WASHINGTON — To borrow a classroom metaphor, two of the three R's of plastics politics in Washington — recycling and railroads — will get more attention in 1998 than in past years.
The rail gridlock this summer on the Union Pacific and other railroads in the western United States has given some added clout to what had been the sleepy issue of how railroads are regulated, according to lobbyists for the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
And recycling could get a higher profile from a planned White House conference this spring that is likely to produce a series of recommendations, including some the Clinton administration could implement without congressional approval.
But there may not be massive changes in Washington's take on either of those topics in 1998.
Groups pushing for Congress to act to swing rail regulations more toward shippers expect their campaign to be a multiyear effort, said Maureen Healey, SPI director of transportation issues.
William Mullins, a Washington-based lawyer for the Kansas City Southern Railway Co., thinks shippers' efforts to alter rail regulation could have some success in 1998. Rail shippers will look to attach their plans to legislation renewing the Surface Transportation Board, which Congress must pass next year or the agency will cease to exist, he said.
But plastics officials said the rail effort will not be simple.
``Transportation is a long, uphill battle,'' said Lewis Freeman, SPI's government affairs vice president. ``One reason it is uphill is because the shipper community has never tried to organize before to accomplish a major legislative task.''
Keeping diverse shipping groups united on rail mergers has proven difficult to date, as organizations try to cut deals that work for them.
For example, SPI and the Chemical Manufacturers Association of Arlington, Va., split in 1996 on endorsing the Union Pacific-Southern Pacific merger. And in December, SPI and CMA split with the National Industrial Transportation League over the Conrail breakup after NITL and the railroads reached a settlement. SPI and CMA continue to oppose Conrail being split into the CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads.
SPI and Union Pacific are working together on a task force to address rail service issues. The first meeting will be Jan. 15.
On recycling, the White House conference is expected to produce some recommendations that are ``not inconsequential'' and to heighten public awareness that recycling also must include action to boost demand for recycled-content products, said Rich Goodstein, division vice president for national government affairs for Houston-based Browning-Ferris Industries Inc. Goodstein is involved in planning the White House event.
The recommendations could include beefed-up federal efforts on recycled-content buyng, policy changes or tax preferences for plants and equipment that use recovered materials, Goodstein said. But do not expect Congress to do much on other plastics recycling or solid waste issues, he said.
A third R that has been at the top of industry wish lists has been regulatory reform — broadly defined as changes in the rules of how government agencies write regulations. Except for a 1996 law giving small businesses more consideration in government rule making, the effort has not yielded much, industry officials concede.
``I am encouraged that, not withstanding the failure of regulatory reform in the last Congress, there has continued to be a high level of interest in regulatory reform legislation,'' Freeman said. ``These are things we strongly believe in.''
Other industry officials said some key activity will take place at normally dry regulatory proceedings.
The Food and Drug Administration will be writing rules to implement dramatic changes in food packaging laws passed by Congress last fall, said Jerry Heckman, SPI's general counsel. Industry also will work to see that the FDA gets funding to implement the new system, dubbed pre-market notification, he said.
The packaging industry also will be paying close attention to legislation that would delay implementation of new ozone and particulate-matter emission standards adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1997, said Richard Thornburg, vice president of government affairs for the Washington-based Flexible Packaging Association.
``I don't think there is stomach on the Hill to turn it back, but certainly delay it,'' he said. Republicans are wary of challenging it too much because they do not want to be painted as anti-environment, Thornburg said.
EPA also plans to release regulations in 1998 to reduce smog, which could lead to a ``severe ratcheting down'' of particulate emissions, he said.
Other areas industry officials expect to watch in 1998:
EPA's dioxin reassessment, which is due by September. Initial indications are that PVC will fare well, but political pressures could change that, said Robert Bennett, executive director of the Morristown, N.J.-based Vinyl Institute.
The EPA's toxin release inventory. How the agency collects that information and what it does with it will continue to draw attention.
Fast-track legislation. It would give President Clinton authority to negotiate trade treaties that Congress cannot amend.
Changes at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Major action is not expected, but some progress could be made.
Finally, the midterm elections in November will make it even harder to accomplish things in Washington, Freeman said.