There is no doubt in Bill Carteaux's mind that the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. is doing a better job of addressing both its member needs and pressing industry issues than it did three years ago when budget issues forced the trade group to lay off about 12 people, reducing its staff to 38.
The staff is slowly being rebuilt, up to 42 or 43, said Carteaux, SPI's president and CEO. Washington-based SPI, the U.S. plastic industry's largest association, puts on the triennial NPE show, held last week in Orlando. It was the first time in 40 years that the NPE show did not take place in Chicago.
In addition, Carteaux said SPI has assumed a larger role in advocacy and public policy for its members, which often happens as an industry matures.
“As the industry matures, people are realizing that advocacy is more and more what we have to do,” Carteaux said in an April 5 interview in his show office at NPE2012. “Today, the issue may be plastic bags, but they know that tomorrow it could be their product.”
Also, fewer SPI members have government relations staff than seven years ago when Carteaux joined SPI. “As a result, we've become the de facto go-to guy” to deal with federal government, legislators and regulators, and state officials.
Carteaux said SPI had to rethink how it uses its staff. Now, specific people are focused on certain tasks or on specific government agencies. “When an issue comes up, we have an expert who can run with it, not a generalist,” he said.
He said the association has someone specific who deals with the Food and Drug Administration, someone for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, someone for the Environ- mental Protection Agency, and someone for the Department of Energy. “By agency, we can tell you who is the contact point,” Carteaux said.
In keeping with that, SPI added Michael Taylor as international trade director 18 months ago. He has a different skill set on international trade and has strengthened SPI's relationship with other trade groups, Carteaux said. He said Taylor advocated the need to sign free trade agreements with South Korea, Columbia and Panama — which finally were signed last fall by the Obama administration.
SPI also has brought in people to support senior staff, so those senior-level staffers “can stay in touch with members and their key issues,” he said.
“When an issue comes up now, we can run it through filters and address it quickly. We've also streamlined how we disseminate information to make it easier for it to be dissected,” he said.
Carteaux said that approach to handling issues for members evolved from SPI's reorganization three years ago. “We recognized that we couldn't be all things to all people. … When we took a hard look, we found that we had groups within SPI that had been formed for legitimate purposes” but for which there was no longer a legitimate need, he said.
“We made the difficult decision that they needed to go and decided to focus around three key areas: advocacy and public policy, trade shows and conferences, and communications and marketing. In all of those areas, the staff has been more effective and is now focusing on things the members said to work on,” said Carteaux. “We also added additional resources to our grass-roots network and ways to make it easier for our members to make phone calls and write letters to legislators.”
Compared to seven years ago when he moved into the top spot at SPI, the pace of anti-plastic activity has accelerated, he said.
“There are a lot of activists out there who want to get rid of all plastics and more people realize that we need to be engaged,” Carteaux said.
He has worked with and convinced equipment manufacturers to get involved as well. “They are doing a lot of plant tours and supporting what we do financially,” he said. That includes SPI's newest area of advocacy: plastic bags. “They see value of maintaining their customers' markets,” Carteaux said.
In January, the plastic bag advocacy group shifted from the American Chemistry Council to SPI, which renamed it the American Progressive Bag Alliance. Its executive director, Dave Asselin, was formerly a vice president at the National Association of Manufacturers. The bag alliance, still in its early stages, has five to six full-time members, Carteaux said.
“We are being very aggressive on that issue,” he said. “We have filed petitions with local governments to find out where they are getting their information, and I have talked and issued statements on why plastic bags are better than paper bags and positioned the sustainability solution — and not a bad thing.”
The bag alliance has used SPI's database on jobs and plastics industry statistics to research the number of jobs the plastic bag industry provides in areas where legislators are considering bans.
“We can go into a municipality and talk about actual jobs and the economic value of the plastic bag industry,” he said.
He also said he expects SPI to get more heavily involved in recycling, saying the three grants it issued for a recycling pilot project for thermoformed containers is just the start of planned initiatives for recycling. “Recycling is going to be a bigger part of what we do,” he said.
Like many other associations, SPI has dramatically increased its social network presence and hired a full-time person to respond to information that appears on blogs and websites. It is also putting together webinars for SPI members.
“We have a lot of pro-plastics activity going on to put out positive messages about how plastics improve everyday life,” Carteaux said.
The cooperation between the major plastics associations has given the industry a boost, he added. “When we share information and coordinate messages, we're a lot stronger as an industry because we have a unified message and can do it for less cost ... [and] we're not duplicating efforts.”
Carteaux said that he was pleased with the NPE2012 show and with the helpfulness of the city of Orlando, which hosted it from April 1-5.
“What pleased me is the outpouring of support from Orlando from the time NPE visitors got to the airport to when they got back to the airport,” said Carteaux. “And the biggest area of compliments we got from attendees and exhibitors, outside of the show itself, was the friendliness of the cab drivers.”
He pointed out that the city spent $4 million for electrical improvements for NPE.
One area SPI did not address ahead of time for this year's show was “Internet service and cost,” he admitted. “With the expansion of people using the Internet in their booths, we have to address that issue,” he said.