Environmentally Preferable Purchasing–Moving Beyond “Buy Recycled”
In the beginning, there was the buy-recycled movement. Throughout the early 1980s, government purchasers at the federal, state, and local levels began buying recycled-content products to conserve valuable resources and help avert a landfill crisis. Reducing the volume of material sent to overburdened landfills was the primary environ-mental concern at the time. The solution to the garbage glut was to recover the recyclable materials and use them in new products. To jump-start markets for these recycled-content products, government purchasers and individual consumers began buying recycled products.
Today, the environmental problems facing most governments have moved well beyond these initial concerns. Governments are wrestling with bigger and more important human health and environmental issues such as rising asthma rates and other environmental health problems among schoolchildren, concerns about terrorism at local chemical plants, rising cancer rates, toxic chemical use, genetically modified organisms, global climate change, rain-forest destruction, species extinction, ozone destruction, nonrenewable resource depletion, and the prevalence of chemical endocrine disrupters.
| Federal Requirement for Environmental Purchasing
According to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), federal agencies are required to:
| Why Examine Multiple Environmental Attributes?
The need to evaluate multiple environmental attributes when comparing environmental performance is similar to the need to read all of the nutritional information when selecting healthier foods. Comparing foods based on a single factor such as calorie content is better than having no basis for comparison. It is better, however, to consider additional information such as fat, sodium, and vitamin content, along with other nutritional factors.
Likewise, examining single environmental attributes such as recycled-content and energy efficiency is highly valuable, but it does not provide a complete picture of environmental impacts. Some energy-efficient lighting, for example, contains more mercury than others. Because mercury can accumulate in the environment and harm human health, it is more desirable from an environmental perspective to buy low-mercury, energy-efficient light bulbs—an important consideration that could be overlooked if purchasers only compare energy efficiency.
Once again, government purchasing is seen as an important part of the solution. In an attempt to reduce some of these environmental burdens, federal and local governments are buying products with improved environmental performance based on their effects on workers, animals, plants, air, water, and soil. Determining factors for product selection include:
- Energy efficiency
- Limited use of resources
- Recycled content
- Reduced greenhouse gas emissions
- Renewable material percentages
- Safer manufacturing approaches
- Toxic material content
- Transportation distances
- Waste prevention approaches
- Water efficiency
Benefits and Requirements
Federal, state, and local governments are reducing environmental impacts and, in some cases, saving money by purchasing environmen-tally preferable products. In 2001, for example, King County, WA, spent $3.8 million on goods and services it considers environmentally preferable and saved $580,000 in the process. Cape May County, NJ, switched to an integrated pest management approach and saved $45,000 over five years while doing its part to reduce the 4.5 billion pounds of chemicals used each year in the United States to control insects, rodents, and weeds. Last year Massachusetts spent $86 million on recycled-content and environmen-tally preferable products. The state’s sustainable design initiative is saving $17 million annually in operation, maintenance, and utility costs.
While the benefits are reason enough to adopt environmentally preferable purchasing practices, some government purchasers are adopting them because it is required. For federal government purchasers, no fewer than three federal statutes, several Office of Management and Budget policies, and almost a dozen Executive Orders require or reference environ-mental purchasing strategies. At the state and local level, 47 states have buy-recycled legislation, and growing numbers are moving beyond buy recycled. The Center for a New American Dream has collected more than 30 state and local government statutes and policies promoting environmental purchasing and is regularly notified of additional ones. (Visit www. newdream.org/procure/policy.) Increasing numbers of government purchasers are tracking the trend and are already beginning to adjust their purchasing practices.
Defining Environmentally Preferable Purchasing
Environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP) is an approach for comparing the environmental performance of goods and services along with traditional price and performance concerns when making purchasing decisions. While several related EPP definitions exist, most purchasers are embracing the federal government’s definition, in which environmentally preferable products are described as “…products or services that have a lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing products or services that serve the same purpose. This comparison may consider raw materials acquisition, production, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, reuse, operation, maintenance, or disposal of the product or service.”
The federal government’s definition and most other environmentally preferable purchasing definitions share three common features:
- Emphasis on multiple environ-mental considerations such as recycled content, energy and water efficiency, renewable resource use, and toxicity considerations rather than any single environmental feature.
- Evaluation of environmental impacts throughout the life cycle of the product, which includes impacts during the manufacture, use, and disposal of the product.
- Recognition of cost and performance remain critical factors in all purchasing decisions.
Making Environmental Purchasing Easier
The biggest challenge for purchasers attempting to include environmental requirements in their purchases is determining which environ-mental attributes are most important. Luckily, given the worldwide interest in environmental purchasing, it is increasingly easier to include environ-mental requirements.
