Standards Help Transition Economies

Standards are helping economies around the world to advance – while developing sustainably.
Kathy Hunt

Sustainable development is a relatively new concept. First defined in 1987 by the United Nations’ (U.N.) World Commission on Environment and Development in its Brundtland Report, sustainable development advocates for meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This approach encourages cooperation between industrialized and developing countries for the advancement of such goals as sustainable industrialization, resilient infrastructure, and fostering innovation. 

Standards provide a way forward in sustainable development for a range of economies, including those deemed “transition economies.” The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a transition economy as one moving from a government-controlled to a market economy. Standards prove especially helpful for transition economies by providing guidance, delivering credibility, and lessening the obstacles that can impede global participation and progress. Standards validate, or negate, claims of product sustainability and offer best practices in the creation and impact of goods. They also reduce technical, procedural, and cost barriers to international trade. According to the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), voluntary national and international standards support all three dimensions of sustainability: economic, social, and environmental.

READ MORE: Earthen Floor Standard Aims to Promote Sustainability

ASTM International has been an active participant on this path to sustainability for transition economies, contributing international standards and technical knowledge to further a variety of sustainable development goals. Overall, through its Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) Program, the organization has noted 8,400 global citations of its standards. For example, ASTM standards on biofuels aid in energy consumption while those on degradable and biobased plastics assist in waste production and reduction. They are used by a wide range of countries for an equally wide range of issues, including safeguarding public health and safety, protecting the environment, and alleviating poverty. 

According to the U.N.’s 2020 World Economic Situation and Prospects report, Trinidad and Tobago, Ghana, Costa Rica, and Indonesia are all considered developing or transition economies. Here are some illustrations of how standards are making a difference for these MoU partners.

Plastic Waste in Trinidad and Tobago

Among the countries using standards to increase sustainable development is the Caribbean nation of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. The island country signed an MoU with ASTM in 2002 and is using standards from the subcommittee on environmentally degradable plastics and biobased products (D20.96) to regulate alternatives to single-use plastics. This move away from single-use plastics, particularly nonbiodegradable expanded polystyrene (EPS) products, results from the country’s efforts to reduce plastic waste and its impact on the environment. In 2018, Trinidad and Tobago’s minister of public utilities reported that 8,000 tonnes of plastic waste entered the country’s landfills annually. A large amount of additional plastic ended up strewn about the countryside and in the ocean. 

“Our MoU allows TTBS [Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards] to use ASTM standards as the base of national standards for the country,” says Nadita Ramachala, manager of the Standardization Division of TTBS. “There are many instances where we either review, reference, or adopt ASTM standards. ASTM International has well-recognized standards for biodegradable, compostable, and biobased materials.” 

To advance its shift away from EPS to biodegradable and compostable plastics, TTBS has adopted three particularly relevant standards: 

  • Test method for determining aerobic biodegradation of plastic materials under controlled composting conditions, incorporating thermophilic temperatures (D5338);
  • Specification for labeling of plastics designed to be aerobically composted in municipal or industrial facilities (D6400); and
  • Specification for labeling of end items that incorporate plastics and polymers as coatings or additives with paper and other substrates designed to be aerobically composted in municipal or industrial facilities (D6868).

The country also had a two-day training on biodegradable and compostable plastics, led by Kelvin Okamoto, Ph.D., president of Green Bottom Line Inc., and a member of the plastics committee (D20). The training session covered terminology and ASTM test methods and specifications, comparing and contrasting them to other international standards. It also outlined what an industrial composting operation does and what Trinidad and Tobago would need to do as a nation to put such a facility into place. 

“Many certifying bodies use these standards as their reference standards in their certification programs,” says Adrienne Stewart, standards officer at TTBS. “They are comprehensive and deal with all aspects of the biodegradation process. This is why ASTM standards were chosen by TTBS. We will use them as they are, with the only addition being the requirement for heavy metals.” 

The standard for biodegradable materials will be a compulsory standard, one that will be enforced by TTBS under the country’s Standards Act. The key criteria will be protecting the environment and ensuring that consumers have access to accurate information about biodegradable and compostable products, Ramachala says. She added that industry stakeholders, who are already familiar with the key ASTM standards, provided feedback during the public comment stage for
this standard.

“It’s great to see that Trinidad and Tobago and CARICOM [Caribbean Community] countries are taking this seriously and that they are fully understanding industrial composting,” says Okamoto. “One of the things that is very important is that, because they are island nations, they are also very concerned about soil and water contamination and biodegradation. Compostable products aren’t always soil-and-water biodegradable, so they are trying to figure out what they need to do to protect their water resources by understanding water biodegradability.”

