Friday, September 5th, 2014

The California Bag Ban and a Lesson on How Not to Legislate

By Lee Califf, Executive Director, American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA)

The California State Senate approved SB 270 last week, sending a fee on paper bags and the nation’s first statewide ban of plastic bags to Governor Jerry Brown (D) for consideration. Several environmental groups have all but danced in the streets to celebrate the bill’s advance, despite the fact that:

  • plastic bags comprise less than a half of a percent of the U.S. municipal solid waste stream and banning them will have little, if any, effect on reducing litter;
  • plastic bag production generates 80 percent less waste and requires 70 percent less energy to manufacture than paper counterparts; and
  • plastic retail bags are 100 percent recyclable, reusable and made with American natural gas, an environmentally-friendlier alternative to other fossil fuels.

But each of these facts obscures a bigger point about the legislative process that brought SB 270 to Governor Brown’s desk: this so-called “environmental” legislation never had anything to do with the environment.

The Bag “Bargain”

In the process of making environmental policy choices, it often doesn’t take long for the discussion to veer away from the scientific and toward the emotional. Broad considerations for the planet’s future touch deep ideological nerves, so this makes sense, but it can often stifle conversations about actual science, as well as the real environmental ramifications of the policy proposal.apba logo_2012

Recognizing this, proponents of SB 270 decided never to entertain the very good environmentally-friendly reasons to vote against the bill, some of which are outlined above, but instead stood on the assumed truths that have similarly derailed so many other policy discussions. Furthermore, money spoke louder than environmental imperatives or the supposedly inherent evil of plastics, as supporters of the bill made grocers and unions an offer they couldn’t refuse: support SB 270 and we’ll direct the fees collected from the paper bags to you.

The Future

The bill’s lack of real environmental bona fides, along with its enactment via back-room deal, should lead anyone to scoff at the suggestion that SB 270’s success will somehow amount to a win, for any constituency, environmentally-focused or otherwise. For them it’s a symbolic victory, and while they’re celebrating the nation’s only statewide bag ban, all the baggage that comes with this deal isn’t commendable.

In many ways, the bill effectively scams consumers out of billions of dollars in bag fees. It’s a tax, of sorts, but typically taxes go back into state coffers to further benefit the public. In SB 270’s case, the fees collected from consumers won’t be used to pay for a road, a fire truck, a better school or even a marginal environmental benefit; they’ll be used to line the pockets of California grocers.

California has created a prime example of how not to legislate (fleecing consumers and damaging the state economy, all in the name of an imaginary environmental benefit), and other states might not be too eager to follow in California’s footsteps for that very reason, as well as some additional legal concerns. Most states probably won’t be willing to put this kind of fee on bags and give the money to grocery stores, and even if they were willing to do so there are some serious constitutionality questions about that. In effect it’s a tax that’s not going to the government. The private interest gets the money.

But on a more basic level, most states also wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, want to enact a tax on their citizens that essentially amounts to a form of corporate welfare for grocers, all while threatening the state’s economy. SB 270 puts 2,000 Californians that are employed at risk of being unemployed, all for the sake of a dirty deal between California grocers and union bosses. APBA stands with those workers, and with all Californians, as we continue to fight this dangerous and misguided piece of legislation.

Monday, August 18th, 2014

North American Plastics Alliance Celebrates Three Years—and Welcomes ANIPAC

By William R. Carteaux, President and CEO, SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association; Carol Hochu, President and CEO, The Canadian Plastics Industry Association; and Steve Russell, Vice President, Plastics Division, The American Chemistry Council

Three years ago, the three leading plastics industry associations in the U.S. and Canada formally joined forces to create the North American Plastics Alliance (NAPA). Although we already were cooperating on many issues, we agreed that by memorializing a commitment to work together we could create efficiencies and be more effective as representatives of this large and diverse industry.

William R. Carteaux

William R. Carteaux, President and CEO, SPI

So what exactly has NAPA undertaken over these three years? Quite a bit.

