U.S. plastics industry had a robust 2017, and projections for 2018 remain strong

The U.S. plastics industry experienced a robust 2017, with the industry accounting for an estimated $432.3 billion in shipments and 989,000 jobs, according to the 2018 Size & Impact Report, an annual publication of the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS; Washington, DC). Shipments increased by an estimated 6.9% in 2017, while total employment increased 2.4% in the same period, outpacing growth in overall manufacturing. As a standard practice, PLASTICS provides an industry estimate based on a complete set of data covering the previous year.

Plastics growth chart
Chart courtesy Plastics Industry Association.

“Plastics is one industry that is outpacing all manufacturing,” commented Perc Pineda, PhD, PLASTICS Chief Economist, during an online press conference. “Companies are more profitable, and since 2012, the value of shipment is way up over all manufacturing. The plastics industry is very active in terms of adding value.”

Throughout, the report shows that the U.S. plastics industry remains a key part of the American economy and continues to navigate its way to growth and hiring despite the presence of several social, political and economic challenges. Furthermore, the report shows when suppliers to the industry are included, the employment total grows to an estimated 1.81 million and shipments grow to $590.6 billion. Compared with 2016, this marks a 2.8% increase in jobs and a 7% increase in shipments.

“The fact that these figures grew so sharply in 2017 is a testament to the industry’s overall economic activity during that period of time, and to its ability to expand its impact into areas that might not occur to most,” Pineda said. “The impact of the industry ripples out far beyond its government-defined borders.”

Pineda acknowledged that the new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada—the USMCA—has “features that will benefit the plastics industry, including the increased percentage of parts made in Mexico.” Currently, the United States has a large trade surplus with Mexico ($15.7 billion in exports versus $5.1 billion in imports), and trade with Canada is “about equal ($12.5 billion in exports versus $12.4 billion in imports),” Pineda noted. “We still run a deficit with China of $11.5 billion, but there are bright prospects for U.S./China trade talks.”

The employment picture for the industry remains troubling, however, when it comes to an available skilled workforce, as the United States is currently operating at what is known as “full employment, traditionally defined as the point at which unemployment falls below four percent,” said the report. In spite of efforts to support funding for apprenticeships and technical programs, the economic gravity of the current employment situation may become unavoidable for many plastics companies as the industry experiences continued growth.

The report addresses the challenges that face the industry with respect to plastic waste in the environment, noting that the industry shares the concerns regarding the preponderance of plastic litter in our oceans and waterways. The industry is not gloating about our growth—it understands, and is working to find lasting solutions to the problem that preserve the positive economic and environmental impact that our industry and its products deliver, said the report.

Patty Long, interim President and CEO of PLASTICS, commented, “The fact that the industry continues to grow shows how effective these products are in their intended use. We are calling on the 116th Congress to advance a stimulus package to help increase the domestic capacity for recycling plastics. This will help recover more material, increase jobs and meet growing demand for recycled content while helping the environment by reducing the amount of plastics needlessly heading to landfills.”

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