WASHINGTON — In the political arena, plastics industry groups and their environmental opponents like Greenpeace and Californians Against Waste seem like well-matched boxers, trading shots and trying to land the big punch.
Not quite so in the financial arena.
Generally speaking, the industry groups seem to be in better fiscal shape than some of the environmental organizations, according to an analysis of federal tax returns.
The recycling organization Californians Against Waste and its related foundation, for example, have seen their funding slip from more than $1 million a year in the peak of the solid waste crisis in the early 1990s to about $450,000 a year now.
Greenpeace's U.S. branch saw its revenues tumble to $18.8 million last year, down from $26.5 million in 1994. The group's toxics campaign, which includes its anti-vinyl effort, remained its largest single program in 1997, but officials said resources are shifting to global warming and forests.
And the Container Recycling Institute, an advocate for bottle bills and a research clearinghouse, eked by on a shoestring budget of $36,000 in 1996.
The financial data was taken from information the groups are required to file with the Internal Revenue Service to maintain tax-exempt status. It includes the most recent financial information available, either for 1996 or 1997, depending on an organization's filing date.
Industry-funded groups also are generally in a period of financial retrenchment. The two largest plastics industry groups, the American Plastics Council and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. either are holding funding steady or have seen decreases in recent years.
But they remain far from the shoestring budgets or wholesale cutbacks common in environmental groups.
That generalization about environmental groups does not always hold — a few seem very solid financially, like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group.
MassPIRG, for example, was getting enough money from its 50,000 members in 1996 to give away $1.3 million, about one-third of its financial reserves, to the 2030 Fund, a cooperative effort from all state PIRGs that focused this year on campaign finance reform in California.
But for some groups, the funding spigot seems to have slowed considerably.
Grant money from large foundations has dried up for recycling and solid waste issues, which accounts for some of the funding decline for CAW, according to Mark Murray, executive director of CAW in Sacramento.
And CAW's membership support is probably down about 20 percent from the early 1990s, although it still gets an average of $25 from each of its 25,000 members, he said.
``It's because we as a society are doing a much better job with recycling,'' Murray said. ``I don't want to say [to donors], `It's always a crisis and you've got to keep giving us money.'''
For example, 70 percent of California homes now are covered by curbside recycling programs, he said.
The Grassroots Recycling Network, which just received foundation grants and matching funds totaling $130,000 for a two-year period, agreed that foundation money is much tougher to get. GRRN recently received grants from foundations run by media magnate Ted Turner and journalist Bill Moyers.
``Recycling in the foundation world is like death,'' said Bill Sheehan, network coordinator for Athens, Ga.-based GRRN. ``Because recycling is our middle name, literally, I have to talk real quickly before the door gets slammed in my face and they say `We don't do recycling anymore.'''
Public interest in recycling is waning, local-government support is now strong for curbside pickup programs, and foundations ``all want to look smart and not get caught doing something passe,'' Sheehan said.
But he said GRRN is pushing a more politicized recycling message: The companies that produce goods are not taking enough responsibility for their disposal.
Funding for some environmental groups that deal with nonrecycling issues is also on the wane.
Greenpeace laid off 200 of its 300 staffers in the United States in 1997, mostly door-to-door fund-raisers, and blamed falling donations from a public that feels environmental problems are being addressed by government.
The group's merchandising efforts also were money losers, though it is seeing more money than expected from a non-PVC credit card the organization launched in May, Greenpeace financial officials said.
Greenpeace's toxics campaign against chlorine, which included anti-PVC efforts, got more money than any other of its missions in the United States in 1996 and 1997, according to federal-tax records and interviews with Greenpeace officials.
That campaign got $5.3 million in 1996 and $4.2 million in 1997, but the major focuses now will be on global warming and forests, said Karl Suggs, budget manager for Greenpeace in Washington. Toxics and oceans still will be important but will not be the priorities they had been, he said.
The group spent $3.4 million in 1997 in fund raising from an $18.8 million budget in 1997, Suggs said. That compared with $9.5 million on fund raising out of $26.5 million in 1994, records show.
Comparing Greenpeace's finances to the combined budget of the Chlorine Chemistry Council and the Vinyl Institute — estimated at $18.5 million — is interesting, but simplistic, industry officials said.
But making direct comparisons between the money of different groups can be tricky, industry officials said.
Trade groups argue that they have a much broader focus on a product, such as vinyl or plastics generally, while environmental groups can focus their spending on particular policy goals. That, and typically lower salaries paid by environmental groups, let them get more political and public-opinion muscle from fewer dollars, industry officials said.
``You get more bang for the buck from influence dollars than from product dollars,'' said William Carroll, chairman of the operating committee of Morristown, N.J.-based VI and vice president of chlorovinyl issues for Occidental Chemical Corp. in Dallas.
Most environmental groups focus on a narrow issue or they deal with only one state, like CAW or MassPIRG, industry officials say. And influence can be had in ways other than simply money.
``I've never looked at it as an advantage or a disadvantage based on spending,'' said Roger Bernstein, vice president of government affairs for the joint state government unit of SPI and APC.
``If the opponents have legislators friendly to their position, they are formidable,'' he said. ``If the opponents don't and are in an extreme position, it's an easier matter to deal with.''
One of the most-watched political struggles this year in the plastic beverage-container industry was the bottle bill and recycling-fee reauthorization in California. That bill passed the Legislature, but the plastics industry opposes it because it increased the deposit on 20-ounce PET containers.
In California, the wealth or poverty of the competing groups had little impact on the debate, said a top aide to Debra Bowen, a Democrat from Los Angeles and a key figure in the debate.
``Recycling is an issue where people have very strong black or white views ... so the impact of the relative membership or annual budgets or campaign contributions that groups bring to the discussion is very limited,'' said Evan Goldberg, Bowen's chief of staff.
CAW contends its diminished financial strength does not hurt.
``We can't compete financially in terms of marketing dollars and in terms of campaign contributions and in terms of lobbying budgets, but frankly, as anyone who works in the plastic industry can tell you, we have no problem going toe to toe with those folks,'' Murray said. ``We have tremendous access.''
Industry-funded groups are finding their budgets are generally steady.
APC spent about $40.7 million in 1997, compared with $31.8 million for SPI. APC officials declined to comment on their tax forms, but have been cutting spending. Until last year, SPI's financial data included APC, making it difficult to untangle SPI-only data.
The National Association for PET Container Resources in Charlotte, N.C., the main trade group for PET recycling, saw its expenses drop from $2.6 million in 1994 to $2.4 million in 1996, but it still ran a deficit of $270,000 in 1996.
NAPCOR cut its technical-assistance spending from $321,000 to $147,000 and its government-relations spending from $229,000 to $135,000, records show. NAPCOR President Luke Schmidt said the group does not comment on its budget.
The Washington-based Flexible Packaging Association had spending drop from $2.4 million in 1994 to $2.2 million in 1996. Officials there also declined to comment.
And the Composites Fabricators Association, in Arlington, Va., which has been expanding its mission and feuding with SPI's Composites Institute, is gaining financial strength. Its expenses rose from $1.3 million to $1.6 million from 1994-97, and CFA's financial reserves nearly doubled to $490,000.