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It's time to get out in front

You know the old expression, everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Coming from the manufacturing industry, that''s exactly how I felt about national politics.

However, now that I''m here in Washington, I see that plastics industry employees can do something about the key issues that affect our livelihood.

We are a huge industry, with more than a million employees, thousands of suppliers and business partners, and thousands of facilities. We are in every state. However, we have not used our power to effect the kind of policy outcomes we need.

In 2006, we must do much more to build up our grassroots capabilities and make sure our voices are heard on all policy issues that affect us-energy, trade, product deselection issues and currency, just to name a few.

We must work to educate our federal and state legislators about the importance of our industry to the nation''s economy and homeland security, as well as to local economies. The more lawmakers understand about the plastics industry, the more they will listen to us-and support us.

The truth is that few legislators have much knowledge of the size and scope of our industry. During my first year in Washington DC, I''ve been amazed to find that lawmakers have no idea of the plastic industry''s critical role in defense, homeland security, aviation, electronics, telecommunications, healthcare, automotive-and all kinds of construction.

While all lawmakers continue to debate over remedies for our natural gas shortage, few are aware that natural gas is a vital feedstock for plastics, chemicals, and agriculture, among other major industries. As anyone reading this column probably knows, this shortage has caused a huge run-up in natural gas prices-from less than $3 per Btu a few years ago to $15 and upwards today. As I write this, natural gas has just set a new record of $15.52, and experts are predicting that it is likely to go higher-and stay there.

Because plastic production is so dependent on natural gas, the huge price increases have already forced scores of facilities to close their doors. It is estimated that more than 200,000 jobs have been lost in our industry alone over the past five years. The chemical industry says it has lost more than 100,000 jobs. Meanwhile, we are facing a surge of foreign competition from countries where payrolls are significantly lower and natural gas prices are a fraction of ours.

We know that this country is sitting on vast reserves of both oil and natural gas. And our energy companies have the means to bring it to the surface, refine it, and distribute it-with minimal disturbance to the environment.

But for a variety of reasons, some environmental, some because of fears about the impact on tourism, some because it might spoil the view, development of our energy reserves has been blocked by Congress and state legislators, year after year. Why? Partly because they don''t have the full picture-and that''s our own fault. Our industry has neglected to counterbalance the pressure from the environmental groups with hard numbers and other facts about lost jobs and diminishing competitiveness in today''s global marketplace.

The good news is that it''s not too late

In 2006 SPI will launch an aggressive grass-roots campaign to begin the dialogue and build relationships with our congressional leaders. And we''ll be calling on every employee of every company in the plastics industry to help us educate lawmakers, grass-roots style. It''s time for the plastics industry to get out in front.

Bill Carteaux is president of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. (SPI) based in Washington DC. He can be reached at [email protected].

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