Quick background… We set out in 2011 to coordinate our individual efforts on specific initiatives and programs in four areas:

  • Outreach – to promote better understanding of plastics’ benefits;
  • Advocacy – to encourage public policy that supports the growth of the plastics industry;
  • Energy recovery and recycling – to facilitate increased recycling and recovery of plastics’ stored energy content; and
  • Pellet containment – to extend wide-scale adoption of Operations Clean Sweep® throughout North America and beyond.

While observing our anniversary in July, we proudly added another member: ANIPAC, the leading  plastics association in Mexico. It was a gratifying  way to celebrate our Alliance, making it a truly North American entity. NAPA now encompasses the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association and Asociación Nacional de Industrias del Plástico, A.C. (ANIPAC).

At the start, we believed that leveraging our individual programs through enhanced cooperation among Alliance members would provide increased value to our associations and our member companies. And we were correct.

For example, on the outreach front, although each of our U.S. and Canadian associations has communications programs, we now routinely promote each other’s content through social media, greatly expanding the reach of our individual efforts.

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Carol Hochu, President and CEO, CPIA

On the advocacy front, CPIA representatives joined with ACC and SPI in Washington, DC, for the plastics industry “Fly-in” in July, demonstrating the cross-border nature of the North American industry. Representatives from seven plastics associations, along with 111 member company participants, went to Capitol Hill to meet and discuss key issues with elected officials. In total, we met with 122 members of Congress, enhancing our industry’s profile in the Capitol and underscoring our contributions to jobs and sustainability.

The three U.S. and Canadian associations also are actively involved in energy recovery projects. In the City of Edmonton, Alberta, we’re working together to determine if adding more non-recycled plastics to a system that converts waste to gas improves efficiencies and results in better synthetic fuel products. (So far the answer appears to be yes.) The system is a full-scale “gasification” facility that is part of Edmonton’s efforts to divert 90 percent of its waste from landfills through recycling, composting, and waste-to-fuels technologies. We also are working together on plastics-to-oil projects to jumpstart technologies that convert the energy in non-recycled plastics into fuels.

Plastics recycling in the U.S. and Canada continues to show year-over-year growth, supported by myriad technical and communications programs to improve collection and scrap value sponsored by our associations. This fall, SPI will coordinate a meeting of North American plastics recycling association leaders to share best practices on plastics recycling and determine how to work more closely together in the future.

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Steve Russell, Vice President, Plastics Department, ACC

Efforts to improve and expand programs that help prevent resin pellets from entering waterways and the marine environment were particularly successful. In 2011 only the U.S. associations and their member companies were implementing Operation Clean Sweep. SPI created the Operation Clean Sweep initiative in 1992 to focus on proper containment of plastic pellets by resin producers, transporters, bulk terminal operators, and plastics processors.

Today, plastics associations in 12 additional countries, including Canada and Mexico, have launched Operation Clean Sweep. U.S. and Canadian associations have pledged to increase member company participation in Operation Clean Sweep this year by 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively. In addition, Plastics Europe is transitioning its member country associations  to the initiative. These efforts are part of the global plastics industry’s public commitment to tackle a global problem: plastic litter in the marine environment.

So what’s next?  There’s more to do in each of these areas, and through the alliance, we’re discovering new ways to be more efficient and more effective.  Our industry is large, diverse and growing every day.  And it’s clear that our needs are best served when we all work together.

The North American plastics industry is re-surging following a severe recession, with new opportunities brought on by cost-advantaged shale gas. NAPA pledges to help maximize that resurgence through cross-border cooperation and leveraged resources to enhance opportunities for the plastics industry and its products – in the U.S., Canada, and now Mexico.

Friday, July 26th, 2013

Technophobia — It’s More than Chemophobia and Plastiphobia

We in the plastics business frequently are impacted by plastiphobia — the irrational fear of plastics, and because it is irrational it is all the more frustrating trying to deal with it. Logical, factual, scientific arguments are shouted down by phobics, or simply ignored. I think the following quote provides a helpful perspective on the broader area of technophobia:

“Maybe it’s worth remembering that technology vilification is about as old as technology itself. What’s new is electronic gossip and the proliferation of organizations that peddle such gossip for a living.”

