As NPE 2003 again reminds us, this nation's plastics industry is blessed with some of the best and the brightest” on the planet.
Few industries in the world are as creative or dynamic, or make a greater contribution to our national economy or our personal well-being. It is an industry of which we can feel justly proud — and proud to be part of.
In health and safety alone, our industry has brought — and continues to bring — enormous benefits to all of our citizens.
Each year, we literally save thousands of lives. From a simple thing like bicycle helmets, which alone have led to a 60 percent decline in deaths from bicycle accidents among children under 14, to the enormous medical advances made possible by Magnetic Resonance Imaging.
Plastics technology has enabled us to greatly reduce accidents on the road and injuries in sports and athletics, from school playing fields to the Olympic Games. It has saved lives in dramatic fashion at NASCAR and the Indy 500. Plastic protective gear daily saves the lives of our police and firefighters and the men and women of our armed services. Plastic packaging and refrigeration prevent disease by keeping our food safe and free from contamination.
Most of these benefits are well-known and largely taken for granted, but it is sometimes good to remind ourselves of them. Together, they add up to a truly impressive achievement by our industry and a major contribution to the well-being and progress of our country.
Plastics also play a critical role in many areas not so well-known by the public, since they are largely unseen — in computers, defense, energy, aerospace, telecommunications. Indeed, nearly all of today's high-technology infrastructure is dependent on our industry and the reliable performance of our products.
Fluoropolymers are a good example. They represent a relatively small part of the plastics industry, but they play an indis-pensable role in the industries that make up the core of our country's economy. Because of their unique qualities, including nonflammability and exceptional resistance to extreme temperatures and harsh chemicals, they help protect lives and the environment in ways that are simply not possible with most other materials.
In a recent presentation to the Environmental Protection Agency, I drew attention to the following examples, among many:
* In the automotive industry, fluoropolymers in fuel and lubrication systems improve fuel economy and reduce air pollution from fuel evaporation.
* In the defense industry, fluoropolymers are used extensively in aircraft and land-based vehicles, computer systems, protective gear, and in components ranging from seals for hydraulic aircraft systems to sophisticated films that protect liquid crystal displays.
* The telecommunications and semiconductor industries use fluoropolymer products to reduce risk of fire in commercial buildings and to enable the manufacture of semiconductor chips by processes that require the ultrahigh purity that only fluoropolymers provide.
* The chemical processing and power generation industries use fluoro-polymer devices to help prevent pollution and the release of hazardous materials.
These are only a few of the many examples in which fluoropolymers play a vital role in protecting both the public and the environment, while contributing to the essential operations of many of our key industries.
Yet the public, the government and even many in industry still know too little of the critical role of plastics in the development of this country's most advanced technological capabilities.
I was explaining fluoropolymers to EPA because of data suggesting trace levels of a chemical used in making fluoropolymers had been found in human blood samples in various parts of the country. EPA wanted to know how it got there, and whether it could be harmful.
The Fluoropolymer Manufacturers Group within SPI agreed to undertake the necessary research to evaluate possible human exposure pathways. We already know from our many years of experience with this chemical (PFOA, also known as C-8) that there is no evidence of harm from these exposures, and we feel confident that the additional data being developed will confirm that the very low levels detected in the environment pose no risk to public health.
But the experience of dealing with EPA scientists and managers on this matter was eye-opening. At the beginning, understandably, they knew very few specifics about the manufacture and use of fluoropoly-mers. But they were very willing to learn, and I was impressed by their obvious desire to get things right. For this reason, I feel confident that the outcome of our discussions will be positive for our industry, our customers and the general public.
The fact that so little was known by top government officials about the vital and beneficial role of these plastics across the whole spectrum of American industry reminded me that so much of what we in the business take for granted, so much of what we assume everyone knows, is actually not so widely known as we think. And if we don't educate those around us — including other industries, legislators, the media and the public — who will?
Our license to continue in business depends, to an increasing extent, on our acceptance by the public and its representatives. This acceptance depends on their understanding of who we are, what we do, and how our products improve their lives. Educating our various publics is a responsibility shared by all of us fortunate enough to be working in this great industry. And it is something we have to keep working at.
I am pleased to say that these efforts will soon receive a powerful boost. A wonderfully exciting interactive exhibit on the wonders of plastics is set to be launched in January 2004. A major cooperative venture between SPI and Walt Disney, it will be housed in the “Innoventions” Pavilion at the Epcot Theme Park in Orlando, Fla., where it is sure to have a very positive impact on many millions of visitors.
You will certainly be hearing more about this exhibit in the months ahead.
I hope all of us — companies and individuals — will use this as an opportunity to further our own efforts to reach out and educate the public on the many benefits, seen and unseen, that our industry provides day after day for our safety and security in our homes, our schools, our workplaces, our supermarkets, our automobiles, and in so many of our activities. As NPE reminds us, we have a great many reasons to feel proud of this industry — and of all our friends and colleagues who continue to make it such an outstanding success story.
Duncan is president of the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.