Standards for the manufacture of personal protective equipment will create jobs and promote public health.

Okamoto added that the subcommittee environmentally degradable plastics and biobased products (D20.96) is working on a marine biodegradability standard that will feature new data requirements along with an improved test method. Trinidad and Tobago may be interested in using it to determine whether their materials are water biodegradable, he noted. 

Creating Jobs, Promoting Public Health

On the world’s second largest continent, standards are being employed to create personal protective equipment (PPE) in the form of face masks in the West African country of Ghana. 

“What triggered the production of surgical-grade masks in Ghana is that, when COVID hit, Ghana was completely reliant upon imported masks, and so it was harder to get supplies,” says Keren Pybus, CEO of the nongovernmental organization Ethical Apparel Africa (EAA). “Producing masks in Ghana reduces that reliance on imports and increases industry within West Africa. We are interested in creating jobs and training, creating a skills environment, raising knowledge and awareness, and inventing something for the future.” 

EAA is the first and only surgical-grade mask manufacturer in Ghana. The masks will be available for sale within the country and for export.

From the start, EAA has wanted to make masks to international standards. “The Ghana Standards Authority was already following ASTM standards. Also, the AGOA [African Growth and Opportunity Act] means that trade between Africa and the United States has a unique duty advantage in that Africa can import into the U.S. duty-free. With ASTM and ANSI [American National Standards Institute] also having an established relationship with the Ghana Standards Authority, all of these factors became the drivers for using ASTM standards,” Pybus says.

The company has also adopted four standards from the subcommittee on biological (F23.40), part of the committee on personal protective clothing and equipment (F23). The Ghana Standards Authority will hold EAA accountable to the following:

  • Test method for determining the initial efficiency of materials used in medical face masks to penetration by particulates using latex spheres (F2299/F2299M);
  • Test method for evaluating the bacterial filtration efficiency (BFE) of medical face mask materials, using a biological aerosol of staphylococcus aureus (F2101);
  • Specification for performance of materials used in medical face masks (F2100); and
  • Test method for resistance of medical face masks to penetration by synthetic blood (horizontal projection of fixed volume at a known velocity) (F1862/F1862M). 

Ghana is in the process of setting up its manufacturing capability for surgical-grade face masks. This work is being supported by EAA and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Pybus noted that, when ready, Jeffrey Stull, F23 member and president of International Personnel Protection Inc., will take EAA through the testing process, selecting a qualified commercial laboratory in the United States and also identifying more localized and accessible labs for Africa. “We will test the actual physical mask to ensure that it meets ASTM Level 2 standards,” Pybus says.

Safer Buildings

In the Central American country of Costa Rica, wiring and steel standards from ASTM play an important role in infrastructure. 

“A lot of Costa Rican regulations reference ASTM standards, not only in steel but also in wires for electrical and in other fields. They are well-known standards in Costa Rica. We have more than 30 years working with standards and, since 2005, we have been working with ASTM standards because we know they’re a great tool for industry,” says Felipe Calvo Villalobos, innovation coordinator for INTECO (Technical Standards Institute of Costa Rica), Costa Rica’s standards body.

In 2009, INTECO created its first national technical subcommittee on steels for construction (INTE CTN 06). This subcommittee developed a set of standards for deformed and plain carbon steel bars for concrete reinforcement. These standards would improve the quality of materials used on construction sites, increase building safety, and prompt the creation of additional technical regulations.

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Through an MoU, INTECO adopted the following standards from the ASTM subcommittee on steel reinforcement (A01.05) and used them as the foundation for its steel-reinforced concrete standards:

  • Specification for deformed and plain carbon-steel bars for concrete reinforcement (A615/A615M/INTE C400);
  • Specification for deformed and plain low-alloy steel bars for concrete reinforcement (A706/A706M/INTE C401); and
  • Specification for carbon-steel wire and welded wire reinforcement, plain and deformed, for concrete (A1064/A1064M/INTE C402). 

“Since reinforced concrete is the most used material for construction, steel reinforcement is very important. In 1974, the first issue of the Costa Rica Seismic Code was released. The code contained a section on structural materials because we did not have an official building code or codes for different materials. The seismic code referenced the ACI [American Concrete Institute] code (318). The ACI mentioned ASTM. That is why we used ASTM standards for reinforcing steel. We do not produce steel in Costa Rica as raw material, but some companies import the steel and make the products such as reinforcing steel, corrugated sheets, and so on,” says Guillermo González-Beltrán, Ph.D., professor at the school of engineering, University of Costa Rica. 

