Trends in China’s Trade in Commodity Polymers in 2023

China’s imports of commodity polymers as a total of all grades of PE, PP, styrenics, PVC and PET, declined for the third year in a row, a loss of nearly 10 million tons of volume over the 2020-2023 period. Exports of the combined total climbed for the third year in a row, increasing by nearly 7 million tons. Shipments of manufactured products identifiable as plastic showed a small gain of 0.7 million tons in 2023, rising to 16.7 million tons.

The period from 2020 to 2023, spanning Covid-19’s effects, both positive and negative, on domestic and foreign demand for specific polymers, the addition of new capacity, and weak economic recovery resulted in massive changes in China’s trade in commodity polymers and with it, that of producers and consumers globally.

China’s imports of commodity polymers fell by 9.6 million tons from 2020 to 2023, nearly half of the decline, 4.6 million tons, due to lower imports of polyethylene. China’s exports of commodity polymers increased by 6.8 million tons over the period, two-thirds of the gain, 4.6 million tons, due to surging exports of PET and PVC

Imports of each of the polymer groups declined yearly from 2020 to 2023, with the exception of polyethylene. Imports of PE initially trended downward but then picked up by 3% in 2023, to 16.7 million tons. Polyethylene imports from the United States were up 137% in 2023 from the prior year, to 2.8 million tons, placing the US at the top of China’s PE import sources, ahead of Saudi Arabia, Korea, UAE and Iran, each of which saw a drop in volume to China in 2023.

China ramped up exports of PET and PVC throughout the period. Smaller volume exports of ethylene polymers and styrenic polymers also rose. Exports of propylene polymers increased slightly in 2023, following a decline the year before. Vietnam was among China’s top export destinations for every one of the commodity polymer groups. There were very large percentage increases on China’s exports to India of PE, PVC and PET. Russia was an important export destination for Chinese PE, PVC and PET.

China exports many manufactured products that can be identified as being made of a specific plastic, like PE plastics bags, PP film/sheet or PVC floor/wall coverings, or of mixtures of plastics, like housewares, builder’s wares, boxes and crates, stoppers and lids and many others. China’s exports of this combined product category trended strongly higher in 2020 and 2021, flattened in 2022, and picked up 4% in 2023, to 16.7 million tons. Asia-Pacific, North America and Western Europe are primary destinations for most of these products. Both 2022 and 2023 saw relatively weak volume gains at yearend, compared with prior years when exports jumped in advance of the Chinese New Year holiday.

From International Trader Publications “China Polymer Trade Report”, a 60-page monthly analysis of China’s trade in all grades of polymers of ethylene, propylene, styrene, VCM and PET, recyclable polymers and identifiable plastic products, published online as soon as China reports. Figures for January and February 2024 will be analyzed on March 20th.