Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Highlights from Today’s NAM Report on the Cost of Federal Regulation

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) issued a report this morning detailing the enormous, burdensome costs that manufacturers bear in order to stay in compliance with federal regulations. Based on a survey of NAM members, the report, titled “The Cost of Federal Regulation to the U.S. Economy, Manufacturing and Small Business,” indicated that the average American manufacturer pays $19,564 per employee per year in compliance costs, almost double the $9,991USCapitol per employee per year that non-manufacturers pay. Overall, America’s manufacturers pay $2.028 trillion every year in order to stay compliant with federal regulations.

“As the nation’s third-largest manufacturing sector employing 900,000 men and women, the plastics industry is no stranger to regulations,” said SPI President & CEO William R. Carteaux in a response to this morning’s report. “While many of these rules and regulations are proposed and implemented with good intentions, the devil has always been in the details and as the NAM report makes clear, America’s regulatory framework is in need of a serious reboot,” he said, adding that “comprehensive reform is necessary to allow the nation’s manufacturers to grow their businesses, hire more workers and keep America competitive abroad.”

In addition to detailing the staggering costs that the manufacturing industry pays every year, the NAM report also contained several other important insights:

  • Federal regulation was by far the most frequently identified business challenge: Eighty-eight percent of survey respondents indicated that “federal government regulation was a challenge that had recently affected their firm or that they expected their business to face in the future.” Additional information provided by respondents went further, detailing the regulatory cost information for specific expenditures. “Estimating the cost of outlays for manufacturing as a whole from the respondents’ data indicates that direct expenditures related to regulation in the past year were $138.6 billion,” the report said, noting that this figure is larger than the economies of 19 U.S. states, to put things into perspective.
  • If the cost of regulatory compliance fell, the resulting funds would be reallocated in interesting places: Survey respondents were asked how their company might reallocate funds if their regulatory compliance costs were reduced. Their open-ended answers fell into one or more of five general categories: investment, employee initiatives, sales, ROI or debt reduction and other. Within the investment category, which was the most popular with 63 percent of responses, survey participants identified four areas of investment spending that would be likely to increase if regulatory compliance costs decreased: “capital investment and expenditures, growth and acquisition, research and development and general unspecified investment.” Within the employee initiatives category, which was the second most popular response with 22 percent, respondents identified three areas of employment spending that would likely increase if regulatory costs decreased: “creating or preserving jobs, employee training and wages and/or benefits.”
  • Regulation compliance takes a toll on morale in addition to each manufacturer’s bottom line: A number of themes arose in the additional comments offered by survey respondents about federal government regulations, but one important one was the fact that respondents observed deterioration in morale, well-being and work environment as a consequence of regulation. Many reported “an adversarial perspective by regulators toward businesses, where a firm ‘is approached as an evil entity’ populated by ‘bad guys.’” According to the report, in most cases these comments reflected the perspective that regulators fail to understand the circumstances of the businesses they are regulating, which in turn creates greater uncertainties.
  • The costs reported in the survey do not capture the total cost of regulations on a sector, or on the economy as a whole: While $2.028 trillion is a hefty price tag that the nation’s manufacturers pay for federal compliance, the total costs could be considerably higher. While the survey specifically asked for information regarding federal regulation and how it related to “the distribution of employees’ time; the cost of outside advisers; purchasing and maintaining tangible items; emissions credits or offsets; and costs resulting from federal government compliance-related activities,” respondents discussed other ancillary costs in their open-ended responses. According to the report, “inefficient planning as a consequence of uncertainty, including federal regulation in the production location calculus, R&D and capital investment consequences and reductions in employment and in competitiveness” were among the additional costly consequences that respondents associated with federal regulation.

A full copy of the NAM report can be found here.

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.

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

The Green Fence and Why Every Recycler Needs to Pay Attention to China

China’s ravenous consumption of scrap plastics came to a not-quite-screeching, but still drastic halt near the end of 2012. At the time, however, you’d have been forgiven for dismissing the decline as a standard seasonal aberration.

