When the first cars were put up for sale, the joke was that people could buy it in any color — so long as that color was black. Today, you can go online and find a car truly in any color you want, analyze its specifications against similar models, conduct cost-comparisons among dealerships, buy with a click and even have it delivered right to your doorstep. Clothes, furniture, household decorations, office supplies, fitness equipment — you name it, you can find it online, do research and make comparisons, and buy with a click.
Consumers today have an almost overwhelming number of choices when it comes to their purchases. The real determining factors of what is bought tend to be quality and cost. While there are thousands of options when it comes to buying dishes or sheets, the choices get much narrower when government agencies are looking for materials to fill potholes, build bridges or update water systems.
It may sound like a stretch to compare consumer choices to government purchases, but the same concept applies to both: choices in products, and the ability to compare materials for quality and cost. Consumers — and in the government’s case, taxpayers — should know their communities are getting the top materials for the job while returning the best investment.
Take municipal water systems, for example. When a community chooses a water pipe material, they rely on local water professionals to examine a large set of technical data as well as unique local considerations. That’s because of the tremendous pressure the pipes must withstand in addition to not failing in extreme weather events, from soil erosion, or due to other hazardous conditions specific to the area. This is not an exaggeration.
In Northern California last year, massive wildfires broke out in wine country, and residents there are now learning that the plastic pipes that carried their drinking water have contaminated the supply with benzene, a chemical byproduct of oil refining. Similarly, when Hurricane Matthew hit barrier islands such as Hilton Head in 2016, many residents were faced with open, raw sewage flows if they lived near manholes or exposed PVC plastic pipes, due to numerous breaks in sewer and water lines, according to local media.
The problems of plastic aren’t limited to pipes. Plastics manufacturers around the globe are struggling with consumer demands that there be less of their products in everyday lives. You’d have to be living under a rock not to be aware of the country-sized mound of plastic and other debris floating in the Pacific Ocean. Plastic soda rings have been found strangling sea turtles. A recent autopsy of a dead whale in Thailand found a staggering 17 pounds of plastic in its stomach. As people are turning away from plastic, so, too, are municipalities looking for ways to reduce their plastic footprint.
That’s why some special interests have lined up in an effort to push through state legislation that would actually reduce the choices local governments have when selecting the right pipes for their communities. For projects that involve burying pipes underground — as most drinking and wastewater systems are — officials, project managers and utility employees know that selecting the right pipes can mean the difference between the pipes serving for generations instead of cracking and needing costly repairs.
But some in the plastics industry want to limit choices by forcing governments to select pipes based on the upfront costs. Pressuring communities to ignore the scientific data and unique local considerations, while focusing on upfront costs — regardless of whether their water professionals believe the pipes are up to the job or not — usurps local control. In effect, this eliminates choice and flexibility to use the most appropriate material for their consumers and taxpayers.
Arbitrarily limiting choices and attempting to force one product in all circumstances, whether for individual consumers or government agencies, inevitably leads to higher costs and lesser quality. Just as a consumer wouldn’t automatically purchase the cheapest car on the lot purely based on the price tag and no further research, municipalities need to retain the ability to select the pipe material that works best in their local community.