The plastics division of the American Chemistry Council, under its newly appointed managing director, Steve Russell, plans to confront attacks by environmentalists and activists head-on and parlay that into boosting division membership, which now comprises 13 leading resin suppliers.
``We are looking at developing a significant communications programs to do a better job of reinvigorating the discussion surrounding the benefits of plastics,'' Russell said in a July 12 interview at ACC's Arlington headquarters.
Part of that is coming up with ways to deal with communities and activists that are calling for bans and the elimination of certain plastics from products and packaging, Russell said.
``We need to more clearly imprint the benefits of plastics in the context of the challenges they are facing,'' he said. ``We need to respond as vigorously and relentlessly as those that are attacking and demonstrate that we are committed to the issues.''
Russell - who has been at ACC since 1995 - takes over the top plastics spot July 16, becoming the first official head since Rod Lowman resigned as American Plastics Council president in December 2005. Lowman became chief in 2002, following three years of instability, during which APC leadership changed three times. When Lowman left amid APC restructuring, Bruce Kuiken and Patty Enneking shared management responsibilities until Enneking left and that job fell to Kuiken.
``Our biggest challenge is that we need a united industry response,'' Russell said. ``We need companies on board with us and we need to be better at speaking in one voice. Second, we need to address the many misperceptions about plastics. Everything else pretty much falls away after that.''
To aid in that task, ACC has hired former Vinyl Institute executive Keith Christman as senior packaging director for the plastics division. Christman has 15 years' experience in environmental issues related to plastics and chemicals, including as VI's director of industry affairs for rigid products. His responsibilities there extended to retail and packaging sustainability issues and green buildings.
``A lot of our major issues are focused on packaging,'' Russell said. He pointed to attempted product bans, efforts to persuade retailers to eliminate some plastics packaging and sustainability issues causing retailers and product manufacturers to find ways to reduce the amount of packaging.
Finding unified voice
The appointments of Russell and Christman fill a plastics leadership void at ACC and seem well-timed, as the industry has lacked a unified public voice on environmental and health issues at a time when it has been under heavy attack. The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington has worked behind the scenes on legislative, environmental and health issues but has not had a visible presence, several sources said.
In addition, Russell gives the plastics division a leader with regulatory experience in U.S and international arenas. As ACC's senior director of regulatory and technical affairs, Russell had responsibilities for policy development and advocacy. He also responded to allegations about the health effects of chemicals, and to attacks on the credibility of industry-presented scientific evidence.
``We need to build our membership and strengthen our coalitions so the industry can speak in one voice and create a strong positive image. We will focus on the sustainability of plastics,'' Russell said. ``In putting together an efficient and effective response to the challenges that keep coming up in communities and states, we feel like we would become the logical place for others to join.
``We intend to create the kinds of partnerships and coalitions that will allow us to succeed.''
Since the American Plastics Council split from SPI and merged with ACC, the industry has had two voices. Russell is not ready to discuss details of his new communications initiative, but he said the plastics division will initiate projects that respond to the concerns of consumers, consumer interest groups, retailers and others.
``We intend to take a proactive approach that demonstrates that we care,'' he said. ``What I am going to be able to do is to help the staff and issue teams do their jobs better by bringing fresh ideas to the table and reinvigorating existing initiatives. By virtue of having been at ACC and understanding how they work and who they are, one of the things that I think I can bring is more effective and more efficient ways for the division to reap the benefit of being together with the ACC and free them from administrative burdens.''
The operating committee will be ``tweaking'' the division's structure to meet and address current challenges, Russell said. He added that ACC President and Chief Executive Officer Jack Gerard is committed to those changes.
In addition to VI, the plastics division includes these groups:
* EPS Resin Suppliers, representing suppliers of expanded polystyrene resin used primarily in packaging, insulation and building materials.
* Plastics Food Service Packaging, which represents resin suppliers and manufacturers of plastics food packaging.
* The Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group, Rigid Plastic Packaging and the Center for the Polyurethanes Industry.
Russell said the plastics division must remind government decision makers about the consequences of their decisions.
``Whether the goal is to reduce litter or to reduce energy, we think we have a great story to tell. Hopefully, we can lift the discussion away from the misperceptions surrounding plastics to the benefits of plastics.''
That is critical, he said, as regulatory and legislative discussions are moving ``beyond litter and recycling and bans.''
``Re-evaluation of plastics will become part of the bigger debate on products and chemicals in products,'' Russell said.
The industry also is facing supply-chain challenges that ``require us to be more nimble and more creative,'' he said. ``There are retailers who are looking to reduce the total amount of packaging content and to eliminate certain chemicals in products - but they are not in the environmental, health and safety business,'' Russell said.
``When they hear from [others] about these issues, they also should be hearing from us. It is a golden opportunity for us to build better bridges and help the plastics industry avoid the unfounded attacks it is currently experiencing.''