Edited by Susana Borrás and Jakob Edler
Chapter 3: Anticipatory markets: technical standards as a governance tool in the development of biodegradable plastics
Standardization is never only a process of forcing uniformity and predictability onto measurements, products or services. Instead, standards act also as coordinators of system change, and standard setting involves the co-production (Jasanoff, 2004) of scientific knowledge, technology and social institutions. Furthermore, standards offer industry, academic institutions and government a more flexible form of technology governance than is typical with either precautionary or risk-based regulation. Intriguingly, the process of negotiating even what appear to be narrow technical standards also creates opportunity structures (Borrás and Edler, 2014) for broader system change. This chapter focuses on a complex system change underway that involves switching from stable but environmentally persistent plastics to novel biodegradable materials. Beyond innovations in materials science, this switch requires the development of new markets for biodegradable plastics and changes to consumer behaviour and waste processing systems. I find that key capable agents (Borrás and Edler, 2014) undertook a co-production of technical standards, novel plastics and waste systems but failed to account for consumer behaviours that put the entire initiative at risk. Yet the use of technical standards as a coordination device for broader systemic change allowed for flexibility in the market uses for biodegradable plastics, contributing to their still-emergent success. In recent years, standards have multiplied at the national and international level. For example, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has published 1,200 new standards annually since 2001, compared to an average of only 140 per year dating back to its first international standard in 1951 (International Organization for Standardization, 2012).
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