Canadian Plastics

Cover Story – CPIA Anniversary: Going boldly forward

The Canadian Plastics Industry Association was officially born on June 12th, 1996, when the members of SPI Canada, the Environment and Plastics Institute of Canada (EPIC), Alberta's Polymer Centre and...

January 1, 2002   By Michael Legault

The Canadian Plastics Industry Association was officially born on June 12th, 1996, when the members of SPI Canada, the Environment and Plastics Institute of Canada (EPIC), Alberta’s Polymer Centre and the Canadian Plastics Institute (CPI) gave full approval to merging the four organizations into one. The event was a landmark moment; one that boldly and permanently changed the structure and operations of plastics association groups in Canada; as well as the relationship between those associations and their members.

In one sense the reorganization was a natural next step in the historical evolution of Canada’s central plastics trade association, from an SPI branch, to a more autonomous SPI Canada to the fully autonomous CPIA. The formation of a single, fully Canadian plastics trade association can also be viewed as an inevitable result of the vigorous growth of the plastics industry in Canada, particularly from the mid-60s onward. But it was also in many ways visionary. And visions are not always an easy sell.

“It was a challenge, a major endeavor,” CPIA president Pierre Dubois says of the reorganization. “Some people were skeptical that it would work. There were a lot of people who needed convincing.”

One source of skepticism arose from the inherent diversity of the plastics industry, and the disbelief among many people that a single organization could represent all sectors, many with differing or conflicting interests. Early on in the process, says Dubois, it became the job of the steering committee composed of high-profile members of the industry, along with senior management of the CPI, The Polymer Centre, EPIC and SPI, to persuade doubters that each sector of the industry depends on other sectors for success. The phrase “one industry, one voice” was coined and effectively used to help emphasize the common bonds of the industry.

Another aspect that troubled some members was the new organization’s decentralized structure based on membership within the four regions of the country: Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario and Western Canada. A number of companies, notes Dubois, did not see value in spending dues money to set up and maintain regional offices in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver. At stake was the basic strategic vision and objective of the re-structuring, which was to change the perception of the industry association as Toronto-based organization primarily serving the large resin companies and other suppliers. Dubois says that while a regional-based structure required a bit of selling at first, the success of the approach is no longer questioned.

“People in the regions had no sense of belonging, so the companies that primarily joined the organization were the ones that happened to be active in central Canada, which for the most part happened to be the resin companies.”


Five years later the membership can take pride and satisfaction knowing that their decision to change old ways and habits has produced tangible benefits, says Dubois. The number of processors in the organization has been growing by 10 to 12 percent per year, on a net basis. Many of these processors are from the previously untapped Atlantic and Western regions. Overall membership has grown at approximately 5 to 10 percent per year and currently totals 420 members, which is 35 to 40 percent more members than it had at the time of the reorganization. More important, Dubois stresses, having a single trade organization representing the plastics industry has raised the profile of the industry.

The CPIA has worked with Industry Canada and other levels of government to help the plastics industry achieve the status of national priority sector. Essentially, being a priority sector means that the government recognizes the industry as a significant contributor to the wealth and quality of life of the country. In tangible terms it means that when the plastics industry talks, the government listens. The spokes-group now doing the talking is the CPIA.

The CPIA was also a major factor in the formation of a Plastics Sector Council through Human Resources and Development Canada. The Plastics Sector Council is endeavoring to create a set of pan-Canadian National Occupational Standards for the plastics industry. Additionally, CPIA has successfully lobbied the CCRA (formerly Revenue Canada) to provide a plastics-industry specialist for helping small and medium-sized enterprises evaluate SR&ED tax credit eligibility and spur investment.

Dubois says these and other programs and initiatives undertaken through the various councils and regions are examples of the organization’s commitment to provide member value.

“We’ve changed our services and really listen to what our members tell us. I tell our staff, when you do anything ask yourself ‘does it create member value?’.”

The membership’s top priorities for the CPIA, says Dubois, are government relations, stimulating economic growth and creating a positive industry image.

On the financial side, the organization has managed to bring expenses back in line with revenues, after being in the red following the re-organization. It closed the Ontario Region office in downtown Toronto, merging its staff and operations with the national office in Mississauga, ON, and has cut costs and expenses in other areas. Dubois says the rough financial period was primarily a result of high expenses associated with the start-up of the CPIA.

Having survived the start-up and turned the corner financially, the CPIA’s creed of creating value for members is now apparently paying off.

“Last year we very nervously increased our dues formula by 10 percent,” notes Dubois. “We lost one member.” In a time when many trade associations in other industries and sectors are seeing steep membership losses, Dubois believes this is a sign that members perceive they are getting good value for their dues investment.


In addition to its focus on economic, political and environmental issues, the CPIA is also the present embodiment of sixty years of plastics trade organization involvement in Canada. That history is evident in the CPIA’s national offices, where the pictures of Industry Leaders on the past covers of Canadian Plastics magazine line the walls in the boardroom.

