- Many Alameda County (CA) government departments
no longer buy letterhead.
- San Francisco's municipal Paint Shop
hasn't bought paint thinner for months.
- Federal Express's envelope supplier convinced
it to cut its envelope orders in half.
And everybody's happy with the arrangements.
Why? Each has found a creative way to reduce waste, save money,
please their publics, and benefit the environment.
Source reduction, the highest goal in the solid waste management
hierarchy - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - should be the centerpiece of
every business or government procurement program. But the concept
of buying for source reduction is far less developed than the concept
of buying recycled products.
Although policies for both are similar, implementation is quite
different. Practices that encourage recycled products, such as price
preferences and content standards, generally do not work for source
DEFINING ONE'S TERMS
"Source reduction product" can be defined as a product that results
in a net reduction in the generation of waste compared to the previous
or alternate version and includes durable, reusable and remanufactured
products; products with no, or reduced, toxic constituents; and
products marketed with no, or reduced, packaging.
Sometimes source reduction comes from the product itself, e.g.
lighter product packaging. Other times, it has more to do with how
the product is used. Sometimes buying for source reduction means
that several different parts of an organization must agree on policies
that result in fewer or different products being purchased.
Some people use the terms "waste reduction" and "source reduction"
interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Waste reduction
includes recycling and other strategies that decrease disposal quantities
as well as reduce waste at the source. Source reduction, on the
other hand, is a sub-set of waste reduction and refers to reducing
waste by not producing it at all. Starting at the source - before
products are used and often before they are produced - prevents
waste from ever even occurring. That's why "waste prevention"
is now a synonym for source reduction.
"Pollution prevention" is sometimes called source reduction because
it deals with minimizing the use and production of hazardous substances.
This article deals with source-reducing toxins in a purchasing context
but not with other processes covered under hazardous waste reduction
WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?
Source reduction is first in the solid waste hierarchy for good
reason. While recycling rightly questions and changes how products
are manufactured, it is not designed to question why they are produced.
Source reduction asks those questions: Do we need this? If we do,
can it be produced with fewer resources, take up less space, make
a lighter environmental impact?
By itself, recycling does not address issues of overproduction
or wasteful product use. Source reduction, however, goes to the
heart of both issues. Applying source reduction and recycling together
is environmentally and globally responsible, particularly when they
result in significantly reduced demand for resources and eliminate
the environmental damage that often accompanies resource extraction.
Thoughtful application can create this heightened level of responsibility
without reducing our standard of living. Purchasers, through their
financial clout, can encourage manufacturers to implement source
reduction strategies in all their production processes.
WHAT ARE SOURCE REDUCTION PRODUCTS?
Unlike recycled-content products, there is no "standard" to follow
in choosing source reduction products, although the definition of
a source reduction product does provide some parameters. Buying
with source reduction in mind requires creativity and the willingness
to re-think what needs your purchases serve and whether there are
better ways to meet them. It's often an exciting process and usually
results in long-term cost savings.
Begin the process by applying the solid waste hierarchy. Can you
reduce or even eliminate certain purchases? What can be reused?
Evaluate current policies and processes. You may need to collaborate
with other departments to come up with organizational policies that
reduce purchasing requirements. Ask staff and vendors for their
suggestions. The links with this article list many examples. Following
are some highlights.
REDUCE - PURCHASE LESS TO SAVE MORE
- ELIMINATE. Sometimes you can simply
eliminate a product yet not lose its function. When it moved to
new offices in the San Francisco Bay Area, Alameda County's General
Services Agency eliminated the cost of printing new letterhead
by switching to the use of templates in their word processing
program. Now GSA staff simply type their letters and memos on
the appropriate computer template. Printouts always include an
up-to-date letterhead design, which can be customized for every
office, and even incorporates the recycled paper logo.
- LOOK FOR DURABILITY. Durable products
can return investments for years. Workers at Berkeley, CA's Building
Maintenance department are enthusiastic about the high quality,
single-polymer plastic lumber benches they bought for city streets
and parks two years ago. They particularly appreciate that the
benches' composition makes it easy to remove graffiti and repair
holes and damage, and it holds up well even under determined skateboarders.