For U.S. recyclers, a period of prosperity preceded China’s decision to begin enforcing laws restricting the importation of certain scrap plastic. “Everyone agrees that there was a time when there were no questions asked,” said Xavier A. Cronin, editor of a recycled plastics report at Petro-Chem Wire. “[They said] ‘as long as it’s scrap plastic, we’ll take it.’” This attitude made China a logical and lucrative market for recyclers looking to unload scrap plastic, and the industry did its best to make hay while the sun shined. Between 2010 and 2011 U.S. exports to China of “other” scrap plastic, a catch-all term that refers to a conglomerate of multiple resins in one box, polypropylene and other materials that fall into more than one category, regularly exceeded each of the four other types of plastics exports tracked by the U.S. Census Bureau, eventually hitting 526,898 tons in October 2012.

XCronin

Xavier Cronin

At that point, however, U.S. scrap plastic export volumes to China began a major dive that has yet to reverse itself, but in November 2012 it was easy to mistake the decline for the standard seasonal drop that recyclers had come to expect around the same time near the end of every year. “When we saw a drop off we thought ‘it’s November, of course there’s a drop off,’” said David Kaplan, formerly of Maine Plastics. “You don’t want to put anything in the water ahead of Chinese New Year,” he added, because millions of migrant Chinese workers go home for the New Year and many of China’s factories, recyclers included, go dark for 15 days, and what’s more is that many of the workers stay home, extending work delays for weeks. To account for this, U.S. exporters reduce their shipping volume ahead of the holiday. “The reason it didn’t gain attention at the end of 2012, ahead of the holiday season, export volumes always drop,” Kaplan said. “Nobody noticed it because they would’ve expected a decrease in exporting anyway.”

Declines in the months thereafter effectively killed any hopeful hypotheses that the November decline was just another seasonal reduction. That’s because October 2012’s reduction coincided with the institution of China’s “Green Fence,” a series of bureaucratic hurdles and newly-stringent regulations on what scrap plastic China would accept that has, and will continue, to complicate the business of exporting to China, a market that for many is too big to ignore, despite the regulations.

David Kaplan

David Kaplan

How the Green Fence came to be, however, offers an example of China’s political unpredictability that’s vital for every company in the recycling industry to understand. The Green Fence wasn’t written the night of Sept. 30 and instituted the following day. It was China’s decision to start enforcing  laws that it had previously chosen to ignore. “The green fence was the enforcement of laws that have been on the books for years,” Kaplan said. “The word enforcement is the key because [November 2012] was really when it started. It was the result    of a political move of the government to show that they were doing something about pollution issues in China. That is the general consensus; it’s not like the U.S. started shipping them anything different, they just enforced laws that had been on the books for years.”

“The data tells the story,” Cronin said. “The U.S. census shows that the scrap exports fell after the green fence enforcement bureaucracies went into effect. On the political side that’s a whole other conversation. Tomorrow they may decide to enforce a regulation from 1986.”

China’s sudden decision to start enforcing the laws that underpin the Green Fence suggests it’s anyone’s guess what China will choose to do or when they’ll choose to do it in the future. And what’s more is that China’s outsized influence on the recycling industry means that when it trains its regulatory eye on something, the whole world feels it. In many ways the Green Fence has both kept mixed scrap plastics out, and also fenced companies in from a revenue standpoint. Staying ahead of industry and regulatory trends, increasing the quality of exported material and exploring other alternative markets for scrap plastics to reduce China’s influence on your bottom line are all vital to growing business in today’s industry.

Join Cronin and Kaplan at their SPI Webinar on Sept. 4 at 2 p.m. EST to learn more about the Green Fence’s effect on the U.S. recycling industry and how your company can stay ahead of China’s unpredictable regulatory curve. Registration is free for SPI members.

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

For Sorters’ Eyes Only: A Brief History of the RIC

Plastics recycling 25 years ago boiled down to two types of products: PET soda bottles and high-density (HDPE) milk jugs. But if the public, and the plastics industry, wanted to expand the plastics recycling effort, the first thing they needed was a good way to automatically identify the different plastic types.

