Those who have gone grocery shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic have likely encountered a new addition to the checkout counter. Standing between cashier and customer is now a clear acrylic plastic sheet, designed to slow—or hopefully—stop the spread of the virus.
It’s not just grocery stores where these clear windows, best known as “plexiglass,” have started to appear in droves. Schools are buying the barriers with the hope of re-opening in the fall. Casinos have installed star-shaped dividers on their card tables and panes between slot machines.
Restaurants, gas stations and retail stores across the country are all buying and installing the material at a frenetic pace, in an effort to ensure patrons feel safe as they return to businesses that were forced to lockdown and forego months of revenue during the pandemic’s peak.
For the foreseeable future, the indoor world is now filled with plexiglass.
Surging demand for plexiglass
For the industry that supplies, cuts and distributes plexiglass products, it’s been a whirlwind. “We’ve got all of our plants and all of our lines running 24/7,” said David Dennis, chief strategy officer at Plaskolite, one of the country’s largest plexiglass makers. “The orders that have come in and the demand for the product has been significantly larger.”
The market for materials used in personal protective equipment (PPE) is soaring amid the pandemic. In addition to plexiglass, the price of alcohol used in sanitizer has tripled since January, according to The Wall Street Journal, and a bevy of companies are searching for fabrics that block air particles to protect their employees with masks as they return to work. In all, as the Journal reported, the $5 billion U.S. PPE market is expected to grow 15% this year from 2019.
With 11 plants and 50-60 lines, Plaskolite is the largest manufacturer of clear acrylic plastics in North America. Dennis said that despite the company’s efforts, lead times on orders have increased considerably. The company’s executive chairman, Mitch Grindley, told the Journal that half of its business is now related to the pandemic response and that new orders are expected to take about five months to be delivered.
“There’s an international shortage on material, so we’ve had to plan out purchasing all the way out to 2021,” said John Short, general manager at ePlastics, a company that cuts and distributes plastics. “We’re a distributor, so we’re kind of at the mercy of what we’re able to order and what the manufacturer is able to supply. The supply chain is backlogged with an overwhelming amount of purchase orders put in on the acrylic side.”
A new normal?
The bottleneck in the process comes from what the factories can produce. Thanks to the global downturn in demand for so many other plastic products—particularly in the automotive sector— Plaskolite’s Dennis said there is no shortage of precursor materials used in the manufacturing process. At Plaskolite, the company combines a plastic polymer with a monomer and a liquid resin. All three are all loaded into an extruder and then heated and stretched into a sheet of the desired shape.
“The number of lines we have is the main bottleneck,” Dennis said. “The bulk of what we make is acrylic sheet, but we also make polycarbonate, too, and polyethylene (PEP). Demand is high for all three. When one sells out or the lead times increase, the demand shifts to another.”
To help meet the new demand, both Plaskolite and ePlastics have added staff, with the former even looking to add new lines to its manufacturing capacity. “Over the past two months, we’ve grown close to 40%. It has really been an onslaught for us,” Short said. “We’re planning for everything to continue on like this. We believe there’s going to be new codes that are going to be put in place with businesses.”
Still, predicting the specifics for how plexiglass demand will evolve is difficult. Dennis said he doesn’t expect the demand for medical face shields to last—but, like Short, he thinks plastic dividers in business environments may become the new normal.
“We’re looking at that as a long-term change—something that’s going to live well beyond this summer and fall,” Dennis said. “Kind of like how 9/11 changed homeland security, this COVID crisis has really changed the way people are going to interact with each other at point-of-sale and service.”