PlasticsEurope: Reversing traditional lobbying methods

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Trying to convince policymakers of your arguments can only be successful to a certain extent, according to Wilfried Hansel of PlasticsEurope. Lobbyists must also address the needs of society as a whole if they are to positively influence outcomes, he says in an interview with EURACTIV.

Wilfried Haensel is executive director of PlasticsEurope, the association of plastics manufacturers.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

PlasticsEurope recently decided to change the way it communicates. Can you explain the reasoning behind this? 

There are two aspects. On the one hand, we are living in the information society – if people are getting information from all sides, then we need to speak up and make ourselves heard with the arguments that we can contribute. That is one aspect. 

The other aspect is that in the past, of course we communicated as well, but to a very narrow audience, which was mainly policymakers via our advocacy activities. That is, so to speak, the traditional way of doing association work. 

We have changed this. We have decided that we have to openly speak about the contributions that we can make as for the most relevant challenges that we are facing these days as a society – in particular, those challenges related to climate change and limited resources on the planet and so forth. 

So here we have decided that we are now embarking on a dialogue, taking up the respective communication measures. But not only communication – we are preparing ourselves to make active contributions through action, which of course we will then communicate in these areas. 

It is a rather different approach to lobbying that you are actually going for, then? 

Yes. Let’s say it has two different implications. The one implication is that our approach starts with the target audience. We want to understand what is in their interests first. If you take for example our society, then of course climate protection and energy efficiency are very relevant topics. Out of this understanding, we then find what we shall take as an action in order to contribute to this. 

So it is a reversal of the traditional way. In traditional advocacy, usually you take an approach by which you have your position, and you want others to understand and accept your position, which I think is only successful to a certain extent. 

If you reverse it and you try to address the needs and requirements of society, policymakers and so on, then you have a greater chance of being successful and that is what we are going for. 

So, basically you are going to target consumers much more than used to be the case? 

Yes, but we will not exclude the policymaker. They remain the focus, but we want to complement this with opinion formers of the general public, as we have done in the past, for two reasons. One is that we believe we have to contribute a lot to the challenges of the times. Plastics are contributing significantly in many areas, and indeed in many areas they are probably the solution. So we really have to communicate on these effects and contributions so that everyone understands what is possible, in order to then come to a conclusion to hopefully exploit these potentials. 

Secondly, if we only concentrated on policymakers, it would mean we would tend only to react to what is in the making. We want to be proactive and influence opinions and decisions at an earlier stage, which I believe very much starts in the general public. 

Many initiatives and movements go on there [in the general public] which are influenced by many individual groups, individuals or otherwise, but not so much by industry at the moment. If we leave it, then in the end we will be confronted with a situation whereby we will have certain attempts at legislation or a political environment that in the end we will probably realise is not beneficial to exploiting the potential that we have.

If we want to make our contribution, we have to start earlier with the general public. 

Some lobbyists go as far as saying that behind-the-scenes advocacy is not the way to go any more. Do you agree with that?

I would say it is a necessary condition, but in the end not a sufficient condition, to accommodate. Of course we have to work on these levels, but only working on this means that you are leaving out the chance to influence certain developments that in the end lead to action by policymakers. 

Moving on to PlasticsEurope as an organisation as such – you are one of the rare ones to have a European structure. Does that help the efforts you are making to address a wider audience?

I am very much convinced that this new structure, which according to my knowledge does not exist in other associations at the moment, is extremely helpful in order to not only formulate forward-looking initiatives, but to execute them as well. 

We have a structure in which we have integrated all our activities across Europe into one industry, and we are now in a position to speak with one voice. Of course we have to deal with the various national differences and cultural differences. This we are doing through our activities on the spot in the individual countries and to complement this, we are taking action at EU level. 

So what we can do is speak with one voice. We do not have the problems of other set-ups or structures in which the energy is to a large extent absorbed by just the attempt to come to a compromise. 

What I realise in our industry is that a high degree of joint action, joint interest and engagement is creating energy, which we convert to the outside, and not so much on finding compromises on the inside. I think that is a very strong point of the forward-looking activities of PlasticsEurope. 

What led PlasticsEurope to take this step? Was there any particular reason which drove these organisations to merge?

