Pedestrians wearing protective face masks walk through the Lujiazui financial district in Shanghai, China, on February 10 2020. Picture: BLOOMBERG/QILAI SHEN
Pedestrians wearing protective face masks walk through the Lujiazui financial district in Shanghai, China, on February 10 2020. Picture: BLOOMBERG/QILAI SHEN

Singapore/Beijing — Demand for face masks and surgical gloves may be surging as China battles the coronavirus, but that is scant relief for plastics makers as they struggle with absent workers and plunging consumption of other products.

In a sign of how critical the mask shortage is getting, state oil company PetroChina last week directed overseas employees from Houston to Lagos to buy them up and send as many as 2-million back to headquarters.

While that has prompted many of China’s plastics converters — who process raw polymers into everything from plastic spoons to car interiors — to scale up their mask-making operations, it is not enough to offset plummeting demand for other products, according to SCI99. In addition, some of the producers remain shut due to the extended holidays or cannot make deliveries because of cancelled flights and blocked roads, the Chinese industry consultant said.

“The amount of polyester found in each mask is no more than 1-2 grams, mainly in the elastic band,” said Salmon Lee, principal consultant at Wood Mackenzie Ltd. in Singapore.

“This is minuscule when talking about any demand spike, and immaterial in mitigating the economic impact of the epidemic on the polyester chain.”

Manufacturing of face masks accounted for just 0.1% of polypropylene demand in China last year, Horace Chan, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, said in a note. Durable plastics, which are used in cars and home appliances, could take the biggest hit from the outbreak, he said.

Polypropylene futures for April settlement have fallen 9.5% since January 21, when markets began taking notice of the coronavirus, according to prices on the Dalian Commodity Exchange.

Inventories at state refiners Sinopec and PetroChina jumped by 530,000 tonnes over the Lunar New Year holidays, more than three times the average increase over the holidays in the last five years, SCI99 said.

As companies such as Toyota Motor delay production and China’s huge food delivery network is disrupted, the impact from the virus is spreading across Asia. Weak Chinese demand will compress margins further for South Korean refiners and petrochemical companies, Moody’s Investors Service analyst Sean Hwang said in a February 6 note.

Chinese buyers of polypropylene from the Middle East are trying to re-export it to India and Southeast Asia, potentially causing a glut in those markets, said Ashish Chitalia, the head of global polyolefins at Wood Mackenzie in Houston.

The petrochemical sector was beginning to come back after the easing of trade tariffs, he said.

The coronavirus will extend the low-margin period for petrochemical companies globally, and particularly in east Asia, Chitalia said.

Bloomberg