Not-so-fantastic plastic

Mounting hostility towards single-use plastics will create clear winners and losers.

Plastic is the environmental issue of the moment. Campaigners have long argued against the use of single-use plastics and sought to highlight the scourge they create for the natural world.

But it was a BBC documentary, Blue Planet II, that produced a literal sea change in how the US, Europe and the UK view plastics. The documentary graphically highlighted the extent to which plastics have infected food chains, and the immense suffering they inflict on sea creatures.

The response from consumers has been stark, with many people moving swiftly to reduce their usage of plastic. Companies have been equally quick to put in place policies that cut down reliance on plastic. Governments too are reacting, with the UK and Europe both announcing strategies to regulate plastics.

By contrast, the investment community has been slow to react. Many investment managers have talked up the need for action. However, that rhetoric has not necessarily been reflected in portfolios.

This is surprising. There are likely to be some clear winners and losers among plastics manufacturers. Simply put, companies with the capital to invest in the production of more sustainable forms of plastic, or that have limited exposure to single-use plastics, stand to prosper. Conversely, less well-capitalised companies dependent on single-use plastic will struggle to adapt.

Companies able to invest in the production of more sustainable forms of plastic, or that have limited exposure to single-use plastics, stand to prosper.

The US high-yield debt universe includes many companies producing single-use plastics. For instance, almost all of the production of Sealed Air Corporation is single-use plastic, and a number of their products are market-leading. The company’s bonds are supported by strong free cashflow, a solid balance sheet and healthy debt levels.

Most crucially, Sealed Air Corporation is investing to adapt to a world intent on using plastic more sustainably. The company has combined product innovation with its work on sustainability. It is also undertaking various initiatives aimed at increasing usage of recyclable materials. Additionally, it is developing bio-materials that are recyclable or that degrade much faster than petroleum-based products.

Not all companies are quite so forward-thinking. Some firms in the US high-yield market are heavily indebted, with as much as two-thirds of production dedicated to single-use plastics. Their lack of financial resource leaves them in a precarious position. Such firms will face stark choices about the direction that they want – and are able – to take in the future.

What applies to the US high-yield market does not apply to all jurisdictions. Asian consumers have been almost silent on the issue of single-use plastics. Consequently, there is little impetus for change in companies in the region.

The very raw outrage of many western consumers about plastic might fade over time. But companies and governments are moving in a direction that means that some of the changes being sought are likely to prove durable. As our love affair with plastic sours, the investment community must hasten to catch up with the shift of mood.

A version of this article was first published by Barrons on 5 March 2019

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Risk warning

Risk Warning

The value of investments, and the income from them, can go down as well as up and you may get back less than the amount invested.