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Democratic gains mean change on some plastics issues

Washington — Congress will have at least one more plastics executive in office, voters in Chicago favored banning plastic straws in a non-binding vote and Democratic control of the U.S. House and gains in state governments could change the landscape on some plastics issues.

The 2018 midterm election results are a bit of a catch-all, with Democratic control of the House likely to complicate the political agenda for manufacturers in Washington, and Democratic gains at the state level in places like Connecticut probably energizing plastics waste issues.

The plastics industry will see at least one more of its executives in Congress. Republican Bryan Steil, the general counsel at film extruder Charter NEX Films Inc., won the seat in Wisconsin being vacated by outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan.

California Republican Jeff Denham, owner of Denham Plastics LLC, held a narrow lead to retain his House seat in a district that Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential race.

In Ohio, former injection molding executive Warren Davidson easily won reelection in his very Republican-leaning district surrounding Dayton.

The U.S. Senate in Florida race remains too close to call, but if Republican Rick Scott wins, it would put another executive with plastics experience in Congress. Scott was chairman of large automotive injection molder Continental Structural Plastics, now based in Auburn Hills, Mich., before he was elected governor of Florida. He retained substantial ownership of the company until it was bought by Japan's Teijin Ltd. in 2016.

It's not all Republicans with plastics industry experience. The new governor of Illinois, wealthy investor J.B. Pritzker, is a Democrat and through Pritzker Group Private Capital, he and his family own Technimark LLC, a maker of rigid plastic packaging and components and ProAmpac, a flexible packaging company.

Plastics waste concerns

In some state and local races, plastics waste and pollution were prominent.

In the race for governor of Connecticut, Democrat Ned Lamont — whose website said “plastics is one of the most abundant pollutants on the planet” and who campaigned on banning single-use plastics — won in a close race.

Democrats in that state also took control of the state Senate and added to their majority in the state House.

A similar shift in New Jersey last year presaged the new Democratic governor there, Phil Murphy, pushing single-use plastic restrictions that have prompted the Plastics Industry Association to ask whether that state has become the "East Coast California."

In Connecticut, Lamont campaigned on beefing up recycling and addressing packaging waste.

"The health of our neighborhoods, highways and public spaces demands we be vigilant and improve our waste management by more aggressively shifting into recycling and addressing the rampant use of single-use products and wasteful packaging," his platform said.

"As governor, I will work to eliminate plastics from our waste stream and will begin by banning single-use plastics like straws, styrofoam cups and bags by 2021," it said.

In Chicago, a little more than 55 percent of the 747,000 voters at the polls said they favored banning "the use of plastic straws within the city limits."

The vote was non-binding, and some analysts said the City Council put it on the ballot with an ulterior motive — if the city had three referendums before voters, it would block another proposed referendum that would have limited Chicago's mayor to three terms.

Still, the vote is a measure of public opinion. It was sponsored by straw ban advocates, and there is already proposed legislation in the Chicago City Council that would limit straws on city property.

Plastics waste issues also bubbled up in some smaller local races around the country, in city and town votes in Maine and Minnesota.

Federal changes

At the federal level, some analysts were speculating that Democratic control of the House could complicate tax issues for manufacturers if Democrats push to reverse part of the corporate tax cut passed last year.

As well, it could put a new wrinkle in Congressional review of the replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But more Democratic influence in Congress could also help attempts to pass a large federal infrastructure spending program.

Plastics industry trade groups in Washington have been lobbying for more federal infrastructure dollars to be directed to recycling as one of their strategies to address waste concerns. So a push on infrastructure could help that.

Still, the National Association of Manufacturers took a neutral tone in its initial comments on the results, arguing that manufacturing has a "post-partisan agenda."

"We are living in a time of record optimism among manufacturers," NAM CEO Jay Timmons said. "That is in large part due to the significant progress we've made over the last two years to empower manufacturers with game-changing policy reforms."

"We will continue that progress with the new Congress," he said. "From infrastructure investment to regulatory relief, workforce development to trade policy, there's plenty to be done, and we know it can be done with support from across the political spectrum."

Still, some Washington observers noted the potential for a symbolic — if not entirely significant — change in the fortunes of plastics in the nation's capital.

In some election-eve analysis, Politico magazine wondered if a return to Democratic control of the House would lead them to ditch plastic tableware in the Capitol cafeteria, again.

When the Democrats last controlled the House, they required food vendors in the Capitol to use compostable cups and utensils, rather than ones made from petrochemical-based plastics or other throw-away materials.

But when Republicans won the House in 2010, they abandoned it, arguing it was too costly, had only limited environmental impact, and the compostable tableware did not work well.

Nonetheless, the political "trash talk" of the campaign season may lead to a direct, if small, change for plastics in the cafeterias of the halls of power.


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