WASHINGTON - Some manufacturers say others are ignoring an agreement to put warning labels on 5-gallon polyethylene buckets because some buyers do not want to pay the extra 1-8 cents per bucket. At the annual meeting of the Petroleum Packaging Council Aug. 14-16 in San Francisco, delegates were divided on whether they - manufacturers and distributors - are required to place warning labels on each of the millions of buckets they have made or will make this year.
At issue is the cost of each label. Bucket buyers can reap substantial savings by purchasing buckets in bulk without labels, contends a Midwestern bucket manufacturer who asked not to be identified.
A few cents per container becomes crucial to processors, he said, because there is little profit margin in either the bucket's manufacture, or in its distribution, due to the typical wholesale nature of the products sold in such containers.
As a result of the division of opinion, five major bucket manufacturers have noted that some of their customers now don't want to pay for a bucket bearing a warning label that urges parental supervision of children in the vicinity of these buckets. These customers - food wholesalers, cleaning agent marketers, and others - could be liable if a child drowns in a bucket, they contend.
But Howard C. Cunningham, corporate manager for product safety for bucket buyer Witco Inc. in Greenwich, Conn., said buyers can choose not to affix the label except for buckets sold in California - the only state that legally requires the anti-drowning message.
``There are circumstances where you don't need it,'' Cunningham said, noting that California requires the label message only at the point the bucket enters commerce in the state.
That may open many ques-tions about when the bucket actually enters commerce - at the point of manufacture, when it is sold in the state, full or empty - and whether it applies to containers made purely for export from the state.
To be safe, Cunningham said, every container that leaves Witco bears the label.
The warning label, produced after five years of negotiation between the bucket manufacturers and Consumer Products Safety Commission, says in English and Spanish that ``children can fall into bucket and drown. Keep children away from bucket with even a small amount of liquid.'' The label was produced as a voluntary standard by an American Society of Testing and Materials committee.
CPSC raised the drowning issue to a national debate after statistics showed that 36 children were drowning each year in unattended, liquid-bearing buckets.
The five members of the Plastic Shipping Container Institute - Plastican Inc. of Leominster, Mass.; Bennett Industries of Peotone, Ill.; Ropak Corp. of Fullerton, Calif.; North American Packaging Corp. of Edison, N.J.; and Letica Corp. of Rochester, Mich. - believe the labeling requirement exists despite a June 5 Federal Register notice by CPSC that some smaller manufacturers have interpreted as overruling a Feb. 8 agreement between CPSC and PSCI.
On Feb. 8, CPSC voted to terminate rulemaking procedures on the buckets that it had begun in May.
Chairwoman Ann Brown noted five major bucket manufacturers ``agreed to work cooperatively with CPSC, and that we were able to avoid a mandatory standard, which is always the court of last resort.''
The February agreement noted CPSC would stop trying to redesign the standard shape of the 5-gallon containers in exchangefor industry's promise that it vigorously would promote education of the possible dangers of the buckets to small children and adhere to the voluntary ASTM labeling standard.
PSCI responded by hiring Olgivy & Adams, one of the nation's biggest public relations firms, to conduct the education campaign. Most, if not all, the PSCI members ``spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in acquiring the printing equipment needed to affix the warning label to the pails,'' said Robert C. Hultquist, counsel for PSCI in Downers Grove, Ill.
But the June 5 Federal Register notice includes a passage saying the CPSC, in dropping its attempts to redesign the bucket, was ``not relying on a voluntary standard'' to which bucket manufacturers must adhere.
One bucket manufacturer lamented the breakdown in the industry's agreement with CPSC.
``A failure to label would in our estimation seriously compromise the industry's creditability with [CPSC] and create a product liability exposure on the part of manufacturers and packagers alike, which is totally unnecessary given the progress made in recent months,'' said President John Clementi of Plastican.