Existing contracts and product specifications incorporating environ-mental requirements already exist for many of the most commonly purchased products and services. (See chart below.) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Environmentally Preferable Purchasing program is tracking these efforts in an online database available at http:// yosemite1.epa.gov/oppt/eppstand2. nst. The database contains actual contract language and environmental standards developed by a variety of purchasers and environmental labeling organizations.
Environmental Purchasing Opportunities
Government buyers across the country are including environmental requirements in almost every conceivable purchase. Some of the most frequent “greening” efforts focus on the following product categories:
In addition, hundreds of purchasers have joined EPPNet, a listserv managed by the Northeast Recycling Council. Participants share contract specs, vendor and product performance information, and recommendations for improving their specifications. To join, visit www.nerc.org/ eppnet.html.
Environmental Purchasing in Practice
Government purchasers consider environmental factors when making a wide variety of commodity purchases. The following sections briefly highlight a few of them. For additional examples, visit the resources listed at the end of this article.
Many purchasers now include energy-efficiency performance standards such as those defined by the federal government’s Energy Star program at www.energystar.gov. As a result, manufacturers have worked to improve the energy efficiency of their products. Currently, 90 percent of computer monitors, 80 percent of computers, and 99 percent of printers are Energy Star compliant.
Improving energy efficiency, however, is only one way of “greening” computer purchases. Most computers contain or are produced with a wide variety of hazardous materials, including lead, cadmium, mercury, chlorinated solvents, and chlorinated or brominated flame retardants. To create a single six-inch silicon wafer from which computer chips are cut, for example, the manufacturer creates byproducts that include 25 pounds of sodium hydroxide, 2,840 gallons of wastewater, and 7 pounds of hazardous waste.
Some purchasers are beginning to consider these environmental impacts when selecting computers. Seattle, for example, is working to improve the environmental profile of the 8,000 to 9,000 computers the city buys every three or four years. Seattle’s green purchasing team is developing a point system that rewards manufacturers who build computers that can be upgraded and recycled easily, are more energy-efficient, are shipped with minimal packaging, and that contain fewer hazardous materials.
Minnesota leases many of its computers, in part, because public agencies do not want to be responsible for the disposal of the hazardous materials at the end of the computers’ useful life. The state believes leasing computers gives manufacturers an incentive to make the computers more upgradeable and with fewer toxic or hazardous materials. The Western States Contracting Alliance and U.S. Communities purchasing cooperatives are both considering a requirement in which manufacturers must take back their old computers and electronic equipment as part of future contracts.
Cleaning Products and Services
Government purchasers are working to reduce the human health and environmental concerns associated with selected cleaning products. Many traditional cleaning products contain chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive disorders, respiratory ailments, eye and skin irritation, and other human health issues. These products also can include ozone-depleting substances, toxic materials that adversely affect plant and animal life, and chemicals that accumulate in the environment with potentially harmful consequences.
The city of Santa Monica, CA, was one of the first governments to begin demanding safer cleaning products. In the early 1990s, the city began analyzing 18 environmental preferability criteria. Today, Santa Monica prohibits carcinogens, aerosols, ozone-depleting chemicals, and toxic-release inventory chemicals in the products. Officials also established strict standards for volatile organic compound (VOC) content and biodegradability, while evaluating the presence of dyes, fragrances, product packaging, and aquatic toxicity. The city estimates its cleaning product purchases have eliminated 3,200 pounds of hazardous materials annually and saved approximately five percent on annual cleaning expenses.
Santa Monica’s successful effort encouraged other government entities to adopt environmentally preferable cleaning standards. These agencies include the U.S. Department of Interior (and several of the National Parks it maintains), Massachusetts, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington. One industry representative estimates that there are currently more than 50 different attempts to define environmentally preferable cleaning products.
The abundance of standards may actually complicate efforts to purchase safer cleaning products. The competing definitions make it nearly impossible for manufacturers to invest the money needed to formulate less hazardous products because most everyone has slightly different definitions of what constitutes a safe product.
Recognizing the challenge that their success created, several of the early green cleaning pioneers worked together recently to adopt identical criteria. Massachusetts; Santa Monica, CA; King County, WA; Minnesota; Seattle; the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; and others controlling more than a million dollars in cleaning product purchases began by comparing all of the existing standards. After months of analysis, the group unanimously endorsed the standard for safer, effective cleaning products developed by Green Seal, an environmental standards organization. (Visit www.greenseal.org.) Massachusetts will be the first of the participants to purchase cleaning products based on the standard, although Pennsylvania already requires its cleaning products to meet the Green Seal standard.
Because the work group is composed of the pioneering governments that originally recognized the importance of buying safer cleaning products, it is expected their consensus on this matter will pave the way for numerous other governments and institutional purchasers to endorse the Green Seal standard and begin buying safer products based on the criteria.
