Commentary: Taking steps to buy green
By LUIS A. LUNA
November 29, 2007
Can putting a used towel back on the rack help save the planet? If you’re a traveling Environmental Protection Agency employee, you’re likely to stay at a hotel that gives you that option.
More and more, we are recognizing that many small individual decisions — what we buy, what we keep, what we toss — have a significant cumulative impact on the environment.
When we at EPA buy goods or services, we take environmental impact into account. After all, whatever we use to accomplish EPA’s mission consumes the Earth’s resources. We thus take care to buy things that minimize the agency’s impact on the environment.
Among the most celebrated of EPA’s green purchasing initiatives is one affecting how we select meeting and conference services.
A hotel or conference site vendor must now include information about the facility’s environmental practices. Does it leave linens and towels in rooms for patrons to reuse? How efficient is its energy and water usage? Is it near public transportation, or does it offer shuttles? Is the check-in and check-out process paperless? Does it recycle?
Our purchasing staff then considers this information when evaluating proposals. The more environmentally friendly a vendor’s policies, the more competitive its offer. For meeting space and conference service providers who want to increase their chances of doing business with EPA, it’s an incentive to adopt greener practices.
Is this just feel-good stuff, or does it really make a difference? Take a look at a case study done by EPA’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, which quantified the benefits of environmental improvements achieved by a luxury 834-room hotel in Washington:
• Recycling paper and corrugated cardboard instead of simply hauling it to the landfill saved about $10,400 a year in trucking costs alone.
• Replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights, installing more energy-efficient air-conditioning chillers, and adding variable frequency drives in electric fans and water pump motors saved another $125,000 per year in electricity.
• Replacing old five-gallon-per-flush toilets with more water-efficient ones reduced water bills by $150,000 a year.
All this not only adds to the hotel’s bottom line, it also means the hotel now produces less waste, uses less energy and consumes fewer resources.
This same principle can be applied to any purchase, no matter how small. For instance, when EPA buys business cards, we now specify 100 percent recycled paper, with at least 50 percent post-consumer fiber — material recovered from waste destined for disposal, having completed its life as a consumer item. That’s the highest environmental standard in the government for recycled content. It means fewer trees are cut, with more paper kept out of the waste stream.
The concept works at the end of our purchases’ useful life as well. We make sure our electronic equipment doesn’t simply go to the dump. And we shared what we learned about disposing of electronic equipment in an environmentally responsible manner with other agencies. Our government-wide contracting vehicle, the Recycling Electronics and Asset Disposition program, allows federal agencies to make sure obsolete electronics will be safely taken away for reuse, recycling or proper disposal. Since the government disposes of about 10,000 old computers each week, the program prevents a lot of potentially harmful material from ending up in the ground.
EPA’s acquisition professionals are constantly looking for new ways to use the agency’s purchases to promote environmental health. Their colleagues at other agencies can do the same. There are undoubtedly many more opportunities to harness the government’s vast buying power and stimulate the market for green products and services of all types. By doing this often enough, agencies can encourage new industries, reduce consumption, increase America’s energy independence and help the environment.
Luis A. Luna is assistant administrator for administration and resource management and chief acquisition officer at the Environmental Protection Agency.