Plastics is an underappreciated industry.
Most of the public in the U.S. probably doesn't think of plastics as a major part of the manufacturing sector. But according to plastics industry data, it's the third-largest, behind the petroleum and automobile industries.
What those industries have that plastics lacks is a prominent public face. Most of us buy cars and gasoline. We don't buy plastic. We buy the things made from plastics, of course, and we see plastic litter and waste, but we're not thinking about the size of the industry as a jobs creator like we do for car assembly plants.
So the size of the industry is hidden, with the risk being it doesn't get proper recognition and attention from government unless it speaks up.
It's a global challenge for the industry, seen in places as diverse as India, where plastics use per capita is very low, and Turkey, where it's more in the mid-range of the world.
For example, the new head the All India Plastic Manufacturers' Association, R.K. Aggarwal, says a priority for his group is detailed collection of industry data and data mining to boost the stature of plastics.
“Authentic and complete industry data has been a major concern for the association,” he said in his presidential address, on the association's website. “Current data available at the association and the government level doesn't give a true and complete picture [of] our large plastic industry.”
I heard a similar message recently from an industry association in Turkey — that the official data on the plastics industry does not convey its size, because so many plastic parts become components of other products like cars or washing machines.
Those washing machines (Turkey is Europe's largest manufacturer of appliances) show up in Turkish export data, but the plastic parts do not.
“This was actually a hidden feature of the Turkish plastics industry, we had to really tell people,” said Selcuk Aksoy, president of the Istanbul-based Turkish Plastics Industrialists' Federation, or Plasfed. “Because we are selling to OEMs and those products are exported, our government officials were not aware of the situation.”
So the Turkish industry began preparing reports digging deeper into the data and giving a more complete picture, he said. The reports became popular and have helped industry make its case to policymakers, Aksoy said.
U.S. trade associations have made similar claims. Starting in the 1990s, they developed much more comprehensive reports on the industry's size to make points to governments.
In 1999, the then-president of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., Larry Thomas, invoked the proverb of “hiding your light under a bushel basket” to describe the industry's situation.
Uncover the light, the thinking goes, and it's easier to get the proper attention from policy makers.
It's clearly a challenge for the industry around the world, and it seems increasingly so in emerging markets.
Plastics can be thought of as an industry of subcontractors — an important one to be sure — but being hidden means it can't be shy about speaking up.
Toloken is Plastics News' news editor-international. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.