The construction market has always been cautious about allowing plastic products to replace traditional materials like wood, concrete, glass and metal. It's easy to understand why. These are products whose lifespans are defined in decades. Durability is a major concern.
Consumers who take on 30-year mortgages to buy homes expect them to stand up to the elements. The same goes for taxpayers who finance big infrastructure products like bridges, water mains and sewer pipe.
But plastics processors are persistent. Construction markets are huge, and plastics often have properties that can outperform other materials. Once they get a toehold in a market, plastics typically prove to be up to the challenges.
But in the U.S. pipe market, some significant hurdles still stand in the way of plastics. And it's frustrating — no, make that infuriating — that they include some of the nation's elected leaders.
Steve Toloken and Catherine Kavanaugh worked together for a major package of stories about the plastics industry's effort to lobby state legislatures to open up more of the government infrastructure market to plastic pipe.
The effort is led by the American Chemistry Council and, notably, includes cooperation from two trade groups that represent different sectors of the plastic pipe market: the Plastics Pipe Institute and the Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association.
According to ACC, at least half of the U.S. market for storm water and drinking water pipe is off limits to plastic products.
I caught wind of this debate recently when I noticed an opinion column written by Darren Bearson, a former White House official for President George W. Bush, that praised ductile iron pipe and criticized plastic, calling it cheap, prone to failure and made from "potentially hazardous" materials.
Pretty serious stuff. With those kinds of attacks out there, legislators are going to be more cautious about changing regulations just because the plastics industry is asking politely.
ACC knows this project is going to take years to be successful. The effort is targeting six states this year: Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina and South Carolina.
If you've been paying attention, you know those are all states where the plastics industry plays a big role in the economy. You would think legislators there would recognize that and allow plastics to compete on an equal footing with pipe made from ductile iron and concrete.
Opponents say the plastics industry is asking for preferential treatment. The truth is that plastic pipe makers are asking for an opportunity to compete. Even if they don't win the business, the result of the competition will likely be lower costs for taxpayers.
That certainly sounds like a winning argument.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of "The Plastics Blog." Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.