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[GreenYes] reply to Mike Dabrosky, re: usefulness of "directory'
Title: reply to Mike Dabrosky, re: usefulness of "directory'

In the spirit of vigorous dialogue, I want to share some perceptions we have developed in ten years of recycled product procurement policy implementation in King County Washington.  They have tended to guide us away from production of directories:

Recycling is a closed-loop concept.  The whole idea is to divert materials from landfill in a way that allows their utility to be preserved and returned to the marketplace, over, and over again.  For this to happen, we need collection programs to provide recycled feedstocks to industry; commercial/industrial processes to conceive, develop, produce, and market products that can use these feedstocks; and customers to buy the products.  Government can play a useful role at the front end (collection programs) and the back end (buying recycled goods), but may have difficulty being effective at fostering the development and marketing of new products in commerce.

In recognition that somebody must be a customer for the products, a "buy-recycled" component is often included in recycling implementation programs. These buy-recycled programs often come to recognize note that there is little good information on local availability of recycled products, and conceive that a "directory" might be useful.  The elephant in the room, that recycling programs often seem to ignore, is that we can't mount a successful buy-recycled program until there are viable recycled products to buy.  We do a good job of creating diversion and collection systems, we do an increasingly good job of creating an ethos willing to buy recycled products, but we generally fail to address the gaping hole of product development and marketing.  This is understandable, as collection systems are usually operated or regulated by government and production and development systems are not.  As government, we can create huge piles of sow's-ears (recyclable materials) on the edge of town, but we can't force industry to create silk purses (valuable products) from them.  In fact, we can't even know for sure that viable products are possible.  We can only hope we were right to divert the material and that somebody will recognize the preserved value of the feedstock and use their ingenuity to develop new products and bring them to market.

In our hurry to help these, at first only conceptual, products succeed in the marketplace, when they finally arrive, we are inclined to build marketing support systems (education programs, systems to disseminate information, award programs, displays, directories, etc).  There is a trap here, in the gap between collection and marketing finished recycled products.  If we allow these information systems to start advertising products before they really exist, which they are inclined to do, on the sensible grounds that we must start where we are, we have to be careful to put all the facts on the table.  It's fine to advertise a concept, as long as we disclose that it is only a concept.  New products often start out that way, and there's nothing wrong with that, but we don't want to be perceived as trying to "sell" people products that don't quite work (yet), or cost too much.   Watch out, too, because makers of "promotional merchandise" will come out of the woodwork, trying to use your directory as a platform for their marketing of various "products" that are not really ready for prime-time.  Again, this is fine, in it's place, but cannot substitute for real information about real products, with real availability, economy, and performance.

To illustrate, let's think about cars:
When we see a "concept-car" at an auto show, we are impressed by the new technologies, fancy colors, and whiz-bang accessories, but we don't expect to walk into a showroom, tomorrow, and buy one.  In fact, capitalization and marketing will both play a part in making the first models scarce and expensive.  At first, we might be able to buy a "match-box" model of the car, but market realities dictate that the first production models will be sold at a premium.  This is often true of recycled products, as well.  We imagine ourselves to have it on good authority that silk purses can be made from old soda bottles, and we may even have picked up a tiny "concept" sample at a trade show, but we are not surprised if the first production models are scarce, expensive, and have a few bugs.

The very first "products" developed from recycled materials are going to be of the "concept" sort, and not "real" products.  It is not a bad thing, to produce "matchbox" versions of these developmental products, in fact, it is essential to market development.  The danger  is that we will hurry to catalog "all the available recycled products" and rush this "catalog" into the hands of users, who will then be disappointed to learn that these "products" are mostly "matchbox" demonstration models, and not full scale, commercially available, products.

As if that is not reason enough to be skeptical of the "directory" approach, there is an even bigger problem.  A general-purpose directory of "environmentally preferable (or recycled)" products does not have a natural audience.  With the solitary exception of the implementer of the buy-recycled program, there is NOBODY in the organization who has a general interest in this.  Most of the people, most of the time, are looking for information that will help them solve a specific problem, in their specific work.  They want performance and price, first, though will often be delighted to accept environmental benefit as a freebie, on the side.  On a good day, specifiers MIGHT pick up the recycled products catalog, but they will usually go, first, to customary suppliers, where they will find tried-and-true products.  If they happen to look at the "directory," it had better offer products that do a good job, at a good price, without adding liabilities or other complications to an already hard job.  This is unlikely.  This is not to diminish the optimism we have about the future possibilities for recycled materials, but the reality is that very, very, few products pass the test.  Possibly a dozen, maybe two dozen, but probably not enough to fill a directory. 

Oh, yes, on a final note, the recycled materials marketplace is in a state of flux, with companies appearing and disappearing often.  For this reason, maintaining the catalog will be expensive.

In the end, a directory is OK, after (after!) you have identified real products that perform acceptably (to the users/specifiers) and don't cost too much (to the users/specifiers).  The trouble is this: Once you have identified good products and got the approval of the users/specifiers for performance and price, the need for the directory is gone. 

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