Standards Discriminate Against Recycling, According to Reason Foundation Study

Katherine Egan
Recycling Times, April 2, 1996

Governments sometimes discriminate against the use of recycled materials in construction by relying on voluntary industry standards rather than creating their own performance-based standards, according to a new report by the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation. The report said that organizations such as the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) are often slow to create standards, which can prevent the use of recycled products that are new to the market.

The report also argued that products like plastic lumber are not being widely used because it has taken ASTM a long time to set standards for its usage. "You have to have proof these products perform well, but how much is too much?" said Alexander Volokh, report author and an environmental policy analyst at the Reason Foundation.

Jack Legler, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Waste Equipment Technology Association and an American National Standards Institute committee member, said standards organizations are not taking too long because they must follow "due process" to make sure the materials are safe in order to protect "workers, the general public, and the environment." Legler said the organizations also must take time to allow all affected parties to give their opinion on the product.

But Volokh stated in his report that businesses that would compete with the new materials often delay the standard-setting process. For example, he cited allegations that ASTM has been slow to set standards for plastic lumber because representatives of the wood industry offered "counter-productive suggestions" to delay the process.

Morris Brooke of ASTM said the burden of proof with any new material is on the material's proponents. But he does not think recycled materials are being shut out.

"We've heard that a dozen times," Brooke said. "But that accusation has never gone anywhere." He said in one instance the Justice Department investigated those allegations and found them untrue.

The study said one way to fix this problem is for governments to create their own performance standards when industry groups have yet to establish a standard or when established standards call for products to adhere to irrelevant characteristics, such as color or thickness.

"We shouldn't care if a road is made of asphalt, concrete, or orange-flavored Jell-O," Volokh said. "If the orange-flavored Jell-O performs properly, it's a good road."

Amy Steiner with American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials said their goal is to move entirely to performance-based standards. But, she said the problem with performance tests is that people then will say the standards are not fair when their product fails. "The fact of the matter is, some recycled materials are inferior," Steiner said.

"The problem isn't that these organizations exist; these organizations serve a useful purpose in developing standards and performance tests. The problem is that when governments rely on them, the standards often become mandatory, not voluntary," Volokh said in the report.

How Government Building Codes and Construction Standards Discourage Recycling is the third study in a series by the Reason Foundation on regulatory barriers to recycling. Copies of the report are available from the Reason Foundation for $15 each, plus shipping and handling. Contact the Reason Foundation at 310/391-2245.

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