Are we willing to see the truth about oil?
Regarding your article ``PE, PP prices up with crude oil'' (Nov. 19, Page 3), there is a famous Hans Christian Andersen story called ``The Emperor's New Clothes,'' in which a vain emperor is always thinking about his clothes and how he looks in them.
A pair of swindlers get the emperor to give them gold and silk thread if they will make clothes visible only to the competent and not to the stupid. The swindlers go through the motions of measuring, cutting and sewing, but make nothing at all, and take all the gold and silk threads for themselves. All the court ministers tell the emperor how wonderful he will look, lest they be thought stupid and incompetent. Finally, the emperor, in his imagined resplendency, parades through the city so ``dressed.'' The people do what the ministers did, and oooh and aaah as he parades through the streets naked (or merely in underwear?) until a little boy calls out, ``But he hasn't got anything on.''
Those of us who tell the story from memory usually end there. I am fond of asking, ``What happened to the little boy?'' But Andersen's original story has a little more to it: The emperor, who can't see anything either, of course, begins to think that maybe he is stupid and incompetent, as all his ministers and the people in the streets are saying ``wonderful, beautiful.'' So the emperor, believing them in his vanity, goes on with the parade with head held high.
Why do I bring this up? Because we are in such a situation with regard to the effect of oil prices on plastics prices. We see the prices on the spot market for Texas Sweet Crude go up and up, but we are blind to these important facts:
* Most of the oil we turn into gasoline (and plastics) is not Texas Sweet, but rather Venezuela or Saudi Sour, or something else that does not cost $90 per barrel.
* Much of the oil we refine is not bought at all, but produced by the oil companies that refine it, so all the pricing is internal accounting.
* Even $90 per barrel isn't very much if we know that a barrel of oil weighs around 300 pounds, so if we assigned the same cost per pound of everything (which isn't necessary nor true) we get only 30 cents per pound.
* The cost of refining, conversion to feedstocks and polymers, etc., hasn't risen in such capricious leaps.
Why don't we want to face these truths? Why do we all believe the myth that our pricing must rise or fall when OPEC burps? I'm not sure myself, but until we look at this myth squarely in the eyes, we are the stupid and incompetent ones.
Changing paradigm might aid bag battle
Irvin Rubin (``Bag ban is misguided solution,'' Nov. 26, Page 6) and Kevin Kelly (``Kelly to ACC, SPI: Take action on bag bans,'' Nov. 26, Page 4) are both right.
A supporting viewpoint says Rubin is too kind in demonstrating bag bans as just ``misguided,'' and Kelly is too kind in ``moderating his criticism'' of the American Chemistry Council and Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
We are a few months past celebrating the 20th anniversary of the remarkable event that started it all - the corrupt Mobro garbage barge public-relations stunt and spectacle in March 1987.
Ever since then - thanks to the then-American Paper Institute (now American Forest and Paper Association), the Environmental Defense Fund (now Environmental Defense), Greenpeace (still Greenpeace) and the Environmental Action Council (long since shuttered) - the plastic bag industry has been under insane and unscientific attack. The original cause celebre was ``we're running out of landfills.'' More recently, it's ``we're being drowned in plastic bag litter.''
For only one period during these 20 years of environmental idiocy regarding packaging materials did public attitudes reverse to the positive, with proposed bans and taxes diminishing. That was during the relatively halcyon days of the American Plastics Council's founding and first few years of operations under the leadership of its two most effective and personally committed chief executive officers: Bob Lichtenberger (then head of Union Carbide Plastics) and Ron Yocum (then head of Quantum Chemicals). Both of those career-chemicals industry visionaries understood the implications to plastics and chemicals, of the types of lunacy running rampant at the behest of, and funding by, competing industries, enviromaniacs (who are different from environmentalists), the perpetually ill-informed news media, and elected officials who care about nothing more than their next re-election campaign.
Mr. Rubin's kind statistics were all developed during the early 1990s, when the former Plastic Bag Association and former American Plastics Council researched, paid for and promulgated them. Mr. Kelly's kind personal approach was the standard aimed for in dealing with the tensions inherent in the resin makers' relationships with the resin buyers. Unfortunately, the underlying problem of misunderstanding then remains today.
It's simply this.
If you are in the business - usually the private or family business - of making thin-film commodity plastic bags, it's not just your job, it's your life. You choose to band together in a trade association with other bag producers to fight attacks on your industry ... your livelihood. Your goal is to make a difference with industry critics and customers.
But if you are in the business of making commodity bag resins, it's just your job. Your life is dependent on your department hitting its budget and how well that reflects on your personal contribution to the company attaining its next public financial report and resultant stock price. When you hear - if you even listen - about plastic bag bans and taxes that affect and potentially kill your domestic customers, it's just another part of the statistical database you spreadsheet for your next executive forecast. If your boss assigns you to a committee or board of a trade association to help the ``little guys fight,'' it's not your choice. In fact, it might be your biggest distraction and interference. Your goal is merely to satisfy your boss.
No one should think ACC - which was created out of a perverse melding of the American Plastics Council and the Chemical Manufacturers Association - will change its behavior and effectively fight the plastics industry's opponents without a paradigm change in ACC governance philosophy about what ``materials stewardship'' really means and not just kind of means.
George A. Makrauer
Comad Management Group
The Villages, Fla.