I can only speculate on this, because I inherited [PlasticsEurope] when it was already in existence. But I think there is one relevant point. Of course, it is a very difficult process to create something of this kind, and everyone who is in this kind of activity will understand that easily. 

The logic was very simple. Our industry had anticipated the realities in Europe, in which we are not dealing with the EU as a separate entity from the national level so much any more. If you look at political processes and opinion-building processes in Europe, there is always something in which one nation has an effect on another nation. 

This does not mean that they all think the same, but there is a stimulating process among those [nations], and this is exactly the reason why our industry said, in anticipation of the reality in Europe of ‘Unity in diversity’, we have to come up with something in which we can integrate our activities in such a way that on the one hand we maintain a very strong national activity, but we complement it with a very strong, integrated activity at the Brussels level. 

Integration, and I think everyone who is in politics in Europe understands this very well, is a need in Europe. 

What are going to be PlasticsEurope’s main activities to raise awareness on these issues?

Basically our approach starts with understanding what is in the interests of our society. 

Of course, we are representing the interests of our industry, but the challenge for us is really to bring this into co-existence with the interests of the public as well as our own interests. We cannot be selfish. We can only be successful if we accommodate and address the needs of our society. We have decided to concentrate our work on three main areas. 

  • One is climate protection and energy efficiency. 
  • The second is resource efficiency, and;
  • the third is consumer protection.

All our activities today across Europe, and the activities in advocacy, communication and technical work, are all subsidised under this. Under these areas, we then have certain activities and initiatives that we are already taking at the moment and that we will continue to strengthen in the future. 

At the moment, just to mention a few, what we call the ‘Future Energy Initiative’ is underway, which is in cooperation with European School Network. And we are an appointed partner in ‘Sustainable Energy Europe’. This comprises various elements, and we already reach two million people. The main idea is that we want to contribute. 

Throughout Europe, young people in particular are becoming aware of their contribution to saving energy and resources on this planet. So you can argue this is a very social initiative as we are contributing to their awareness and a behavioural change. 

But the implication for us is that as plastics is paying a very relevant role in energy savings and climate protection, this will help us. At some point in time they will understand naturally that in their efforts to save energy, plastics will play a role. This is one initiative. 

Another one is the parliamentary debates with youth that we are conducting all over Europe at the moment. They already started last year in Berlin, Warsaw and London. This year, the other main capitals will be a point of discussion. It always takes place in a natural, real parliament, and we have situations in which two different groups are discussing and disputing the pros and cons of certain activities, all related to the context of limited resources and energy efficiency.

So it’s a very open debate, again something where we are not promoting plastics, but it’s a natural outcome in which plastics play a certain role in the end. But it is not something that we are stressing. This is something which is taking place in Europe now, and will be finalised in Brussels by the middle of this year, with a debate in the European Parliament with about 100-120 winners of the national parliament debates in the member states. 

You were talking about the concrete role of plastics for the normal consumer. What is that? Is it increased focus on recycling? What other role are you talking about? 

It is basically the contributions that plastics are already making in today’s world, and the potential that we will have in the future with regard to energy savings, for example. If you take the packaging sector for example, we have made independent studies which compare alternative packaging materials. 

One striking example is yoghurt packaging on a truck. If you have one truckload and take less packaging, then by weight you are absorbing one third of the total payload, whereas with plastics it’s only 3.6%. That means that as a lighter material which is still very protective, plastics are saving a lot of energy because you need less trips by trucks to get the material – the yoghurt – from the factory to the retailer. 

It is not only energy savings. It also helps our roads and streets not to be as congested as they are today. So with alternative materials other than plastic, you would have higher weight, and in this sector, higher use of oil and emissions as a consequence. 

If you take other examples, housing insulation is a very simple concept which everyone will understand from their own current situations. Insulation contributes by saving 150 times the oil you have used to manufacture a plastic. So you are taking a certain amount of oil to manufacture the insulation material, window frames or insulation boards, and then you have a very significant saving of 150 times this volume. 

Many people argue that the use of plastics with regard to oil and gas is very high, which is not the case. The manufacture of plastics only makes up 4% of the total oil and gas usage worldwide. Now imagine if we could save 150 times this volume. It means that we are dramatically extending the availability of oil on this planet. 

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