From protecting the environment and human health to saving money, a wide gamut of reasons exist for municipalities to “go green” and rethink their purchasing of equipment and supplies. Buying recycled products is one type of green purchasing municipalities are following, but many are taking it a step further and looking at the chemicals in the products they purchase, as part of a philosophy called green chemistry.
Green chemistry, or sustainable chemistry, encourages the design of products and processes that minimize the use and generation of hazardous substances. Low toxicity paints, LED light bulbs — which don’t use mercury — low-toxicity flooring and lowrisk pesticides are all examples of products that follow green chemistry. Another popular “green” product several municipalities and county governments are turning to includes the use of recycled printer cartridges. Some county governments experienced a 20–50 percent in cost savings by making the switch.
Local governments who use contracts for their cleaning needs are also looking at adding language into the contracts to promote the use of low-toxicity cleaning supplies.
“A misconception is that you have to be a chemist (to follow green chemistry) but that is not the case; you just have to follow the certification,” said Alicia Culver, director of the Responsible Purchasing Network, an international network of buyers dedicated to socially responsible and environmentally sustainable purchasing.
Certification is clearly labeled on products that have been tested for their safeness and effectiveness. Eco-labels include Biodegradable Products Institute, Green Seal, Green-e, USDA biobased certified products, among others. Energy Star labeled products are catching the attention of municipal governments as well.
“Local governments can just reference certification when looking at products,” Culver said. She noted municipalities of all sizes follow green chemistry practices, albeit larger municipals often have more resources available. “Some (municipalities) are tackling it on their own, some in conjunction with states.”
Some states offer contracts with green suppliers, which local governments can then sign onto. Other options like U.S. Communities Government Purchasing Alliance’s Going Green program also exist to offer local governments green contracts and numerous resources for purchasing green supplies. RPN and the National Associations of Counties, among others, also offer resources to aid municipalities.
“Low-toxicity products are about equally priced,” Culver said when comparing them with their traditional counterparts. “They can even get cost savings when they switch over. Some savings are immediate, some are long term.” One long-term saving is the use of LED lights, which are not just energy efficient but also have less-associated disposal costs. Green products are also becoming a standard for major producers, making prices more equivalent.
To get the best deals, Culver stated local governments should show they are committed and buy in bulk. “That is when vendors will give the biggest discounts on products.” Of course, in co-operatives, products are usually already discounted.
“We are definitely seeing a trend of government agencies purchasing less toxic, or certified as less toxic, products. There is more concern over chemicals that can cause asthma among workers and students,” said Culver, noting the increase in asthma and cancer has led officials to not only look at the exterior environment but the interior as well.
Many who have made the switch have noted fewer sicknesses and absentees. Culver noted occasionally when she speaks at different events, workers will come up to her and say thank you as some of the chemicals previously used would upset their asthma, making it difficult to work. She noted government entities want to protect their workers, which is why it is important to pilot test products. “Workers need to train and a lot of contracts will require vendors to train workers on the products and equipment,” Culver said. She also noted many workers fear they will have to work harder with green products, but often find they work much better than the alternatives.
The key for a strong local government green purchasing program proves to be education on the green products that are available for municipal departments to purchase through contracts. Sometimes municipals need to get creative with spreading their messages, from blogging to disseminate information and tips to special programming.
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