When Maryland state legislators wanted to give tax incentives for environmentally friendly buildings, they found out quickly that there are many shades of green in the eco-construction movement.
They first proposed adopting a standard from the U.S. Green Building Council. But plastics industry lobbyists objected because of concerns the standard would discriminate against some plastics — a draft of the council's new rules, for example, gave credits for not using PVC.
In the end, Maryland lawmakers changed their proposal and made it much more plastics friendly, at least in the eyes of the American Plastics Council. When it passed the Legislature in April, it did not mandate the Green Building Council standard and instead required the state's Energy Administration to develop its own criteria.
Battles like that are likely to be more common as states and communities increasingly want to develop standards to codify what is and is not a "green building," according to Roger Bernstein, vice president of government affairs with APC in Arlington, Va.
APC supports green building standards but wants them to set a "level playing field," he said.
"Plastics as a material has tremendous benefits to confer for those who are concerned about energy efficiency and other green building attributes," Bernstein said.
Maryland's effort has been the only real legislative battle thus far, although Bernstein said Washington state also is considering a bill that would reference the Green Building Council code, known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design guidelines, or LEED.
New York state agencies are developing their own standards that will reward building owners with tax credits for green construction. Pennsylvania is considering similar legislation, and California is studying a bill that would require new public buildings to meet green standards.
"Green building" is a catchall term that encompasses everything from material selection to energy efficiency to life cycles. A bit like motherhood and apple pie, no one really opposes the concept.
But the details, such as debates over the merits of various foam insulation or the Green Building Council's foray into vinyl, prompt big debates.
A draft of the new LEED standard, due to be completed in 2003, initially gave credits toward being certified as a green building for eliminating PVC. That language later was dropped by the council. The group wants to move away from prescribing good and bad materials in favor of simply setting performance standards, said Peter Templeton, LEED program manager for the council, which is in Washington, D.C.
The council set up a committee to look at vinyl and other material issues, but sources said there is still a debate among council members about PVC.
Groups like the Healthy Building Network are pushing the council not to endorse vinyl and products such as arsenic-treated wood, said Bill Walsh, national coordinator of the Washington-based network. HBN is not "knee-jerk" opposed to plastic but would like to see manufacturers move away from PVC toward materials like ABS or polyethylene, Walsh said.
While the network is not a member of the council, it is making the LEED standard a priority because it is becoming like a Good Housekeeping magazine seal of approval for green building, he said.
Both APC and HBN take issue with the council's decision-making process. APC objects that the council does not let trade groups join, while HBN said the council does not have strict enough standards for disclosing conflicts of interest, such as requiring consultants and individuals advocating positions at the council to disclose their employers.
Templeton said the council does not allow trade groups to join because it wants companies or members to represent their views individually, rather than as the collective views of a trade association. But APC officials said trade groups can provide a wider point of view than the product-specific approach a company might take.
Templeton referred the conflict-of-interest question to the council's president, Christine Ervin, who could not be reached for comment.