The merchant market for polymeric (plastic) foams in the U.S. is large, and significant changes continue to occur since the last BCC report on this subject was published in 1996. Not only are foam materials and their applications constantly changing, but their manufacturing processes are as well, especially because of the need to find new foam blowing agents to replace CFCs and HCFCs.
This in-depth report covers the most important technological, economic, political, and environmental factors in this broad and diverse industry. Forecasts are given for markets by applications as well as material, with focus on the largest foamed polymer group, polyurethanes (both rigid and flexible). Also included are analyses of industry structure, producers and suppliers, industry trends, and international aspects.
STUDY GOALS AND OBJECTIVES
In the roughly 8 years since BCC Research's last study on the polymeric foams industry, significant changes have continued to occur in this major segment of the plastics production and processing industry. Products and markets change as technology and society change. Polymer foams find their primary applications in consumer products, such as cushioning for furniture and automobiles, thermal insulation for construction and packaging, and similar end uses that are driven by the business cycle.
Most of the markets for plastic foams are the same ones that existed a few years ago; however, there have also developed some newer markets, such as cross-linked polyolefin foam in leisure and sports goods and foamed PVC in house siding, windows/doors, and other construction shapes. A more recent development is work on foams made from biopolymers and biodegradable polymers, work done in concert with efforts to reduce the country's dependency on petroleum and natural gas, the feedstocks for the plastics that are currently foamed.
Polymers are foamed for cost and performance advantages. Foamed plastics are lighter than nonfoamed articles made from the same resin; they require less resin and therefore achieve lower costs. Equally or more important, foamed plastics have properties different from nonfoamed ones, properties that often are advantageous and not attainable with nonfoamed plastics. The insulating and cushioning qualities of the gas bubbles in a foamed article are obvious attributes, but less obvious is the fact that a foamed article is often stronger than its nonfoamed analog. Thus structural shapes and forms, such as piping and wall siding, can be stronger when foamed.
Markets are driven by different forces. Market drivers in recent years that have caused the most significant changes have often been environmental and public perception issues. Such issues have included:
- Consumer safety issues, ranging from fire resistance and flammability to concerns over the use of plastics that are often thought to be (almost always erroneously) health hazards (especially carcinogens);
- Solid-waste disposal and recycling, a political "hot button" of the 1990s that is not quite as hot today; and
- Atmospheric protection, caused by concerns and actions taken regarding blowing agents used to produce foamed plastics. This concern has taken on greater importance more recently because of global warming.
Because of concerns over the Earth's ozone layer and global warming, chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) foam blowing agents were banned, and their first group of replacements, (HCFCs), is also scheduled for phase-out over the future, with a total ban by 2030. The most important CFC-replacement foam blowing agent, HCFC-141b, has been banned since 2003. HFCs, the non-chlorine containing compounds that were thought to be the final replacements for CFCs, are now also under attack, not as destroyers of the ozone layer but as "super greenhouse gases," many times more powerful than carbon dioxide in heating the atmosphere. Volatile hydrocarbon blowing agents are under increased control as air-polluting VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
Our goal is to describe the most common and popular commercial polymeric foams and their applications, their technologies, competing plastic and foams as well as those made from other materials, and future industry trends. Estimates and forecast markets are made for plastic foams of several kinds in many different important markets such as construction, transportation, and packaging. The polymers and applications covered are introduced below under Scope and Format and are discussed in greater detail in later sections of this report.
REASONS FOR DOING THE STUDY
Polymer foams touch our lives every day. Some applications are unseen, such as the insulating sheathing on our houses and inside our refrigerators, while some applications are in visible end uses, such as foamed seat cushions and polystyrene hot cups used for fast-food coffee. These products are important items in the economy, and because of the environmental issues previously noted, represent an interesting dynamic of the 21st-century American society.
The plastic foam industry is a major segment of the American plastics industry, historically accounting for about 10% of total commodity resin consumption. Foamed products, such as those used for insulation and protective shipping, reduce energy consumption and product damage and thus lead to lower manufacturing costs, less waste, and other desirable results.
BCC Research first performed and has updated this study to provide a comprehensive reference for those interested and/or involved in these products; these professionals comprise a wide and varied group of companies that make and use polymer foams, as well as process technology and equipment designers and marketers, politicians of all persuasions, and the general public. The information in this report has been gleaned and condensed from a large amount of literature and other reference materials in the course of its compilation.
This report is intended to assist those involved in several different segments of the U.S. industrial and commercial business sectors, primarily those professionals whose main interest is in thermal insulation (construction, appliances, and the like), comfort cushioning (furniture, auto seats, and other uses), transportation (other automotive parts, such as protective cushioning and bumpers), as well as packaging applications. These professionals include those who are involved in the development, formulation, manufacture, sale, and use of foamed polymers and polymer foaming processes; and those in ancillary businesses, such as processing equipment, additives, and other support chemicals and equipment (e.g., process and product-development experts, process and product designers, purchasing agents, construction and operating personnel, market staff, and top management). This report will be of great value to technical and business personnel in the following areas, among others:
- Marketing and management personnel in companies that produce, market, and sell polymeric foams.
- Companies involved in the design and construction of process plants that manufacture polymeric foams and those that service these plants.
- Companies that supply chemicals, equipment, and other materials to plastic foam producers and users.
- Basic research personnel in academia, government, and industry.
- Financial institutions that supply money for the above-mentioned facilities, including banks, merchant bankers, and venture capitalists. Such institutions need to identify and know areas of potential trouble, as well.
- Personnel in end-user companies and industries; these are a wide ranging group of companies in industries as varied as automobile manufacture and health care products packaging.
- Personnel in government at many levels, not only at the federal level (such as the Environmental Protection Agency), but also state and local health, environmental, and other regulators who must implement and enforce the laws regarding public health and safety.