Plexiglass Is Having a Moment
As we redesign a new world partitioned by plexiglass, the industry experiences whiplash
Suddenly, plexiglass is everywhere. In March and April, grocery stores and drug stores rushed to install sneeze guards at registers to protect their workers and the public. Now, as businesses look to reopen in this new world of social distancing, the transparent partitions will soon become as ubiquitous as trash bins.
There’s nowhere, it seems, that plexiglass won’t be: Offices are looking at adding the clear barriers between desks, perhaps even in between sinks in corporate bathrooms (as Toyota is planning to install). Plexiglass is being added in restaurants between booths, in nail salons to separate the nail techs and their clients, and in some movie theaters that plan to reopen next month. Plexiglass might eventually be coming to the skies: One Italian design firm reimagined airline seating with clear partitions between passengers. And we might even get acclimated to it at the beach: One manufacturer has drawn up plans for transparent cubicles that will (allegedly) protect sunbathers.
Jason Reyes, a managing partner at Calson Management, a California-based senior living provider, has spent nearly $3,000 on plexiglass in the last month. “I had been getting a lot of phone calls, families missing their loved ones,” Reyes says, explaining that to protect vulnerable residents, his facilities had to stop visitations. “We started thinking about how to bring people face to face and still keep them safe.” He constructed a cubicle that could separate residents and visitors, or as he calls it, “120 square feet of plexiglass safety.” Now three of his seven California facilities have their own plexiglass cubicles. “We’ve had so many emotional responses,” says Reyes. “We had residents who thought they wouldn’t see loved ones on their birthday, and we bring them together and there’s lots of tears.”
“Our production is running in four shifts around the clock.”
All of this new demand for transparent shields means that the humdrum plexiglass business has suddenly become a hot industry. “We’re up over 200% [in sales] from this time last year,” says Russ Miller, manager of TAP Plastics, a plexiglass retailer in San Leandro, California, which was founded in 1963 and has 19 stores across the West Coast. Miller says he hasn’t “seen anything even close to this” in his 40 years of working for TAP.
How is the plastics industry coping with this unprecedented demand? And what exactly is plexiglass, anyway?
Most protective shields are made of poly(methyl methacrylate), known in the industry as PMMA (and known to the rest of us as acrylic or plexiglass, or by the brand names Plexiglas and Perspex). PMMA (which we’ll refer to as plexiglass, for ease) is a rigid thermoplastic that’s a cheaper, shatterproof alternative to glass. The stuff, which was invented by British scientists in the 1930s and registered under the trade name Perspex, is favored in medical settings because it has a high resistance to weathering and is not damaged by chemical cleaners. Plexiglass is made via polymerization — the monomer methyl methacrylate (MMA) reacts with a catalyst and is then molded into sheets.
And those sheets are now in high demand from nearly every industry. Katherine Sale, a senior editor at ICIS, a commodity intelligence service, says “sheet manufacturers are producing flat out to try and meet the demand” caused by the coronavirus, particularly at two of the largest producers, which are headquartered in Europe. In the U.K., the brand Perspex increased its acrylic sheet production by 300% from February to March. Demand for the official Plexiglas brand, produced by the German company Röhm, has also “risen sharply” and production has been “scaled up” according to an early April press release. (Both brands also have operations in the U.S.)
While plexiglass sheet manufacturers often have their own distribution teams, they also sell the product to other distribution companies who fabricate, laser-cut, bend, and form plastic for their own customers’ specifications. That includes companies like TAP Plastics. The first pandemic-related products that the business created were clear boxes for hospitals that can be placed over patients’ heads to protect staff. “Then we started to sell lots, and lots, and lots of sneeze guards.” Miller says Costco bought “pallets” of material from TAP.
Can plexiglass companies keep up with this new, somewhat unexpected demand? Spokespeople from both Perspex and Plexiglas say there are currently no issues creating or accessing raw materials. And Sale from ICIS confirms that MMA producers are “more than able” to meet the demand from PMMA manufacturers. “The only difficulty is producing the sheets fast enough,” she says.
Both Perspex and Plexiglas say sheet production has been ramped up to ensure there are no shortages. “Our production is running in four shifts around the clock,” says Yijing Shen, a marketer for Plexiglas. A spokesperson from Perspex Distribution says the company has repurposed production lines used for bathroom products and colored plastics to increase the production of clear Perspex.
“I won’t lie. The days are long, the pressure is on, and stress is real.”
Yet plastic distributors are struggling to get their hands on plexiglass sheets that they in turn supply to local businesses. Miller from plexiglass retailer TAP (which is not supplied by either Plexiglas or Perspex) says his company will run out of the most popular quarter-inch-thick sheets in a week, and there will be a six-week delay until his next batch arrives. (In the meantime, however, he has “thousands and thousands” of sheets of other thickness.)
Many in the industry are working overtime. “We’re basically doing a month’s worth of work every week,” says Miller, who also has fewer employees available because of the virus. John Short, general manager of 106-year-old distributor ePlastics headquartered in San Diego, says his staff has been coming in early, staying late, working Saturdays, and doing split shifts to keep up. “I won’t lie,” he says, “the days are long, the pressure is on, and stress is real.”
Manufacturers who can’t make plexiglass fast enough are fulfilling orders by making sheets from other transparent polymers like polycarbonate (PC) and polyethylene terephthalate-glycol (PET-G), notes Sale of ICIS, who says both are still suitable as protective shields.
Demand for plexiglass may continue to soar as it is deployed in increasingly unusual ways. Some scientists, for example, have begun arguing that essential workers should wear plexiglass face shields instead of fabric face masks. If a Covid-19 vaccine isn’t discovered, plexiglass dividers could feasibly soon be everywhere from public parks to churches to commuter trains.
Despite this, experts believe the plexiglass industry may still suffer long-term due to the effects of the coronavirus on the overall economy — and the industry’s long-time customers. “Our underlying business has suffered,” says Perspex’s spokesperson. The product is used heavily in the construction industry, which has seen new projects halted. It’s also popular for creating displays at retail stores, many of which remain shuttered, and expos, many of which have been canceled. Demand from the automotive and construction industries have also ground to a halt (two major industries that typically buy a lot of plexiglass), notes Sale of ICIS. “Although extruded and cast sheet demand may be booming,” she says, “This does not fully offset the weakness.”
For now, the plexiglass industry is lapping up its moment, working as fast as it can to keep people safe. “I have seen with my own eyes an industry that was given a call to action in a national crisis,” says ePlastics’ Short. “Everyone associated should be proud.”