WASHINGTON — Don't expect big things from the federal government's effort to boost sagging recycling markets by purchasing things like carpet, patio blocks and office products made with recycled plastic. At least not yet.
Since May 1996, federal agencies have had to try to purchase items made from recycled plastic. But interviews with recycling organizations and representatives of companies making some of the products on the government list suggest that, thus far, there has been little impact.
Some agencies, such as the U.S. Postal Service, say they are making strong efforts, while others say it is too soon to tell. A spokeswoman for the Department of Defense, by far the largest federal goverment purchaser, could not provide information on policy changes the department made to boost plastic purchases.
Federal agencies do not have to start tracking purchases until later this year, and figures will not be available until next year.
Government officials note that some recycled-content plastic products are hard to find in federal purchasing systems, and they say training workers in an increasingly decentralized purchasing system is getting tougher with tight budgets.
The head of the office that monitors compliance said progress will be slow going until procurement systems are changed.
``It will be a few years before compliance levels reach anything statistically significant,'' said Fran McPoland, the federal environmental executive. Her position was created by President Clinton in 1993 to encourage consideration of environmental issues in procurement.
``The industry should not expect a tremendous increase until we get a handle on procurement,'' she said.
Federal agencies are required to try to purchase recycled items if they buy more than $10,000 worth of a product during a year, but do not have to spend more for recycled.
So far, plastics firms say they have not seen any substantial impact from the order.
``There just seems to be no motivation to make it happen,'' said Dennis Sabourin, a vice president of PET recycler and fiber manufacturer Wellman Inc. in Shrewsbury, N.J.
McPoland's small office works hard, but ``there just isn't teeth — no enforcement.''
Recycled PET carpeting is on the list of targeted products identified by the Environmental Protection Agency. Such polyester carpeting is limited mainly to residential uses and has been identified by the EPA for low- and medium-wear uses.
The federal effort regarding recycled plastic is relatively new, compared with paper and other products, said Edgar Miller, director of policy and programs for the National Recycling Coalition in Alexandria, Va.
``We just have not seen the type of educational effort [on plastics] to the federal agencies that we have seen on things like recycled copy paper.''
The state of recycling markets prompted a broad-based coalition, including NRC, Browning-Ferris Industries and the Ralph Nader-affiliated Government Purchasing Project, to petition the White House this summer to strengthen Clinton's 1993 executive order and a related 1995 EPA action that added recycled-content plastic products to the purchasing preference list.
The federal environmental executive lacks ``genuine authority to enforce the objectives of the order'' and the president should consider how well an agency is doing with the order when evaluating its top officer, the Recyclables Utilization Coalition wrote to administration officials in June.
Administration officials who oversee McPoland's office could not be reached, but a National Aeronautics and Space Administration official said agencies are facing declining budgets to implement an order that requires a lot of education and training time.
``Not to downgrade [Clinton's 1993 order], but it is barely noise level,'' said Carsten Goff, NASA's environmental program manager. ``If agencies don't have full compliance with [it], there is not an enforcement mechanism or budget mallet that beats people over the head that typically gets people's attention.''
The order has had no impact on the PET market, said Sabourin and officials at the two largest recycled PET carpet makers, Image Industries Inc. in Armuchee, Ga., and Shaw Industries in Dalton, Ga.
``In theory, you would think that the federal government would be buying a fair amount of products with recycled PET,'' said Luke Schmidt, president of the National Association for Plastic Container Recovery, a Charlotte, N.C., PET recycling trade group. ``I wouldn't be aware of any real significant federal purchases.''
Shaw spokesman Julius Shaw said the General Services Administration, essentially the federal government's product supply store, recently contacted the company to say it was interested in using recycled-content carpeting in a $100 million military housing improvement project.
NASA's Goff said the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., had been looking to buy recycled-plastic carpeting, but could not find it in any GSA catalogs. After calling McPoland's office, the center encountered problems with availability.
Goff said it would be easier if GSA would carry more recycled-content products, and the Recyclables Utilization Coalition said GSA should stop carrying products that do not comply with the executive order.
But John Stanberry, GSA's environmental executive, said listing only recycled items for certain products is not realistic. GSA has to offer a full range of products, because purchasing officers are free to buy from the private marketplace if GSA does not meet their needs.
``We feel we must provide what they are asking for,'' he said. ``Our problem is trying to compete and be a regulator.''
GSA highlights environmentally preferable products in its main catalogs, publishes separate guides just for environmental products and pushes recycled products in newsletters, Stanberry said.
The Postal Service spent $160 million last year buying recycled-content products, including recycled plastic pallets and mail carts that won an award from the National Recycling Coalition, said Mike Fanning, an environmental specialist with that agency. The Postal Service is going to try recycled polyester uniforms in September, he said.
Other recycled-plastic-product markets are harder to gauge, but companies contacted said they are doing very little business with the federal government.
First Brands Corp., maker of Glad trash bags, does not ``have federal or state agencies beating down our door saying we want recycled content,'' said Bob Vetere, director of government relations for the Danbury, Conn., company.
But then, recycled bags generally are not as strong as virgin bags. The recycled-content bag First Brands makes for California has to be thicker than one made of virgin resin, and as a result uses more plastic, counter to source-reduction goals, he said.
A maker of recycled vinyl floor tiles, Turtle Plastics in Lorain, Ohio, has noticed ``absolutely'' no impact from the federal order, said Tom Bradley-Norton, who owns the firm.
Several companies in the plastic insulation market said federal buildings have required recycled-content insulation since the late 1980s. That makes assessing the impact of the Clinton administration actions difficult, said Douglas Gehring, director of technical services for Celotex, a Tampa, Fla., maker of polyisocyanurate insulation.
The focus of federal efforts to date has been on recycled-content paper, where much progress has been made, according to GSA's Stanberry. Paper was one of the focuses of the 1993 order, and, he said, it is the most cost-effective to start with and a major item the government purchases.
GSA recently lowered its price by 5 cents on a 5,000-sheet carton of recycled copy paper, which sells for about $20, cutting its profit to stimulate demand, he said. Recycled paper still costs more than virgin, he said.
The Defense Department has told GSA to fill all its copy paper orders with recycled content, no matter what is requested, Stanberry said.
But Richard Goodstein, spokesman for the Recyclables Utilization Coalition and the vice president of national government affairs for Browning-Ferris, said the government committed to complying with the order for paper products only in the past few months.
It is a fair inference that ``if the paper numbers are not satisfactory, the plastic numbers are not better,'' Goodstein said.