Initially, the benches cost more than comparable wood products,
but their significantly reduced maintenance requirements made
them very competitive over the long run.
- RETHINK NEEDS. Durability sometimes
results from manufacturers rethinking how to meet clients' needs.
Modular carpets, for example, come in 18-inch "tiles"
instead of 12-foot widths. That makes it easy to refurbish and
keep up-to-date the 20% of commercial carpet traffic-ways that
show wear and tear, while allowing longer life for the other 80
percent of the carpet still in good condition.
- RETHINK USE. Changing the way
that you use some types of equipment can cut down on purchasing
requirements. Many departments of Pacific Gas & Electric Company
reprogrammed their photocopiers to default to two-sided copying.
Now people have to manually choose single-sided if they want that
alternative. As a result, far less paper is used.
- REDUCE TOXICITY. Reducing toxicity,
whether in a product's effect on employees or on the environment,
is also source reduction. The City of San Francisco's Paint Shop
runs a still for cleaning and reusing paint thinner, returning
more than 95 percent of it for reuse. The Shop hasn't bought paint
thinner for months and, even after distilling several hundred
gallons, only ends up with about five gallons of paint sludge
that has to be disposed of as hazardous waste.
REUSE - KEEP A GOOD THING GOING
Even the common envelope can offer many source reduction savings.
Federal Express uses a two-way envelope to send out millions of
bills a year. Customers easily refold the outbound envelope to use
as a return envelope for their payment. Using one envelope in place
of two saves money for Federal Express, not only on envelope costs,
but also in inventory, warehousing and handling. Some two-way envelopes
even incorporate space for a letter, questionnaire, or returnable
Offices all over the country are successfully using remanufactured
laser toner cartridges, saving up to 40 percent over the price of
new cartridges. Different from so-called "fill-and-drill" shops,
remanufacturers replace used drums and other parts in the cartridges
when necessary, to ensure high quality copies and long life.
Pennsylvania's Allegheny Power Systems, an electric utility serving
several East Coast states, is one of many companies and governments
that buy retread tires. Allegheny gives an "excellent" rating to
the retreads that they've used on their nearly 3000 large trucks.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
- INVEST IN SOURCE REDUCTION. Thinking
about source reduction purchases should start long before a building
even is built. The types of hardware installed and storage spaces
designed, for example, will encourage or discourage many options.
But replacing hardware in existing buildings can often be cost-effective
in the long-run, too. Changing light fixtures to accommodate fluorescent
or sodium lights incurs an initial cost, but their greater illumination
and longer life pays off over time. Changing restroom towel dispensers
to hold roll towels rather than folded also means initial short-term
costs, but roll towels reduce waste by 25-35 percent in paper
alone, as well as save on expense, packaging, labor and storage.
- CHANGE HABITS. Some source reduction
practices simply require a change in habits. The City of Palo
Alto (CA) calculated that it costs more than $300 to outfit a
4-drawer letter-size file cabinet with new supplies. Re-labeling
and reusing file folders, hanging folders and plastic tabs, instead,
saves plenty for their offices as well as the environment.
- ORGANIZE. Other practices require
organization. The City of Tucson, Arizona, for example, takes
reuse seriously. The Water Department has a unique unit that refurbishes
metal water delivery components. Not only does this practice reduce
the need for expensive replacement parts, but the department also
has a much wider range of parts in inventory for emergency response.
The Facilities and Design Management Division recovers doors,
windows, bathroom fixtures and hardware for reuse when spaces
- INTEGRATE SYSTEMS. Alameda County
(CA) provides inter-office envelopes to its vendors so that invoices
that must be authorized by several departments before payment
by Purchasing can be routed directly into the county's mail distribution
system. No invoices are lost in the mail, postage costs are eliminated,
and envelopes are used over and over again.