The electronic gossip reference obviously is to the Internet. You will recall that several of the first scientists to discover the earth revolves around the sun were rewarded for their insight by being imprisoned, tortured, burned at the stake, or all three. If the Internet had existed at the time, it would have happened faster.

The quotation is taken from an essay in this week’s Scientific American titled “Can We Trust Monsanto With Our Food?” by Nina Fedoroff, distinguished professor of biosciences at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.

The author is writing about the controversy encircling genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Scientists, she says, now have three decades of research that finds no credible evidence that modifying plants by molecular techniques is dangerous. That research should have caused early alarms about the technology to dissipate, she says, but instead the anti-GMO storm has intensified and the fear mongering continues.

We in the plastics sector share your frustration Ms. Federoff, and we also share your passion for science, rational thinking, and the rule of evidence. Let’s keep at it.

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Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

Apprentices Could Help Manufacturing‘s Skills Shortage

Much is being written lately about American manufacturing, which of course includes plastics, America’s third largest manufacturing sector. However, the analysis, opinions, and forecasts are far from unanimous. Many analysts say U.S. manufacturing is making a comeback, or is on the verge of a comeback, with reshoring of previously offshored work helping the efforts.

But you are just as likely to see or hear that the uptick in American manufacturing is a glitch, just part of a reflex-like rebound from the recession of 2008-2009, that there are serious obstacles to a major recovery, and that the U.S. is unlikely to ever recover its prominence as a maker of things.

One of the most frequently mentioned obstacles is a lack of skilled workers in the USA. Several recent studies put the number of jobs going unfilled due to employers not being able to find people with the needed skills at about half a million, and probably more. They are not talking about graduate engineers, though they too are scarce, but shop floor, hands-on machine operators, maintenance specialists, and machinists.

The ManpowerGroup’s 2012 Annual Talent Shortage Survey found 33 percent of U.S. employers have difficulty finding skilled workers, an increase from 24 percent in the 2011 survey. The Survey revealed that the 10 hardest jobs to fill are, in order of difficulty: skilled trades, engineers, IT staff, sales reps, accounting/finance staff, drivers, mechanics, nurses, machinists/machine operators, and teachers.

The so-called skills gap could either stop a manufacturing renaissance or slow it down significantly. The good news is that solutions are developing. For example, the federal government is supporting creation of centers for manufacturing excellence around the country, and plastics manufacturers and others are working with educational institutions such as community colleges to give workers the skills they need.

One solution, however, deserves more attention. “The central answer to the mismatch between jobs and employment is a 21st-century apprenticeship program,” according to a recent article in the Washington Post. The authors, Stuart E. Eizenstat, chief domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter and undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, and Robert I. Lerman, an economics professor at American University and a fellow at the Urban Institute, make a strong case for apprenticeships.

There are a number of existing manufacturing apprenticeship programs in operation, but with about half a million jobs open that can’t be filled, more are needed. The article points out that 55 to 70 percent of all young people in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland enter apprenticeships. To be sure, those countries have long traditions of guilds and craftwork and you could say apprenticeships are in their culture. But in Australia apprenticeships have tripled since 1996, and in England they have increased by a factor of 10 since 1990 to more than 500,000 participants last year.

As a plastics industry journalist in Europe, I visited numerous plastics processing facilities, and I saw apprentices at work in many of them, particularly in Germany. Those training programs are as normal and common there as they are rare and unusual in the USA. Top managers of the processing companies told me the apprentice programs are virtually always three-way partnerships among government, education, and the manufacturer — and they always spoke of the program and its results positively. I recall one manager, puzzled by my questions about the apprentice system, stopped for a moment and then told me, in a serious tone, that those youngsters were the future of his company.

