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WASHINGTON — A combined Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and American Plastics Council would need to emphasize each group's current goals and strengths, their presidents said. But it remains uncertain whether the merger task force actually will recommend a union.

The associations announced the task force Jan. 29, but both APC President Red Cavaney and SPI President Larry Thomas said in a joint news conference last week that the outcome remains in doubt. The task force has yet to meet and its timeline for reaching a recommendation remains undecided, Thomas said.

There are no preconditions to the merger talks, but SPI's board passed a resolution at its meeting last month saying that it is a high priority to maintain the organization's structure and identity, Thomas said.

SPI must emerge from any merger able to continue its campaign to attract more processors and able to represent all segments of the ``three-legged stool'' that makes up the industry: equipment manufacturers, processors and materials suppliers, he said.

``That doesn't mean that you can't have a lot of structural changes and still maintain that,'' Thomas said.

APC's members, on the other hand, want to be able to continue their strong issue advocacy approach that can bring substantial resources and money to bear on a specific problem quickly, Cavaney said.

``In the search to find out if it makes sense to come together, the APC perspective will want to know that its issue management expertise can still be executed,'' he said.

But Cavaney said that even if talks do not produce a merger, the ``gravity is towards pulling the organizations closer together rather than farther apart and the issue really only becomes what is the form and the governance.''

The merger talks have proven a sensitive topic for the organizations. Thomas and Cavaney have declined to talk about it unless they are together.

Both said the members of the task force have not been named. Sources said two SPI board members are being considered, Vice Chairman Harry Ussery, president of Beacon Plastics, and Treasurer Arthur Goodsel, president and chief executive officer of Huron Plastics Group. SPI will have two or three other members.

A source said APC is considering naming its officers: Robert Gower, chairman of Lyondell Polymers; John Peppercorn, president of Chevron Chemical; Whit Sadler, president and CEO of Solvay Polymers; and Ron Yocum, chairman, president and CEO of Quantum Chemical.

Spokesmen for Peppercorn and Yocum declined to comment. The other candidates for the task force did not return phone calls.

APC is funded by 26 companies that are mainly materials suppliers and focuses on solid waste and industry image issues. Thomas said SPI gets about 40 percent of its core dues from processors, 40 percent from material suppliers and 20 percent from machinery makers and other members.

In other developments at the organizations' annual news conference:

Thomas said there is ``no way to guess'' the financial impact of the internal SPI restructuring announced last week, which could shift more resources to member divisions, and he declined to say if business units would be insured against losing money. But he said the board will monitor and ``take care of any inequities that are achieved.''

Thomas said SPI is exploring whether members should be able to earmark 50 percent of their dues to the business units of their choice.

The restructuring announced last week will allow member companies to earmark one-third of their dues to business units in June 1998.

Both Cavaney and Thomas said they want their new combined state lobbying efforts to encourage more state plastics associations to form, and to strengthen existing associations. Thomas said 10-12 states are candidates for such groups, including California, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

``We want to be the catalyst to let processors form their own organization and support it,'' Cavaney said. State-level political and regulatory issues are becoming more important, he said.

SPI announced that its molder certification program has entered its second phase, where it will seek input from 6,000 industry operators to identify the tasks needed for satisfactory job performance. The association plans to mail surveys to 600 companies and ask each of them to select 10 machine operators to complete it.

SPI is concerned that recently announced railroad mergers will make ``all processors captive to one railroad'' and is deciding whether to oppose any potential Conrail merger. The group had formally opposed the Union Pacific/Southern Pacific merger.

Cavaney said the $100 million to $200 million that states spend each year on recycling will come under increasing financial pressure as states assume more welfare responsibilities.