“It was hoped that if a system was developed where the basic resin was marked on the container itself or on the articles that recyclers or sorters on the recycling line could actually identify those numbers and separate them into a variety of different bins,” said Thomas Pecorini, technology fellow at Eastman Chemical and chairman of ASTM Section D20.95.01 during a recent webinar hosted by the SPI Recycling Policy Subcommittee.

This desire gave birth to the modern resin identification code (RIC) system, created by SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association in 1988 to help make it easier for sorters and recyclers to separate different types of materials into one of six (eventually seven) different, broadly-defined resin groups. The goal then was the same as it is now; to reduce waste and ensure that the recyclable plastics entering the municipal waste stream could be collected and given a second life. The question has become, is the RIC still a vehicle for achieving that goal?

Resin ID Code Triangles

The RIC.

What began as a tool to help sorters and recyclers, however, eventually grew to become one of the hardest aspects of plastics recycling for consumers to understand. A poll conducted by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) and Earth911 between May and July found that consumers are easily confused when it comes to recycling plastics.

“With more and more plastic being produced, it’s essential that plastic products that have reached end of life enter the recycling stream,” said Robin Wiener, president of ISRI. “As long as confusion reigns, consumers are apt to throw plastics away that should be recycled. This Earth911/ISRI Opinion Poll demonstrates a strong need for additional education, particularly by municipalities, on what can be recycled and how to do it.” Among the poll’s findings was the fact that 65 percent of respondents answered that they don’t understand what is and what is not permissible when recycling plastics. Additionally, 17 percent of those consumers were most confused by the meaning of the recycling numbers, or resin identification codes (RICs).

The irony in the poll’s findings is that the RIC, created to facilitate recycling, might be making consumers less likely to recycle, simply by confusing them, but it’s important to remember that the RIC was never designed for consumers in the first place. “The RICs were never really intended to suggest that all items with a resin ID code are collected for recycling,” Pecorini said. “Moreover they were never actually meant to be used by the general public and the original system was meant to be an optional system.”

But the deceptive simplicity of the original RIC made it an obvious, although ultimately misleading education tool for municipalities hoping to outsource their sorting procedures to consumers themselves. “Municipal recycling programs tried to bring their sortation-at-home programs and they began informing the consumers that these RICs exist and used it as a public education tool to say if you had six bins in your garage you could self-sort all the different materials,” Pecorini said. “But unfortunately that also fell out of favor because the consumers didn’t want to spend that much time on recycling.”

The RIC’s legacy to the general public is the erroneous suggestion that the presence of a RIC number, surrounded by a chasing arrow, means that the item is automatically recyclable. “This has kind of created a series of problems,” Pecorini said.

As such, in 2008 SPI began working with ASTM to take control over the RIC and convert it to a globally-accepted standard that conveys more information about the material, but the process is a balancing act. Making changes to the labeling system too suddenly could negatively affect moldmakers, and adding too much information to further particularize one of the existing RICs could lead to situations like China’s where an explosion of different categories has given them a system with 140 numbers, as opposed to the RIC’s meager seven.

However, most can agree that replacing the RIC with a more productive 21st century counterpart will require more specifics to make collected articles easier to sort into recyclable groups, and that the RIC should not be used as a public education tool. But many other issues remain under consideration, and ASTM’s work will continue as they strive to set a standard that considers the needs of moldmakers, equipment manufacturers and processors as well as those of consumers. “What we see in recycling right now is transitions from a lot of consumer education and relying on the consumers to sort the material, to more automated sorting,” Pecorini said. “I personally would hope that someday we get to the point where we can tell consumers to just put all your plastics in a bin, and that may very well happen down the pike…but right now that isn’t in place.” That is certainly a vision that is shared by SPI.

Friday, August 15th, 2014

Turning the Tide on the Plastics Conversation

by Kim Holmes, SPI, Director, Recycling and Diversion

Many of the stories featured in the 2014springmagazine-coverspring 2014 issue of The SPI Magazine address the topic of plastics in the marine environment, which is undoubtedly an important issue for the industry. Marine debris stories are regularly in the news and are often the focus of recent scientific research. It is an issue that the industry must respond to swiftly and in a meaningful way.

