Larry Thomas has led the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. since 1988 — a long tenure marked by rapid technological change, global competition, the rise and fall of recycling as an issue, new environmental concerns about PVC and endocrine disrupters, and big changes in industry trade groups. Thomas, however, says he sees some of the industry's biggest opportunities closer to home.
Over the last 10 years I believe we've seen a shift in the way the plastics industry is perceived, not only by the general public but also by government leaders who can exert such a strong influence over our industry. Someone who has symbolized this, in my opinion, is the former governor of Ohio, George Voinovich. Why did he become such a champion for this industry?
Because he began to recognize it was a big, important industry in his state, one of the few job-creating, manufacturing industries. And lo and behold, with all the concern about environmental issues, plastics was seen as an environmentally clean industry.
I view that as one of the most positive opportunities this industry has seen in the last 10 years — the election of some very forward-thinking, business-oriented governors in a number of key states.
These are people who certainly understand the need to meet environmental and health concerns, but also understand that rather than be confrontational, it is better to work in partnership with industries to support the key goal of economic growth.
I don't care whether it's George Voinovich in Ohio, or Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania or former Gov. Evan Bayh in Indiana, a Democrat, these leaders have taken this attitude and moved away from a stance of negative confrontation toward one of cooperation and partnership.
It's like the old story of hiding your light under a bushel basket. In the past, the plastics industry has perhaps been guilty of that. But with some proactive effort on the industry's part, eventually the basket came off and the light began to shine. Hopefully, and I don't think this is wishful thinking, a broad segment of the public here in the United States and worldwide is now beginning to appreciate and understand the plastics industry and the benefits it provides to society. This is a window of opportunity for the industry.
I believe our role is to encourage joint action, rallying industry together and getting the attention and support of state leaders. We want to find opportunities, whether in partnership on an issue like work force development, or with environmental agencies on regulations that have not been shown to be of any real value. I'm very proud of the fact that SPI recognized this early on and became an involved player early on.
At the same time, you cannot write off Washington.
Some might say that maybe things aren't as active on the Hill. But there are major, major laws on the books, from clean air to occupational safety and health to product safety, which have helped set up what are now very substantial government agencies.
You still, day in and day out, have a host of regulatory agencies you are going to be dealing with.
With regard to some of these issues, on rail regulation, I believe that we need some major changes to the current system.
We have seen the railroads go from 40 Class I railroads down to about four. We need to continue to address this issue, and most likely it is going to take a significant legislative effort to do that.
That will only be possible if we can get a broad-based coalition of suppliers, customers and other industries to weigh in on this and work together. It is a big chore. I think the question is still out at this point as to whether we can get those kinds of coalitions built and the resources together.
Clearly, there are going to be additional challenges, just as there was the recycling or solid waste challenge, whether they be the endocrine issue and allegations of health concerns, or concerns about the use of other chemicals, whether in the workplace or in products.
For example, with vinyl, we already are seeing some very significant deselection challenges. This is a critical issue and one we are very concerned about.
We would hope, and we continue to work, to ensure that these decisions are made based on facts and sound science, and not as a result of a knee-jerk reaction to unfounded allegations.
On the endocrine issue, while I think it is too early to tell whether it will lead to the sort of regulatory and legislative challenges that quickly emanated from the so-called solid waste or recycling issue, this clearly has far-reaching implications for the industry and there is much work to be done.
I think we as a trade association are more challenged today than we were 10 years ago. I don't attribute it to a diminishing of the value of trade associations. What I attribute it to is competition — international competition — and the environment we find ourselves in where our member companies are driven harder than ever before to test the value of everything.
I think the whole culture of continous improvement has entered into the trade association evalulation. This really has been one of the prime movers of SPI's recent restructuring.
Representing the plastics industry has always been a challenge and it will always be a challenge because this is such a big, diverse industry.
Certainly those in the polyurethane business can see themselves as a polyurethane industry, and those in the vinyl industry can see themselves that way. You can see yourselves as a group of resin producers or machinery suppliers or processors.
But if you want to truly leverage the strength of this industry, which is the core value of SPI, you have to be willing to look beyond those differences and recognize that, united, we have a $274 billion industry, the fourth-largest manufacturing industry in the United States.
We need to understand that the public sees us as plastics and a plastics industry. What may be a challenge to one segment or a particular raw material today will be a challenge to another tomorrow.