Fighting plastic's corner
By Hamish Champ
Posted 1 May 2012
Unveiling the British Plastic Federation's (BPF) latest document on the future of the domestic plastics industry, BPF president Philip Watkins repeats something Winston Churchill used to say: "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."
In what is effectively a 'long letter' to anyone who might have an interest in plastics – consumers, OEMs, the investment community and, crucially, politicians – The UK Plastics Industry: A Strategic Manufacturing Sector is a 12-page discussion document highlighting the material's positive aspects, from its contribution to the country's economic recovery to the part it plays in moving towards a generally greener world.
It also sets out what the BPF is looking for, especially from government, to help the sector realise its potential.
The paper includes what is effectively a 'shopping list' for ministers, which includes:
1. addressing the accessibility of raw materials at "stable prices", as well as dealing with what it calls a "shortage of technician skills";
2. improving research and development capabilities in UK universities;
3. cutting red tape to encourage the sector to grow and compete with other countries;
4. allocating more resources towards developing both export and inward investment opportunities;
5. greater recognition by relevant government departments regarding recognition of the sector's strategic importance.
One of the document's key demands is that government joins with the industry to "promote the benefits of plastics products in order to secure public appreciation from investors and consumers alike and to counter myths and misinformation".
Says Watkins: "There is so much more to plastics than supermarket carrier bags. We want to move the debate towards showing people how much plastic means to their lives - in the energy-efficient cars they drive and the buildings they occupy, the iPods, mobile phones and other electronic devices they use and so on - as well as to the wider economy."
An ambitious aim. But getting this message across to an audience beyond the industry itself was a vital consideration when drawing up the document, says Watkins.
"It is important that we engage not just with our members but with all the main stakeholders who have an interest in our industry," he adds.
Getting the message
The good news is that Watkins believes the government has finally 'got' the message, pointing to a foreward in the document written by business minister Mark Prisk.
Prisk writes that plastic plays "a crucial, often unseen, role in our transition to a greener economy...your businesses are driving innovation in products, applications and processes that are increasingly contributing to our low carbon objectives".
And despite what the BPF describes as "misinformation" surrounding plastic, most recently with an Early Day Motion concerning Bisphenol A, Watkins is clearly delighted with the minister's contribution.
"We've targeted the government first and we're pleased with the response we've had. Mark Prisk's support is evidence of recognition of our key enabling role. His comments show we've hit the spot," he says.
But important as persuading government departments is, it is only part of the battle.
Since investment in the industry is crucial to its prospects, banks and financial institutions are also in the BPF's sights, says Watkins.
The BPF's top brass, including Watkins and director-general Peter Davis, are meeting with members of the investment community to establish how best to 'spread the word' that plastics companies are worthy of their interest.
"We want to show the finance companies just how innovative our industry is," says Watkins.
Persuading the public
Meanwhile the biggest 'nut' to crack remains the Great British public.
Watkins and the rest of his BPF colleagues recognise that persuading consumers to view plastic in a more positive light is a tough call, as is persuading the 'mainstream' media - which traditionally prefers to focus on marine pollution and the like, rather than writing about plastics' benefits.
Watkins meanwhile issues a challenge to BPF members. "We welcome members' comments on this document, but we would also like them to send a copy [which is available on the BPF's website: www.bpf.co.uk/StrategicManufacturing] to their MP," he says. "We estimate almost every constituency is home to at least one BPF member."
There is no doubt the government has to play its part in helping change the perception of UK manufacturing.
The BPF, meanwhile, will be hoping its latest effort to highlight the industry will change attitudes far beyond Westminster.
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