Despite these pressures, flexible foam producers in the EU 28 plus Norway, Switzerland, Turkey and Russia ended 2019 with 1.3m tonne of polyether foam production, representing an increase of 3.6% on the previous year. In total, a further 70 kT of polyester block foam was also made. Turnover of €5.3bn supported 159 continuous block plants and a little more than 27,000 full-time equivalent jobs, he said.
A total of 45kT more slabstock was exported in 2019 than was imported into the EU trading bloc. ‘The main export destinations for Europe-made flexible foam are the US, China and Serbia,’ Raine said. ‘There was a spike in demand from the Yemen, but this is probably linked to the conflict there.’
EuroPUR’s regular market survey confirmed that the centre of gravity of the industry is moving further east. Indeed, the majority of the regions where production growth was registered between 2018 and 2019 were in the east of the continent.
The biggest relative gains came in the Balkans, Greece and Cyprus, which was up by 44% year on year, albeit from a low start of 29.4kT in 2018. Polyether slabstock production in Turkey grew by 12.8% to 162kT/year. Romanian and Bulgarian production increased by 4.6% to 62.7kT. The combined production of Hungary, Croatia, Czech and Slovak Republics and Slovenia also grew by 4.6%, to 52kT.
Growth in Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine grew by 3.8% to 136kT. Among the western European countries, the only countries where production grew between 2018 and 2019 were Scandinavia and the Baltics, up 3.2% to 77kT, and France, where it was up 2.8% to 33kT. Overall, those countries where production was up added about 50kT in 2019. In contrast, the UK and Ireland region was the biggest loser, with production down by 4kT. In the other regions, the decline was less than 1%.
Looking at the net production figures between 2017 and 2019, production in Turkey increased by 27kT, Poland by 17.9kT, and the Balkans, Greece and Cyprus by a total 16.9kT. The biggest falls were seen in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, where 10.5kT less PU was produced over the three-year period. In France, production was down by 9.9kT, and in the UK and Ireland, it declined by 4.5kT.
‘The market was tough in 2019, and there were structural changes,’ Raine said. ‘There was a trend towards lower density foams. That has continued, and may have led to lower levels of HR and polyether foams being produced.’
This trend was amplified by higher raw material prices in the second half of 2019. This has resulted in downstream users trying to replace flexible polyurethane foam with other materials where they can, or to use less of it.
‘End-users are getting clever at reducing the amount of foam in their products,’ Raine said. ‘One producer reported that 1cm of height in mattresses is being taken by non-woven material at a customer,’ That’s reducing the amount of PU needed by 5% in a 20 cm thick mattress. This does not spell the end for the industry, but it could be a potential threat.’