The inconclusive merger discussions between the American Plastics Council and Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. suggest the industry should develop a new model of itself to achieve the goal of speaking with one voice.
Neither the current APC nor SPI, singly or merged, represents the model for the future because their respective memberships do not include some of the most important sectors of the industry. The industry will truly speak with one voice only when the numerous independent processor trade organizations, which tend to include the largest such companies, are brought into the fold.
Fragmentation has been created by the industry's very success. Plastics have penetrated virtually every major end-use market. Each sector is large enough to sustain its own interest group. Processors increasingly identify themselves in terms of their products or markets.
The resin sector also is fragmenting into specialized segments. The composites sector has subdivided so that glass- fiber/polyester producers and major processors have a separate trade group from advanced composite companies, while reinforced thermoplastic composites seem to have no home. Many small glass-fiber molders have formed a splinter group.
Homogeneity of membership promotes consensus and decisive action, the hallmarks of an effective trade association.
Forces at work within the industry make a compelling argument that further segmentation can be expected. Countering that, however, are external pressures from activists who believe all plastics are bad, and legislators who say the industry must speak with one voice.
The challenge, then, is to develop a new model of the industry that allows it to project a unified voice while accommodating the divergent needs of industry segments.
Perhaps the process of debate and compromise used by our forefathers to allocate power and responsibility among the three branches of the federal government and the 13 colonies can serve as a guide to developing a federation of all the groups and establishing consensus, unity and respect.
Otherwise, the plastics industry will ultimately fragment along the lines of the metals industry, with separate producer groups for each type of material.
One hopeful sign is SPI's recent action to reduce processor dues. However, the leaders of APC and SPI must do a better job of selling the benefits of unity directly to all potential members, rather than just negotiating among themselves for the partial solution that will result from just the merger of the two trade associations.
Boxenbaum is chairman of Boxenbaum Grates Inc. of New York.