Quick — what's the single-biggest item plastics industry trade groups have spent their money on for the past five years?
It's not lobbying, or standard setting, or promoting trade or even technical assistance for recycling. It's advertising run by the American Plastics Council.
The more than $100 million pumped into the widely known ``Plastics Make it Possible'' ad campaign and its predecessors is credited with turning around public attitudes toward plastic. Since the ads started running in November 1992, more than 54 million Americans have changed their minds and developed positive attitudes about plastics, APC said.
APC of Washington and its predecessor organizations — the Partnership for Plastics Progress and the Council for Solid Waste Solutions — began in 1988 as a relatively small effort to address a crisis revolving around plastics, landfills and recycling.
It has evolved into a $42 million-a-year organization — the biggest budget of any plastics industry trade group — with the broad mission of handling environmental and image threats.
It hasn't always been an easy evolution. APC's relationship with the industry's other big trade group, the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., has sometimes been fractious. And APC appears headed for other changes in the near future, as it weighs broadening its mission if efforts to link more closely with SPI are unsuccessful.
Industry officials feel APC has been very successful.
``I think the APC has been the primary reason that the plastics industry really began to enjoy in the early '90s, and has continued to enjoy, much wider public understanding and acceptance,'' said Don Olsen, senior vice president of public and environmental affairs at Huntsman Corp. in Salt Lake City. Olsen is vice chairman of APC's advertising effort.
``There is no other organization that has proven as effective as APC in accomplishing its goals in the plastics industry.''
In 1991, before the ad campaign began, industry polls found that 18 percent of the population considered themselves anti-plastic, and 14 percent pro-plastic. But now, 6 percent of Americans count themselves anti-plastic and 32 percent pro, according to APC.
``I can't speak for the industry, but it has exceeded our wildest expectations in how much it has helped the industry,'' said Irwin Levowitz, polyethylene vice president for Exxon Chemical Co. Americas in Houston.
Getting the money to start the ads, or even recognizing that the industry needed to promote its message, was a tough sell initially, said George Makrauer, former owner of Amko Plastics Inc. in Cincinnati and a key figure in pushing the ad campaign in late 1990.
After getting rebuffed by some resin companies he approached, Makrauer said he got the attention of Union Carbide Corp. executive William Lichtenberger.
``All of us as plastics processors are facing these attacks every day and the resin people are absolutely oblivious to it,'' he said. ``When I brought this information to them, I'm sure they thought I was nothing but a weird crank.
``It was at best looked at as a curiosity and an oddity because the resin companies have traditionally been poor communicators,'' Makrauer said.
Resin company officials acknowledge some companies were reluctant at first, but said a solid group of firms agreed in less than a year to start funding the expensive effort.
``I don't think it was like pulling teeth, and folks coalesced rather rapidly,'' said Donald Shea, who at the time headed the CSWS.
The ads were a sea change in the industry's approach to its problems.
Initially, CSWS focused on damage control, battling the hundreds of bills in legislatures and city councils nationwide that were targeting the plastics industry.
``We didn't choose the field of battle. I think at the time, CSWS had to stop the hemorrhaging,'' Shea said.
Makrauer said the industry erred by letting opponents define plastics as a problem, and that left CSWS responding to problems on terms set by others.
``The critical failure ... was defining the industry's big problem as solid waste,'' he said.
Industry decided in the early 1990s that it needed instead to promote the advantages of plastics. CSWS evolved into a group initially called the Partnership for Plastics Progress, which became APC.
``I think it's the first time in the history of the plastics industry that the major players have come together with the commitment of energy and moneys to represent the industry,'' said Frank Aronhalt, former director of environmental affairs at DuPont. He was very involved with the groups from 1988-93.
That switch in direction also meant a significant boost in spending, from $7 million a year when CSWS launched in 1988 to $42 million for APC today.
A big reason APC members have committed so much money was the heavy involvement of the chief executives of the major resin producers.
``There's no way people below the level of CEO could agree to spend that kind of money on an ad campaign,'' said APC President Ron Yocum.
Until last year, Yocum was CEO of APC member company Millennium Chemicals Inc. CEO involvement remains heavy, but it has lessened as the industry no longer is in crisis, Yocum said.
Advertising is, of course, not APC's only function.
Beyond traditional lobbying, the group said it has spent more than $10 million to support the plastics recycling infrastructure and continues to put what it says are substantial funds into research, particularly for recycling cars, computers and other durable goods.
Yocum's move to the top staff job at APC last year also signals a change from high-profile Washington leadership. The previous CEO, Red Cavaney, led paper industry trade groups in Washington, worked at the White House and had rock-solid Republican-party credentials.
Yocum credits Cavaney with bringing calm leadership in crisis. Others say Cavaney repaired APC's relations with one of its chief customer trade groups, the Grocery Manufacturers of America.