Philip Law, director-general of the British Plastics Federation, talks to TM about the state of the UK plastics industry.
You took up your role as director-general of the British Plastics Federation in July. What have you identified as areas for focus under your stewardship?
The plastics industry will be affected by major regulatory developments which will introduce new concepts as well as increasing the weight of traditional targets. The recent proposals under the banner of the ‘circular economy’ for amending the EU’s packaging and packaging waste directive is a case in point. It marks a new departure with its requirement of ‘extended producer responsibility’ and discouragement of energy from waste. We will be making our voice heard on these issues.
The industry is finding it very difficult to recruit skilled people. This could hold it back from reaping the full benefits of the economic recovery. Particular shortages are witnessed in technician, technical management and technically literate sales people. We will be focussing on improved co-ordination of training and in helping to secure the specific dedicated training that companies in the plastics sector need to grow their businesses.
The UK plastics sector exports £5.6bn a year, representing a sizeable economic contributor for the UK. Where do you think some of the industry’s growth areas in terms of exports lie?
We have major strengths internationally. We are particularly strong in ancillary equipment, for testing, materials handling, flame treatment and anti-static. We are leaders in small-scale extrusion technology. I would also add our expertise in specialist materials, such as compounds and master batch and niche foam products. UK manufactured plastics pipe and fittings have provided infrastructure in the developing world. Additionally, the UK has a lot of exportable knowledge connected with energy efficiency which has become a top priority for firms in the sector.
Conversely, can the UK plastics sector become an integral part of the UK attracting more inward investment?
The outstanding competence of the range of UK plastics supply chains can certainly provide a major point of attraction for inward investment. What we need are inward investors who use plastics, Original Equipment Manufacturers. In the period 1985-95 we had a wave of these. This coincided with the micro-chip revolution and it was a golden age for plastics processing in the UK. If a user wants world-class efficiency, he can find it in the UK plastics industry.
Following the economic downturn, what is the state of confidence in SME businesses working in the industry at present?
Confidence is at a very high level but has reached a plateau, flat lining over two surveys carried out in the last six months. We recently reported to the Bank of England that companies supplying technical components to the automotive industry are on a high, those manufacturing packaging are having a mixed experience and firms supplying construction markets are seeing improvements from an earlier depressed situation. Companies exporting are beginning to see the strength of sterling impairing volumes. The number of firms reporting ‘significant’ expected future investments are increasing.
Sustainability is a big issue, with a consensus the industry needs to increase recycling rates. Why do you feel the UK has fallen behind a lot of Europe in its efforts for reducing plastic landfill?
Valid European comparisons are difficult to make as you aren’t comparing apples with apples. One reason we’ve landfilled in the UK is because our geology has given us potential landfill sites, denied to some other countries. The plastics recycling record in the UK is actually moving forward fast, particularly plastics bottles recycling. Last year we recycled our one millionth PVC window in the UK and that’s a pretty durable product with a 35 year plus life span. Our administrative systems are different in the UK with Local Authorities collecting different things in different ways. There’s a lack of standardisation which prevents economies of scale. But we are trying very hard to work around this and cut the ‘Gordian knot’.
Are you anticipating the increased prevalence of fracking over the coming years to have an effect on plastics feedstock?
Fracking represents a huge opportunity not just to help reduce our reliance on overseas energy sources but as a feedstock for the manufacture of plastics. The USA’s industrial base has acquired a major competitive advantage through access to lower cost shale gas. Now the UK has an opportunity to redress the balance.