Jerome Heckman, longtime general counsel to the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., received the first William Bradbury Trophy for contributions to the plastics compounding industry on March 2 from SPI's Color Additives and Compounders Division. He prepared these remarks, here edited for space, for the event. As I accept this honor, a kaleidoscope of activities and people flash past my mind's eye. Let me share the view with you briefly.
For me, the panorama started with Bill Cruse in 1954. Mr. Plastics, as Bill very deservedly came to be known, was the first full-time chief executive officer of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. He had taken office in 1937 and established the SPI office in New York in that year. He came to Washington to see someone in the law firm where I was working on radio and television issues because of a threat to the rights of plastic compression molders to use radio frequency preheating equipment. While we, and the interested members including Bill Bradbury, were handling that issue with the Federal Communications Commission, other issues began to layer for SPI, and since Bill and I became an instant team — one of those "chemistry things" that football coaches like to talk about — I became the Society's general counsel almost at once, even though I stayed with my firm in Washington, and my client never left New York until about 1983.
Over the next few years, working as a team with all of the SPI staff, Bill and I had to deal with a Justice Department threat to name SPI in a plastics pipe antitrust case, some very significant new legislation to subject plastic (and other) food packaging to stringent new Food and Drug Administration regulation, a variety of attacks on products like melamine dinnerware, and, the most celebrated debacle of them all — the plastic-garment-bag, suffocation-deaths problem. On the side we established a vigorous transportation committee that worked hard to keep rates and ratings reasonable. Each of these matters had characteristics and complex elements of its own that have given me material for my own brand of war stories.
We were truly enmeshed in the fast-evolving technology and lifestyle of the plastics industry, in its fabric, not just its organizational and legal problems. Bill and I traveled together to appear before legislatures all over the country. Whenever we did, we also visited molders, machinery makers and others. We were handling some of the industry's problems but we were also meeting its great people, learning about the infant plastics business, and partaking of its colorful culture.
Among our intimates were people like Gordon Brown, one of the founding fathers of the Bakelite company and by then a major factor at Union Carbide; Fritz Rarig of Rohm and Haas; Irving Shapiro, then a company lawyer but ultimately to become the CEO of DuPont. We spent hours with entrepreneurs like the operators of the pioneer Albany Billiard Ball Co., Boonton Molding, Technical Tape, and Ideal Toy, whose companies paved the way for many plastic markets to come. If I could, I would try to list all of the people we dealt with while we were solving the problems we had to handle, but I will have to leave that for another time, or a book that someone will write one day.
The groundwork was being laid for markets that would become enormous, among them building products and packaging. What, I am sure you might ask, did a Washington lawyer, have to do with this type of activity. The fact is that after I started working with Bill Cruse, and later with his successor, Ralph Harding, I came to think of myself as more of a plastician who also worked on legal problems, not just a lawyer.
We spent weeks with important industry contacts like the late Mack Jensen and his staff at the National Bureau of Standards who were then helping develop and get recognition for standards that would make possible the opening of markets for plastics pipe. We became close friends of the leading officials of organizations like the National Sanitation Foundation, and the Southern Building Code Congress who, eventually, would rule on code approvals that opened the markets for plastic drain, waste and vent, and then water distribution pipe. In like fashion, we not only had to face the plastic-bags-suffocation-deaths crisis, we came to know our share of senators and congressmen, and some excellent federal agency people like then Surgeon General James Goddard.
Dr. Goddard's Assistant Surgeon General, Bill White, later widely credited as the creator of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, not only helped us promote the "education not legislation" program that saved plastic bags and the plastic film markets to come, but also involved us in a wide variety of consumer-safety issues like storm door and even bicycle safety matters.
By osmosis, I learned the SPI credos that Cruse and the other founding fathers of the Society so fervently believed in, and I became a true disciple. Like Bill, and later Harding, Bob Hoffer, and their successors, I embraced the fundamental tenets that the industry would be best served by a single trade association speaking for the plastics industry with one voice, especially since the public and many in government do not recognize distinctions between types of plastics. [I realized] that our job was and should always be to open plastics markets and keep them open. That led to the conclusion that every effort should be made to make sure that any part of the industry that wanted a trade association should be able to find a home in SPI.
We also fervently held onto the idea that SPI should always make sure the public understood that the plastics products they buy and deal with are not reactive chemicals, per se, and should not be viewed as warranting the same kind of concern. These were the fundamentals. For me, they still are.
When Cruse retired in 1967, and Harding came on the scene, it was time for SPI to reinvent itself and move from its first 30 years as an almost entrepreneurial activity of Mr. Cruse and his staff to the broader-based organization it had to become.
During Ralph's time we worked as closely together as might be imagined to continue making major breakthroughs in the building-code areas, to resolve major challenges to the industry presented by spurious charges that the industry's products presented unique flammability and smoke-toxicity problems, to deal in the early '70s with the stresses on company relationships occasioned by feedstock shortages and the emerging environmental issues like solid waste, and to have a 1972 New York City law aimed at taxing plastics packaging declared unconstitutional.
For the past 12 years, since the coming into being of the Council for Solid Waste Solutions and then the American Plastics Council, the internal structure of the plastics industry has become much less settled, as I am sure all of you know. Even so, we continued to do some great things for the industry, in my opinion. We used our legal tools and carried the day when Suffolk County in New York set out to ban plastic grocery bags and polystyrene clamshells.
In the Food and Drug Administration Reform Act of 1997 we were able to bring about a significant change that now allows clearance of new food contact materials, most of which are plastics or coatings, by a much simpler notification process. This would not have been possible had we not been able to represent to Congress and the FDA that we were speaking for a unified industry and could be viewed as its voice with confidence. FDA officials at the highest level have acknowledged this fact.
Of course, we live in times when change is the norm, not the exception, so the fact that plastics-industry unity is no longer an accepted state is with us. The American Plastics Council, since the middle of 1999 a self-declared, full-service trade association competitor to SPI, has conducted a very interesting and valuable advertising campaign to enhance the image of plastics. For this it deserves due credit, but even its members would do well to recognize and acknowledge the contributions SPI has made for the past 63 years. Perhaps it will someday help bring about a reunified industry under the leadership of SPI's new president. I hope this happens and that the new organization, whatever its form and name, will evaluate the principles I have mentioned and perhaps decide that the underlying concepts we lived by for most of the last century have much to recommend them for the new one.
Thank you again for honoring me and the events I have chronicled. I share my honor with those with whom I've worked. Nothing I have done would have been possible without them, and without the steadfast support of my partners, and the scientists and my fellow workers at Keller and Heckman.
You have honored us all, and I thank you with all of my heart.