Calvo Villalobos noted that, as an evolving country, Costa Rica must emphasize quality materials for homes and buildings. “When we reference ASTM standards and adopt national standards, we try to promote and develop more capacity in the country for certification, best practices, education, and knowledge to differentiate between a good product and a bad product. This has a big impact on commerce. Commerce is the key but we need to create documents, standards, and knowledge in order to have that impact on different kinds of entities,” he says.

Less Reliance on Imported Oil

In September 2021, the Southeast Asian country of Indonesia participated in an ASTM-coordinated focus group on palm oil-based biofuel. The discussion included technical issues related to
this biofuel, current ASTM biofuel standards, and the environmental impact of creating palm oil-based biofuel.

Indonesia is the world’s largest palm-oil producer. In 2018, it generated 41 million tonnes or 57% of the world’s supply of palm oil. It also has a mandate to cut its fossil-fuel imports by blending 30% fatty acid methyl esters (FAME), made from palm oil, into its biodiesel. Known as “B30,” this 2020 initiative could end Indonesia’s reliance on imported oil. 

This move toward biofuel doesn’t come without complications. There is unease about clearing large swaths of forested land to plant palm. Yet there is also hope for the reduction of fossil fuel use. 

“One of the primary sources for the Indonesian power grid is coal. While there is indeed deforestation that would occur with palm-oil production, on the flip side, the burning of coal would be reduced. The big motivator for the country is the decreased reliance on the importation of petroleum,” says Christopher McCullough, general manager of ASTM laboratory services and a member of the committee on petroleum products, liquid fuels, and lubricants (D02). 

The National Standardization Agency of Indonesia (BSN) has an MoU with ASTM and already references its standards, including the specification for diesel fuel oil, biodiesel blend (B6 to B20) (D7467). McCullough notes that many countries reference ASTM standards in regulations or utilize them as the basis for development of their own national standards. 

“Because ASTM standards are perpetually updated to include new technologies and to keep up with different facets of industry trends, national standards bodies that are MoU partners have access to the most current standards. They can also participate in creating and revising standards through ASTM’s consensus process for standards development,” McCullough says. 

As a result, Indonesia could request a new ASTM standard for B30 or a revision to D7467 so that it includes blend grades of 30%. If the request for a revision is approved, Indonesian stakeholders can request to lead and participate in the revision, McCullough says. 

Considerations for Transition Economies

As economies change, they can face an assortment of problems and considerations, including lack of infrastructure, entrepreneurship and skills, and inflation caused by increased production costs. 

“The biggest problem we’re facing is that there is no testing facility in Ghana. To test our masks, we have to send them to the United States. Because there are a limited number of labs that do this testing, it’s a costly process,” Pybus says. 

Cost also has a bearing on sustainable development in Trinidad and Tobago. “Trinidad and Tobago do have some domestic packaging producers, and some of them are now determining how to produce compostable and other types of packaging within their existing facilities. The issue is whether the producers can do the conversion economically because this often requires additional or different equipment. They want to make sure that they don’t adversely affect those companies,” Okamoto says. 

Another consideration is environmental impact. Although all countries should take the effects of development into account, those with rich ecosystems must be especially mindful. This includes Costa Rica, which accounts for 0.03% of the earth’s surface, yet contributes nearly 6% of the world’s biodiversity. 

“We try to develop projects with related standards, test methods, and certifications that respect and protect the environment. We are recognized as a place of nature and of eco-tourism, and we need to be responsible and take into consideration the environment as we promote commerce,” says Calvo Villalobos. 

Thorough evaluation and planning are likewise essential for a positive environmental outcome. Derek Luk Pat, TTBS executive director, says that bringing compostable packaging to Trinidad and Tobago without having adequate industrial composting facilities would only exacerbate the pollution problem.

“If you want to have the desired effect of reducing adverse impact on the environment, we have to ensure that alternative packaging isn’t going to create the same or additional problems. As a result, stakeholders and decision makers here are rethinking how to do this in a sensible manner,”
Luk Pat says. 

As efforts to increase sustainable development around the globe continue, so does the need for respected, reliable, and up-to-date standards from such organizations such as ASTM International, which is committed to helping the world on its path to sustainability. ASTM will continue to support transition economies through the use of standards, technical training, and support. ■

Kathy Hunt is a U.S. East Coast based journalist and author.

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