Paper is one of the most visible ways for governments to demonstrate an environmental commitment because it is the means used most frequently for communicating with the public. As a result, many governments use recycled-content paper and note that fact on the bottom of their printed publications. Several governments, however, are looking beyond recycled-content and incorporating other environmental features such as chlorine-free and “tree-free” paper.
As directed by Governor Howard Dean in 1996, Vermont uses chlorine-free copy paper for all state business because the state is concerned about potential dioxin emissions during the paper manufacturing process. Dioxin, a probable human carcinogen, has been linked with some chlorine bleaching technologies.
Growing numbers of federal agencies, led by EPA, are also buying chlorine-free paper. EPA headquarters and at least eight of the 10 EPA regions are buying chlorine-free paper containing at least 50 percent post-consumer paper. EPA’s purchases alone constitute 31,700 cartons of chlorine-free postconsumer paper. Oakland and San Francisco, CA, and Portland, OR, are also buying chlorine-free paper, and Minnesota and Indiana both promote its use to state agencies.
Purchasers interested in environ-mentally preferable papers have numerous choices. As with cleaning products, the abundance of choices makes selecting the most preferable and affordable paper more difficult. A group of environmental organizations and purchasers is working together to define common criteria and expects to release its recommendations by the end of the year.
EPA estimates that the U.S. electric power industry produced 1.2 billion pounds of toxic emissions in 2000, 16 percent of all U.S. toxic emissions. Seeking to reduce the environmental impacts of electricity generation, governments are buying “green” power, which is derived from renewable resources with minimal adverse environmental impacts or risks. Pennsylvania, for example, bought 50,000 megawatt hours of green electricity, 10 percent of its total electricity purchases, in 2001.
Santa Monica, CA, is buying 100 percent renewable electricity for all of the city’s facilities. Officials expect to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global climate change, by 13,672 tons, nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 16.2 tons, and sulfur oxide (SOx) emissions by 14.6 tons annually. Chicago and 47 other nearby governments agreed to buy 400 megawatts of power as a group to save money and required that 80 megawatts (20 percent of the total purchase) be from clean, renewable sources such as solar or wind energy.
EPA is using renewable energy at almost half of its 22 laboratory facilities, the only facilities for which it controls energy purchases. (The remaining facilities are leased.) The U.S. Departments of Interior and Energy also have several renewable energy projects underway. Santa Barbara and Oakland, CA, Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, and Tennessee are also buying green power.
Pest Management Services
Every year in the United States, more than 4.5 billion pounds of chemicals are used to control unwanted insects, rodents, and weeds. Switching to an integrated pest management (IPM) approach is an increasingly popular method of significantly reducing chemical quantities and toxicities. IPM programs are currently being implemented in Connecticut; Massachusetts; Cape May County, NJ; Chatham County, NC; Kansas City, MO; King County, WA; Portland, OR; Santa Monica, CA; Seattle; and San Francisco.
San Francisco has one of the most aggressive IPM programs in the country. The program includes a full-time citywide IPM coordinator and a list of less hazardous pesticides that can only be used if non-chemical approaches fail. Pesticides not appearing on the list can only be used in extreme cases and require a one-time exemption from the city’s IPM coordinator. The city’s Recreation and Parks Department, which is responsible for 200 facilities covering 3,000 acres, was formerly the city’s largest chemical user. After adopting the IPM approach, the department reduced its pesticide use by 60 percent and completely eliminated the use of organophosphates and other highly toxic pesticides.
Environmental purchasing is an important and successful free-market solution to the environmental challenges facing society. It promotes economic prosperity and environ-mental protection simultaneously. While environmental purchasing programs are not yet as popular as buy-recycled programs, more and more government purchasers are beginning to integrate environmental considerations into their purchasing decisions. The number of environmental purchasing programs, the number of product categories being included, and the number of environmental attributes being considered are all increasing. This important trend is likely to continue because of pressure to reduce the environmental impacts of our economy without hurting economic prosperity.
| Government Purchasing Can Improve Markets
Political leaders, environmental nonprofits, and concerned citizens are encouraging government purchasers to buy more environmentally preferable products so those products become more widely available throughout the economy. This belief in the power of government purchasing to improve markets has a historical basis, as the following examples demonstrate:
Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) Resources
Center for a New American Dream’s Procurement Strategies Web Site
EPA’s EPP Web Site
Office of the Federal Environmental Executive
Editor’s Note: Scot Case is the Director of Procurement Strategies at the Center for a New American Dream, where he trains institutional purchasers how to buy environmentally preferable goods and services. For more information, visit www.newdream.org/procurement or e-mail Mr. Case at firstname.lastname@example.org.