Like marine debris issues, many of the conversations the plastics industry has with regulators and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are in response to a particular problem or challenge that has arisen. The industry will usually enter the conversation from a position of necessity, which often results in being put into a defensive position—not an easy place to be. Given the opportunity, most would like to be able to reverse the dynamic of these conversations, which would allow them the opportunity and ability to get out a more positive message. There are certainly opportunities for the plastics industry to begin the conversation. The question becomes “what would the direction of this conversation look like?”

Changing the dynamic of these conversations means the plastics industry has to make the first move, giving the public information out about the benefits of plastics, not just defending ourselves from the potential problems. Plastics present many advantages in our lives and in the environment. In fact, the more plastics are measured against other materials, the clearer their sustainability advantages become.

Light weight, less energy intensive manufacturing and production processes, minimal effluents in production, durability and expanded product life span and potential for recovery and recyclability are all areas in which plastics measure up favorably. In addition to these inherent advantages, the plastics industry is also adopting initiatives which aim to further reduce its environmental impact, protect workers and enhance the communities in which it does business. Based on what we see from our members, the industry has already expressed a true commitment to embracing the three core values of sustainability: people, planet and profit—commonly known as triple-bottom line.

As sustainability is becoming an increasingly important factor in the decision-making process of consumers and organizations throughout the supply chain, the plastics industry is finding itself in a position to shape a new conversation. Some large companies such as brand owners are starting to leverage the information in their corporate sustainability reports (CSRs) to demonstrate leadership, which in turn improves brand perception and strengthens brand loyalty.

As we enter the arena of environmental reporting, it is important to remember the distinction between promoting “green” efforts and simply “green washing.” Talking about being green becomes green washing when the environmental benefits are overstated or information that could change the overall environmental benefit of your product is intentionally omitted. This pitfall is one that many companies have been accused of over the years. The damage that can be done when a company is suspected of green washing can far outweigh the incremental positive gains from any beneficial claims. While everyone wants to showcase the benefits of a product, the information must also be accurate. This means that data collection has to be done in a methodical and transparent way, while using standard terms and definitions that are generally accepted by industry.

Last year, SPI conducted the first-ever sustainability benchmark survey of its members. In this first iteration, the survey focused mainly on environmental aspects of sustainability and served as a cursory view of our members’ thoughts about integrating sustainability practices into their business. This year, we have assembled a cross-council and cross-committee workgroup to develop a new sustainability benchmarking tool to measure all aspects of sustainability. The criteria of the tool are also more closely aligned with the corporate sustainable reporting framework offered by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). The tool will yield information on many of the same core areas that other large companies and industries use for measuring sustainability.

With the findings of the survey, SPI will be able to evaluate opportunities to further help our members integrate sustainable goals and practices into operations. Of equal importance, the tool will equip the industry with necessary data to highlight many of the positive activities happening in the plastics industry, allowing us to begin our own conversations about the benefits of the material and the industry. Participating companies can also use these findings to identify opportunity areas and set new goals around environmental and social stewardship. And for the many small- and medium-sized companies that may not have implemented sustainability benchmarking, participation in this survey will help organize the information that customers seek from suppliers.

While many large companies have already found value in publicly reporting their sustainability efforts, the overall perception of plastics as a material will benefit greatly if we as an industry can communicate our collective efforts. The participation of SPI members from across the entire supply chain is critical for this to be accomplished. Without it, the information being publicly reported will lack both integrity and accuracy.

Unfortunately, there is a reality where the negative conversations about plastics and the plastics industry will never fully die because they are rooted in emotion rather than science. However, we can bring a balance to the conversations with data-driven information about the benefits of our products and industry. This survey will be deployed in the first quarter of 2015 and we ask all members of the plastics supply chain to participate. Can we begin to turn the tide on the plastics conversation in 2014? Through our sustainability benchmarking efforts, the answer is a resounding yes. Together we can construct a message and take ownership of that conversation, but only with the help of everyone in the industry.