Plastics were not high on the list of campaign issues in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. Plastics rarely came up in stump speeches, candidate profiles or debates.
We did hear a lot about health care and the economy. But we did not hear much about banning single-use plastics. In fact, with one important exception that I'll get to later, we heard very little about most issues that are important to plastics manufacturers, including tariffs and NAFTA.
But as Steve Toloken noted in a recent story, the election results could mean important changes on some plastics issues.
Democrats won a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 6, and they made significant gains in many statehouses, too. Some analysts think Democrats in the House will push to reverse part of the corporate tax cut passed last year. And if you paid attention in high school civics class, you'll remember that the House of Representatives has the "power of the purse." So that's meaningful, right?
Not if you're been paying attention to how Washington works — or, rather, doesn't work. Shared power means nothing new will get done on taxes in the next two years. Get ready for showdowns and government shutdowns.
The same likely applies to the replacement for NAFTA. Congress will debate the details, and it could even delay a vote until side deals are struck between the United States, Mexico and Canada. But Congress can't rewrite the treaty at this point. There's already significant momentum for the deal that President Donald Trump plans to send to the Capitol early next month.
Some experts speculate that Trump and the Democrats may work together on a large federal infrastructure spending program. It's possible. But will it include a wall on the border with Mexico? Only if Mexico agrees to pay for it … meaning no, it won't.
While we may be back to a stalemate in D.C., I think we'll see more meaningful debate about issues important to manufacturers in state capitals. In some places, like New Jersey and Connecticut, expect to see more action on plastics waste issues.
The Plastics Industry Association has seen some success in Republican-controlled states, passing statewide laws that stop local bans of single-use plastic bags. With more Democrats in office, that strategy may start to slip.
But don't worry, it won't be all negative for plastics manufacturing. In fact, I would argue that on the biggest issue of all, we will see progress in 2019 and beyond.
I'm referring to the skills gap. Manufacturers already face a shortage of qualified workers, and demographics hint that the problem will keep getting worse in the next decade. But I'm optimistic that help is on the way because I think candidates from both parties, at all levels, understand it's a problem. Politicians know what STEM is, and there's widespread, almost universal, support for investment in science, math and vocational education.
That's good news, because it's essential for plastics companies to grow and thrive in the competitive global economy.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.