My interviews were almost always at small to medium plastics processing companies, almost all plastics molders and moldmakers. The larger companies also have apprentice programs. In every case, the managers emphasized that the learning was absolutely practical, based on the specifics of processing plastics and toolmaking. They stressed how, following a brief startup period, the apprentices did real work that the company needed, not made-up training exercises. The learning provided by the educational institution likewise was driven by what the apprentices would be doing following their training. The keyword for the apprentice training is practical.

Manufacturing accounts for 20 percent of all German jobs, despite a high level of automation. Manufacturing is about 10 percent of the U.S. workforce. Germany as a country is strongly focused on exports and regularly enjoys a trade surplus. By contrast, America’s large trade deficit seems to have become a permanent part of economic reports.

Making apprenticeships an effective component of U.S. manufacturing will require a cultural shift. Eizenstat and Lerman note that government in America spends more than $300 billion on colleges and universities, while its outlays for apprenticeship programs are less than $40 million. Many Americans believe that a college diploma is essential to success, that production facilities are terrible workplaces, and that a career in manufacturing lacks prestige and is not financially rewarding.

As everyone in manufacturing knows, the truth is quite the opposite. The apprentice graduates with a sense of pride and the identity that comes with joining an occupational group. And the financial considerations are very different. Unlike a full-time student, the apprentice earns money while learning and training, does not accumulate what increasingly is a heavy burden of student loan debt, has not been unemployed, and most likely will not be.

Friday, April 26th, 2013

Busting Myths About Plastics Can Save American Jobs

A planet this beautiful deserves to be treated fairly. (Photo: NASA)

A planet this beautiful deserves to be treated with great care, and fairly. (Photo: NASA)

In stark contrast with its good intentions, the annual April 22nd Earth Day celebration never fails to resurrect many of the myths about plastics. Sadly, this year again saw many of the tired old plastics myths rise like zombies and stumble, maybe not through your town, but surely through the media.

Even the real science that clearly shows these fanciful tales are nothing but myths is not enough to kill them. Science is simply and conveniently ignored.

These zombie myths are far from harmless, however. For starters, they needlessly alarm the public. That’s bad enough, but the resulting hysteria then gets twisted in a way that directly threatens American manufacturing jobs in the plastics industry. Does anyone doubt we need more good jobs, not fewer?

These persistent plastics myths spring from and are kept alive by a variety of sources. Among the loudest are:

  • Environmental activists and non-government organizations promoting their agendas,
  • Journalists that fail to do basic research and simply repeat the myths,
  • Businesses with a competing alternative material, or,
  • Retailers that give in to the outcries of alarmist special interest groups.

The links below describe some of the more commonly heard myths about plastics. Click on them to see the facts about the safe use of plastic products, facts provided by experts in government, academia and industry. 

Common Myths About Plastics

  1. Using plastic food containers or wraps in microwaves is dangerous.
  2. Freezing water in plastic bottles releases dioxins into the water.
  3. The number on the bottom of plastic cups, bottles and containers informs consumers about how to use a product or package.
  4. Plastic food wraps and packages are made with phthalates.
  5. Six-pack rings (beverage can binders) are a hazard to wildlife.

The myth mongers seem oblivious to the negative effects of their story telling, such as how they can wipe out well-paying jobs in America’s third-largest manufacturing sector—plastics. It is far more likely that they wear blinders by choice as they promote their agendas.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the zombie plastics myths abruptly dropped in their tracks like movie zombies often do. Not likely. In real life, the myth mongers work hard to keep the zombie plastic myths circulating. For many  it’s how they make their living. However, since facts are the best antidote for myths, arm yourself with the Plastics Champion described below.

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Have a Database of Facts About Plastics at Your Fingertips

Plastics-Champion-larger-logo-3SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association, in cooperation with seven other plastics-related associations, has published an online database of factual information about plastics called the Plastics Champion, and it’s yours to download or access online at no cost. You can find it  here: www.plasticschampion.org. For the iPhone and iPad, it’s free on the Apple App Store or via iTunes. Search ‘Plastics Champion’ or use this link. An Android app is being developed, but for now the website is mobile browser friendly. With  the Plastics Champion at hand you may actually enjoy your next encounter with a plastics myth spinner.