Bureaucracy Can Be a Barrier to Use of Recycled Materials

Alexander Volokh
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 materials requirements.

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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