The editors of Plastics News should be congratulated. You perform a valuable service to the whole industry with the publication of your annual issues agenda for the coming year [Jan. 2, Page 6, “In '06, safety, unity key for the industry”]. Your focus this year on safety and unity, increasing awareness of the size and importance of the industry, and a renewed dedication to recycling is very much in line with the goals of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
We especially agree with your emphasis on the need for greater cooperation among the industry's leading trade associations — including international, regional and sector-specific groups — to enable us to speak with a unified voice whenever possible. As you know, this has been a major focus of activity for our new president and chief executive officer, Bill Carteaux, who has spent much of the past year reaching out to the leaders of allied associations and seeking ways in which we can work together on common goals. As he made clear in his Dec. 12 column in Plastics News, SPI is ready and willing to be a catalyst in bringing this about.
And our doors are open with a very large welcome mat for all resin manufacturers as well as machinery suppliers, mold makers, processors, original equipment manufacturers and professional service providers. Most recently, SPI launched the Bio-Process Systems Alliance, the first new SPI business unit since 1999. We anticipate several other new units will be formed this year under the SPI umbrella.
In short, we feel strong momentum developing within the industry for many of the priorities you outline in your industry agenda for 2006.
However, the issue that will almost certainly remain the top priority for the industry this year is increasing the supply and reducing the cost of natural gas, on which we all depend as the essential feedstock for our products. As PN readers are well aware, natural gas prices have catapulted from around $3 per million Btu four or five years ago to more than $15 in recent months. While prices have abated somewhat in recent days to around $10, they could zoom upward again at any moment. The only certainty is that demand will continue to increase, so the pressure on prices will continue, unless and until Congress acts to open up this country's vast domestic reserves.
Related to this is the issue of international competitiveness. Our competitors in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia — particularly China — are paying only a fraction of what American companies are being forced to pay for natural gas. When you add to this equation the much lower labor costs in developing countries, and the currency exchange problem with China, our domestic industry will continue to face serious competitive challenges in 2006. We support free trade and are not asking for special favors, but SPI will continue to fight for a level playing field.
Your editorial on free trade notes that government “should minimize the harm.” We agree, but we also know that government moves painfully slowly, whereas today's global markets move increasingly swiftly. An important part of SPI's agenda for the industry in 2006 will be to help alert government to the needs of the industry before the harm has been done and before workers have to be laid off.
Jane E. Austin is chairwoman of Washington-based SPI, and Global Business Director for DuPont Performance Elastomers LLC.