- CONTINUE REUSE. Source reduction
also includes selling or donating any usable products or materials
you no longer want. The City of Tucson sells everything from bicycles
to fire hoses, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
Waste exchanges match up donors with organizations that can use
your no-longer-wanted materials, even unusual ones. Schools and
arts centers need all sorts of materials, including used paper,
film canisters and cardboard tissue tubes.
- PLAN AHEAD. Think "minimum impact"
when ordering equipment or designing processes. For example, in
order to use rechargeable batteries with your equipment, you may
need to buy rechargers and different types of batteries but after
this initial expense you can realize important savings. Installing
reflectors with fluorescent lights can cut in half the number
of tubes needed. When buying or renting copiers, be sure they
both accept and produce double-sided copies easily. Purchase plain
paper faxes to eliminate the need to copy thermal sheets. Develop
an on-going, closed-loop system with your bank for reusing deposit
bags. Choose permanent landscape plantings instead of annuals.
- CHECK RECYCLABILITY. Ensuring
recyclability reduces resource demand at the source the second
time around. Whenever possible, look for products compatible with
your local solid waste management systems. Non-recyclable products
may contaminate collection systems or increase disposal costs.
- MINIMIZE PACKAGING. Packaging
can contribute significantly to purchasing costs, particularly
if you have to pay to get rid of it, whether or not it's recycled.
Ask your vendors to help you achieve source reduction goals by
shipping products with the minimal amount of packaging necessary.
Major purchasers in particular can influence packagers to reduce
waste. You may also be able to arrange to return packaging to
- OWNERSHIP COST. One of the most
important purchasing tools to encourage source reduction is calculating
the so-called "ownership cost," the total expense to the purchasing
organization during the product's life cycle, including, but not
limited to, acquisition, extended warranties, operation, supplies,
maintenance, disposal costs and expected lifetime compared to
Buyers often make these calculations for major capital purchases
but not for smaller ones. While some source reduction products
cost more initially, their durability, concentration, repairability
and other features often make them more cost-effective in the
The City of Berkeley's plastic lumber park benches were competitive
with wood benches once the maintenance savings were calculated
in. The original purchase cost for plastic lumber car stops for
parking lots may be nearly double the cost of concrete car stops,
but over several years their ownership cost drops to as little
as one-quarter that of the concrete alternatives. The plastic
lumber car stops are durable, while the concrete ones must be
replaced repeatedly, with attendant maintenance costs. Rubber
playground surfaces are more costly initially than sand and other
loosefill materials, but they eliminate the need to continually
clean and replace the loosefill and make playgrounds more accessible
to disabled children.
- REVIEW SPECIFICATIONS. Just as
with buying recycled products, you must also check language in
your bids and contracts to be sure that source reduction products
are allowed and encouraged. If you use an "all new" clause, be
sure that it makes clear that approved remanufactured items as
well as recycled products qualify. Use functional rather than
design specifications; if you say that a bench must be made of
wood, you preclude benches made of other materials which may better
serve your source reduction goals.
When writing specifications, insist that equipment or vehicle
warranties do not discriminate against remanufactured or recycled
products used for standard maintenance. And include a clause that
encourages vendors to reduce waste volume and toxicity by using
environmentally preferable packaging whenever possible.
Which do you buy when a source reduction product competes with
a recycled product? Strive to achieve the highest level possible
in the solid waste hierarchy.
Even better, combine the levels. A product with both source reduction
characteristics and recycled content doesn't just add, it multiplies
the environmental and solid waste savings. In some cases, you may
find an item which uses less material than its predecessor product,
is reusable, and also contains recycled material, thereby combining
all three levels of the hierarchy.
As a society with bountiful natural resources and enormous wealth,
we've gotten out-of-touch with the impact of our everyday choices
and habits. Rethinking what, why and how we buy, especially when
we carry the purchasing clout of a business, manufacturer, or government,
can have a tremendous effect on rebalancing our demands on natural
resources, energy, water, air, habitats and land.
And if that's not motivation enough, then think about how much
implementing source reduction can also rebalance your bottom line.