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New bag alliance leader ready to defend plastic

By: Jeremy Carroll

October 3, 2013

After retiring from Alcoa Inc., Lee Califf needed a hip replacement. And after his recovery was completed, he was itching to get back to work.

"Once I recovered from that, I was ready to get back and do something else," he said. "I'm too young to be actually retired. I wanted to get back to work."

Califf, 60, has been hired as executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an advocacy group for the plastic bag industry. The alliance operates as a self-funded group under the Society of Plastics Industry Inc. umbrella. Califf replaces David Asselin, who was recently named president and CEO of Travelers Aid International.

Califf started with APBA on Sept. 3.

Califf is no stranger to Washington D.C., having started his career as a legislative assistant to former Sen. John Warner, R-Va. Califf spent 13 years with Reynolds Metals Co. before it was bought by Alcoa. Califf worked for Alcoa for another 13 years, most recently as the company's vice president of U.S. government affairs.

"There are a lot of similarities with the aluminum industry and a lot of differences," Califf said about his previous career and his new one, pointing to recycling as a major similarity. "Recycling is such an important part of everything that we do. It's another material and it has to be dealt with it post use."

Recycling of plastic bags is one of the several key aspects of APBA's argument against bag bans.

"There are post-use questions about what happens to bags," Califf said. "Banning them or taxing them doesn't do anything to solve that problem. We need to be a little more creative in how we go about looking at the overall issue and our approach to it."

He pointed to those working in the plastic bag manufacturing industry, some 30,000 people.

"They are all really good jobs. They support their families and communities," Califf said. "There are a lot of good things about this industry. They produce a product that most people find extremely useful and like to use."

APBA celebrated a major political win this year after it helped to beat back a statewide ban on plastic bags in California. But major fights in New York City and again in California are expected again.

"The biggest hurdle is that most of these initiatives are based on information which turns out to be totally incorrect," Califf said. "One of the first things I learned, that bags are a very, very small part of the waste stream and by banning them you aren't doing much of anything to the litter problem. I think we need to really work on the true facts and a lot of the research about the issue before the public and before state legislatures, city council members or who ever might be looking at legislative solutions."

Califf said he thinks he'll bring a new perspective to the position and is looking forward to bringing in experts and various stakeholders to help think of new and creative solutions to challenges facing the industry.

SPI President and CEO William Carteaux pointed to Califf's experience and previous success.

"Lee's government affairs experience, particularly his strength in building and communicating with grassroots networks, will be an excellent asset for APBA as he advocates on behalf of the plastic bag industry," Carteaux said in a statement. "On both the corporate and association level, he has a proven track record of establishing strong relationships with industry allies and public officials that have led to positive results."