Plastics trade association work in Canada had its genesis in events set in motion by World War II. As Donald W. Emmerson reports in his fine book, Canadian Inventors and Innovators — Pioneering in Plastics, the first formal meeting of plastics material suppliers and molders was instigated by the Controller of chemicals in the Department of Munitions and Supply in 1940 in order to address the possible shortage of phenolics. After this meeting, a Plastics Advisory Committee was formed in 1942 with K. H. Braithwaite, an employee of Duplate, as its chairman and Alf. E. Byrne of CGE as its secretary. A few meetings later, Emmerson reports, they were motivated to form a Canadian branch of SPI, which was formally done during meetings with U.S. SPI staff in Toronto in 1942. The first president of the Canadian section of SPI was Alf Byrne. By the fall of 1942 the Canadian section had enlisted 39 company and 36 individual members representing over 90 percent of the plastics industry.

Fast forward to 1976, an era of high growth in plastics that also coincided with the introduction of more and more plastic parts into the automobile. A youthful, energetic person had just left a good accounting job to join the Canadian branch of the SPI. That person was Ron Evason, who eventually became SPI Canada president, and presided over the organization during some of its most eventful years. It was perhaps Evason, together with likes of Canadian chairman Barney Danson, who did more to forward the notion of autonomy for SPI Canada than anyone in the history of the organization. Evason, by all accounts, was a gregarious, political and colorful character with a strong belief in the importance of association work.

In a special report published by this magazine commemorating SPI Canada’s 50th annivers
ary, Evason wrote, “Associations get access to government in a way that individuals don’t. They’re invited to comment on policy… In my view, associations are essential to a democracy, and I don’t think this is understood, even among associations.”

Evason’s reign lasted until 1995 and his untimely death at the age of 62. By that time a North American Free Trade Agreement was in the works and the world was very much a different place. Yet Evason had done much to establish a trade organization with strong central Canadian identity, and to lay the groundwork for a fresh approach in plastics industry association work.


One of the concerns during the formation of the CPIA was that EPIC, along with the other various councils, would disappear and struggle to be effective within the decentralized structure of the new organization. Instead, situated within the two Strategic Units of Environmental, Health and Safety, and Competitiveness, these groups, which embody the dictum ‘think globally, act locally’, appear to be thriving. (see summary, page 30).

Dubois is adamant about the importance of the Councils. “The principle upon which the eleven Councils were formed is to support the interests and concerns of members in every region. Some of the activities are naturally concentrated in Quebec and Ontario, but many of the issues addressed by the Councils transcend any particular sector, for example environmental concerns.”

While EPIC was formed over twenty-five years ago primarily to address solid waste management, environmental issues have evolved dramatically since then. For example environmental groups recently sought bans or restrictions on PVC toys, soothers and IV blood bags containing certain plasticizers. The campaign had limited success, in part because of the behind-the scenes effort of the Vinyl Council and other groups to provide the government with evidence supporting the safety of these products.

Dubois calls Environmental, Health & Safety, under the direction of Mimi Singh, the single most important area of activity within the CPIA.

“Environmental issues, if not handled properly, could become the Achilles heel of the industry,” Dubois observes. The CPIA devotes approximately 50 percent of its resources (time, money and effort) to EH&S issues, he reports.


In light of the terrorist attacks of September 11, the world has become a much smaller place. Cooperation between countries at all economic and political levels is likely to increase in scope. Still, problems and issues unique to individual nations will need to be addressed by the body-politic of that country.

Dubois believes that Canadian industry and Canadians in general should be particularly concerned about the low dollar and its potential long-term impact on productivity and the Canadian standard of living.

“Relying on the weak dollar to compete is a recipe for disaster,” Dubois says, noting that the industry is seeing investments by SMEs slipping.

Another concern for the industry is the availability of competent people. Dubois cites a study conducted by the Plastics Sector Council which, factoring in past growth rates, as well as the rate at which people leave, indicates the industry will need one-quarter million new people between 2000 and 2008. One possible solution to this looming shortage of people is an immigration policy that would sponsor people into Canada who commit to working a given number of years in the plastics industry.

If the country can successfully address these concerns, Dubois believes the Canadian plastics industry is on the verge of establishing itself as a world leader. The majority of growth for the Canadian plastics industry over the past two decades has been in export markets. In order to enhance export opportunities for its members, CPIA has signed memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with Brazil, Argentina, Chile, China and other countries. These agreements provide for exchange of information on markets, and make it easier for Canadian companies to establish contacts and alliances in foreign markets.

As well, Dubois says CPIA has played the lead role in current discussions to form a North American trade association of plastics trade associations. In addition to the CPIA, participants include SPI, SPE, the American Plastics Council and ANIPAC, the Mexican plastics trade association. While such an association would not usurp the role of the national groups, it could help to create synergies for common members who are operating in all three countries. It could also coordinate resources and strategy should governments begin negotiating a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA).

Dubois says: “There are doomsayers who believe free trade is only promoting the interests of multi-national companies, but I believe the whole world is going to benefit from the jobs and business created by free trade.”

The next five years, like the last five, should be interesting.

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