Bureaucracy Can Be a Barrier to Use of Recycled Materials
Plastics News, March 25, 1996
When it comes to recycling, deregulation can be the friend of the environment,
though you don't hear that often these days. Today, markets for a great many
products with recycled plastic content -- including drainage pipes, plastic
lumber and assorted building materials -- are being discouraged by red tape,
institutionalized barriers to new technologies, and a misguided emphasis on
specifying materials and processes instead of relying on performance standards.
Part of the problem is that potential end users rely on industry standard-
setting organizations, like ASTM [American Society for Testing and Materials] or
the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which
write standards that sometimes shut out recycled materials.
Recycled plastic pipes, for instance, don't have much of a market in the United
States. Drainage pipes made of high density polyethylene can be made with up to
50 percent recycled content -- and considering how much drainage pipe we use,
this isn't small potatoes. But state and local governments won't buy pipes
unless they've been OK'd by ASTM or AASHTO. And these groups have been
painfully slow in drawing up standards for pipes with recycled content; they're
industry groups, and the concrete, steel, clay and plastic pipe factions spend
their time trying to prevent each other from gaining market share. ASTM can take
up to 10 years to develop a testing standard for a new material.
Manufacturers of plastic lumber, a promising construction material, tell similar
stories. Plastic lumber isn't generally being purchased today, in part because
ASTM hasn't drawn up adequate testing standards. Some participants in the
process blame the ASTM's slowness on members of the "wood lobby" who keep
standards bogged down in committees. Says one manufacturer, "It's hard to have
a rational conversation with wood people at public forums."
The problem isn't that such organizations exist; these organizations serve a
useful purpose in developing standards and performance tests. Rather, the
problem is that when governments rely on them, the standards often become
mandatory, not voluntary.
Another part of the problem is that governments themselves sometimes enforce
restrictive regulations that shut out recycled materials. The Thermalock Block,
which is made of a thick layer of molded plastic between two layers of concrete,
and the Rastra Block, which is made of 86 percent recycled polystyrene mixed
with cement, are two examples of new and potentially useful recycled-content
building materials. But building codes, which are generally enforced on the
local level, are very conservative. They are often wedded to traditional
materials and processes, and make it difficult for innovative building materials
to be used.
Yet another problem is that government procurement agencies can inadvertently or
subtly discriminate against recycled materials, through the arcane rules of
government bidding processes, conditions unrelated to performance, and outright
One theme runs through this array of government practices -- regulation can
often discourage recycling. Governments often specify materials or methods,
instead of relying on measures of performance. In the past, this may have been
the best proxy for performance one could find; when performance is difficult to
measure, "doing it the way we've always done it" may have had some
justification. But those days are over. Today, it's time for governments to
move toward performance standards.
Recycling advocates frequently pose the question: "Why doesn't everyone use
recycled materials?" But this is, in a sense, as ridiculous a question as, "Why
doesn't everyone make things out of steel?" The physics and chemistry of
recycling are complicated. The answer is to admit that the optimal level of
recycled material usage will vary. Unless we adopt performance standards when
possible, we can never know what those levels are, much less reach them.
The answer, then, isn't to adopt recycled-content mandates or for governments to
preferentially buy recycled. If there was ever a time for governments to coddle
recyclers, that time is past. Instead, governments should draw up performance
standards [wherever] possible for everything they buy, and local building-code
offices should establish clearer and more predictable approval procedures that
are more open to innovative technologies. We should critically review the mass
of regulations that discourage recycling and ask, as in Matthew 26:8: "To what
purpose is this waste?"
Alexander Volokh is an assistant policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, a
public policy think tank in Los Angeles. Volokh is the author of How
Government Building Codes and Construction Standards Discourage Recycling, a
recent study from the foundation.
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