offer a few predictions about the prevalent business conditions 75 years from now and how the plastics industry will benefit from these conditions.

In other words, I am setting aside my finely tuned spreadsheets, graphs and computer models, and I am breaking out my crystal ball.

The George Lucas vision of the future

Over the next 75 years, the military industrial complex will become the largest end market for plastics parts and materials. Ever since the Stone Age ended, a kingdom’s (or nation’s) military might was commensurate with its ability to acquire or produce weapons and armor that were primarily made from metal. The need to remain a dominant military power will not change in the future, but the weapons upon which our nation will rely to maintain superiority will change. The Armor Age is over; the Plastics Age is underway.

In the future, weapons will increasingly be made of plastic. You may recall that in the movie “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones,” the clones (and the Stormtroopers) were built using a lot of molded plastics parts. You just can’t build and ship that many clones unless your supply chain includes a number of state-of-the-art plastics processors and toolmakers.

The U.S. military is already making extensive use of unmanned aerial drones manufactured with a lot of composite materials, and I have no doubt that the use of unmanned weapons will soon extend to both land- and ocean-based weapons. Unmanned weapons are lighter, faster and less expensive to build and operate. They also result in fewer American casualties. Drones (and clones) built from plastic parts and circuit boards do not need armor to protect vulnerable flesh and blood.

I expect that the U.S. Navy will soon have unmanned craft and the Army will rapidly increase their use of land-based robots. These weapons will not be large like the Death Star, but rather very small. Think of a swarm of terror, or a cloud of death. Big and heavy is out; small, fast, expendable and easily replaced is the new dominant strategy.

This use of robots and drones will greatly diminish the need for boots on the ground, but not eliminate it completely. The soldiers of the future will be equipped with plastic suits and helmets that integrate computer technology in a way that greatly enhances performance and survivability. And many of the enhancements that improve the performance and safety of soldiers will be developed for large-scale commercial use by civilians.

Back to the old West

While the armies of the future will increasingly be comprised of technologically advanced machines built from plastic parts and computer chips, the wars of the future may well be fought over the most fundamental building block of life — water.

Up until now, our species has posted a long record of abusing, neglecting and otherwise undervaluing water as a most precious commodity. We have externalized the true costs of the way we use water, and we have left it to future generations to pay these costs. But in the words of the late economist Herbert Stein, “Trends that can’t last forever, won’t.”

At some point in the next 75 years, the market will be forced to account for the true value of water, and this will be an enormous boon to the manufacturers of plastic pipe as well as the manufacturers of extrusion dies and machinery. The debacle in Flint, Mich., will be seen as just a drop in the ocean (pun intended). Water will eventually be collected, processed and distributed with all of the fervor and precision of craft beer or artisanal coffee. And all of this will only be possible by a previously unfathomable (again, intentional) investment in the infrastructure of the water industrial complex.

The healthier choice

Be it due to chemical warfare, germ warfare, nuclear accident or just the random mutation of some lethal virus, the growth in demand for plastic hazmat suits and other types of basic plastic medical supplies will be closely correlated, and will eventually exceed, growth in the world’s population.

And since I expect the population to expand at a steady rate for the next 75 years or so, this is good news for the plastics industry.

Most of the focus in the plastics industry press in recent years has been on all of the technological breakthroughs in the medical device sector. Without a doubt, the progress is impressive, and I predict this trend will continue for the foreseeable future. These breakthroughs generate their own demand, so demand is growing faster than the sluggish rate of population growth in the industrialized world. This means that the political will to invest huge sums of capital in new medical technologies will persist in the near-term because it’s the older generation that shows up to vote in these countries.

But despite all of the amazing advances in technology, I still expect that most of the baby boomers will be dead in 75 years. (It is the millennials that will live forever.) Meanwhile, the populations of the world’s developing countries, where the weather and social conditions are perfect for the evolution of deadly viruses and bacteria, will have grown substantially.

The net result of these demographic trends will be a significant shift in the type of medical equipment and supplies that are in global demand. The focus of the medical supply industrial complex will change from the low-volume, high-margin types of high-tech devices that currently get all of the attention to high-volume types of plastics health care products like hazmat suits and basic medical supplies. A plastic suit will be considered a basic necessity as a layer of defense against nature’s pending swarms of terrible insects or man’s clouds of deadly pollution or radiation.

Sustainability is a conservative value

The recycling rate of used plastics consumer products will rise from the current levels of less than 20 percent to well over 99 percent in the next 75 years. This is because the market value will finally catch up to the perceived value of both new and used plastics materials. In the not-too-distant future, market pressures will force producers and consumers alike to realize the egregious waste and high disposal costs that are created by using a plastic product once and then burning it or burying it.

At the present time, Americans are often accused of being too materialistic. But this is not really true. A real materialistic culture would place a proper value on materials that still have real value, like many types used plastics products.

But when there is money to be made, we are quick learners and rapid adapters. When looked at from a long-term perspective, sustainability is really just another word for efficiency. And that is something that the high-powered recycled materials industrial complex of the future will get behind in a big way, both politically and economically.

Economics is often referred to as the dismal science because most economics forecasts, when taken out far enough into the future, offer only bleak outcomes. But if we have any hope of forestalling, or even avoiding, a dismal ending to life as we know it, then plastics products will have to play a prominent role. Here’s wishing the SPE another 75 years of rising prosperity.

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