They’ve become a symbol of the world’s response to COVID-19.

Clearer than glass, yet instantly recognisable; acrylic shields in public places became the instant solution to helping prevent the spread of this deadly virus. Now, these heroes of the plastics world are key to protecting you as countries, businesses and communities everywhere begin to ‘unlock’ and find a new sense of normal.

You probably spotted them first in supermarkets. Now, schools, offices, restaurants, hairdressers, cinemas and all kinds of places where the public gather are following suit in a bid to keep people safe. Even the fitness industry, where gym re-openings are considered among the trickiest to ‘get right’, is looking to acrylic for a pathway back.

Pictured: a typical acrylic screen being cleaned by this bakery owner.

Early signs and major changes

As early as February, our team in China quickly became aware of a very new and urgent demand for clear acrylic sheet. As we reported recently, we acted fast to ensure that this protective solution was made immediately available throughout Asia thanks, in part, to communicating via WeChat – a social media platform used by almost everyone in China. Mickey Zheng, Market Development Manager, explained:

“Through WeChat, we’re able to share our knowledge with MMA customers, acrylic sheet casters, fabricators, designers and more. When we learned about clear acrylic sheet being used as a protective barrier, we recognised it could be essential in the fight against COVID-19.

“We quickly published an article to introduce the idea to the wider acrylic industry, with supporting topics such as performance comparisons with other clear sheet products and suitable disinfectant cleaning products. We’re glad to see this application multiply and further ideas emerge from it.”

And multiply it did. While demand for acrylic sheet in some areas, like construction or automotive, has understandably slowed, demand for certain grades of clear acrylic for COVID-19 shields has reached unheard-of highs.

Our acrylic sheet-producing customers are running 24/7 to keep up. To feed an upswing of this size, we’re projecting MMA sales to this segment in the USA to have more than doubled between April and June 2020. And, for Plaskolite, our MMA customer and the largest US acrylic sheet producer, we’re even helping outsource extra sheet from around the Mitsubishi Chemical group to the tune of 20 to 30 containers per month.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed. Jay Smith, our Business Director in the USA, recently spoke to Forbes magazine about dealing with the demand-boom.

It’s been a wild ride,” Jay says, since speaking to Plaskolite as things began to surge. “We became confident that this would be a significant shift for the market, so we just started feeding the materials as fast as we could, moving barges of product up the Mississippi River, to Cincinnati, and then trucking it from there to the various sites that Plaskolite has.

Mitch Grindley, Plaskolite’s CEO, has been equally amazed by this chain of events.

“It basically has not stopped,” Mitch says, adding to Jay’s comments. “Every day I come in and hear about a new application. I think this is very similar to September 11 and what happened in security in airports; I see it as something that’s here to stay.”

Demand like never before

Across the Atlantic, it’s been a similarly wild ride. Perspex International (PIL), customer of Lucite International and manufacturer of Perspex® acrylic, has seen production of clear acrylic sheets increase by 300%.

Those at Perspex Distribution Ltd (PDL), operating within the same group company as PIL to distribute Perspex® acrylic in the UK, had to adapt sharply to deal with this. They ensured an immediate response to the ‘first wave’ of orders for protective acrylic screens, which rolled out at major supermarkets within seven days of the first order.

Pictured: hard to spot, but definitely there. This pharmacy is using acrylic to run as safely as possible (courtesy of Inplas Fabrications).

And it just got busier from there. Initial projects for supermarkets and hospitals gave way to more and more places, from schools and coffee shops to large offices, setting their sights on how to safely get going again after lockdown measures ease. Luke Martyn, PDL’s Marketing Manager, says:

“Almost all industries are now looking at acrylic screens to manage social distancing within their workforce and customer base. The challenge for the market is that this new sector has established overnight, which nobody could have predicted just a few months ago.

“It’s testament to the resourcefulness of our supply chain that our material manufacturers and fabrication customers have all worked, as we have, to transform their businesses to meet these demands in such a short period of time.”

That certainly rings true for Michael Currell, Managing Director of Bay Plastics, a design and fabrication company based in the North East of England. Michael tells us:

“We haven’t seen demand like this in our 32 years of operating. Back in March, watching as lockdown measures were first introduced in the UK, we initially wondered what this would mean for our business over the coming months.

“But this soon became clear as the first orders from major supermarkets fitting their stores out with acrylic protection screens came in. Anticipating what was to come, we ordered large amounts of stock rapidly. On top of the supermarket demand, we were able expand our solutions by producing acrylic intubation chambers and supplying them to the NHS, helping those on the ‘front lines’ give critical care to COVID-19 patients.

“Through strong relationships with suppliers such as PDL, our strong management team and the hard work of our dedicated staff, we have never been busier. Our sales, marketing, admin, design, conversion and delivery teams have been flat out, whilst our Laser, CNC router and fabrication equipment have been running 24/7. It’s been non-stop. I’ve actually enjoyed returning to the coal face and getting my hands dirty, helping the fabrication team keep up with the unprecedented demand.

“As with all aspects of the pandemic, it’s hard to predict what the next 3-6 months and beyond will bring, but I’m expecting the demand to continue into 2021 as more and more non-essential places open their doors with measures in place to protect staff and customers.”

What might happen next?

As Michael at Bay Plastics says, it’s safe to assume that clear acrylic shields will be part of our lives for the foreseeable future. But at some point, we’re likely to start seeing fewer screens as the threat of the virus recedes and confidence returns. The closer we get to this scenario, the more of an issue recycling will become.

The crucial thing, says David Smith, our Circular Economy Programme Lead, is that acrylic is different to other plastics:

“It’s easy to assume that all plastics are the same, but this is not strictly true. For example, while there is rightly considerable focus on the reduction of single use or ‘throwaway’ plastics, acrylic is known for its durability and can last for many years, inside or out.

“While it’s a long-term solution that will perform its protective duties for as long as it’s needed, it can also be recycled. Plastic waste should therefore not be an issue.”

This rings especially true given our project to make acrylic a fully recyclable, fully sustainable, fully circular material by launching our own recycling site in Europe by 2023. David explains:

“We want to create a completely circular economy for acrylic. By using something called molecular recycling, we can take acrylic and break it down to its building block – MMA. That MMA can then be used to create new acrylic from scratch. So, completely circular.

“There’s going to be thousands of these screens and they’ll need to be recycled. So we’re really keen to try and source them for our plant, so in 2023 we can be up and running and start to recycle the material properly.”

For months to come, we and the wider acrylic industry will be doing our utmost to serve this new market. Doing our bit to keep you safe throughout a global crisis is a great source of pride throughout the value chain and, however this develops, we will be ready to respond to whatever may come next.