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Waste Not

The greenest trash is no trash at all. So says environmental procurement specialist Kevin Lyons. Here, he explains how infusing purchasing practices with sustainability goals can eliminate excess waste and cost.

By Karla Hignite

Rutgers hired Lyons in 1988, and he proceeded to launch a universitywide environmental procurement program on the heels of the 1987 New Jersey Source Separation and Recycling Act. The new law set in motion mandatory recycling, requiring state institutions to divert at least 60 percent of their waste from the waste stream by 1995.

To achieve this ambitious goal, the university adopted a strategy of waste avoidance. Like most institutions, Rutgers pays a tonnage fee based on how much garbage the university sends to the landfill. Using as a baseline historical data about those waste levels, Lyons started targeting big-ticket items, such as furniture, and considering options for extending their useful life. His department also looked at reducing excess packaging and researched items that could be returned for remanufacture or refurbishing.

“Our state’s strong environmental regulations initially drove a lot of what we did,” says Lyons, “but the big breakthrough in our thinking came once we identified the connection between our efforts to meet the state mandate and our purchasing policies and practices—which ultimately influence not only what we buy, but also what we throw away.” Ideologically, Rutgers has evolved from understanding the direct impact that purchasing has on waste to making purchasing the driving force behind the institution’s waste management agenda through identifying and controlling waste at the product source.

“Our philosophy is to let the marketplace provide solutions to what we ask for,” says Lyons. He is a firm believer in the competitive bidding process as the best way to place an obligation on suppliers to find and provide environmentally friendly, sustainable products and processes.

At Rutgers, the procurement department is required to negotiate and award all university contracts, making it the center for assessing the environmental impacts of incoming commodities and outgoing waste. That’s certainly not the case at every institution, acknowledges Lyons. He is accustomed to heads shaking and eyes rolling when he talks about the e-procurement system he set up in 2002 to monitor and track nearly all goods coming onto Rutgers University’s three campuses. Lyons can cross-reference data about purchases to determine associated levels of waste that will result. He can then use that data to approach suppliers about finding additional ways to streamline waste.

Yet, while a certain level of complexity is involved in establishing a green purchasing program, Lyons stresses that such initiatives don’t have to be high-tech. Green purchasing employs the same straightforward procurement techniques and tools as non-green purchasing. Even those institutions without procurement professionals on staff can take basic steps to start greening their buying practices. (See sidebar, “Be Careful of What You Ask For.”)

In this interview with Business Officer, Lyons describes the promise of green procurement—the new frontier in campus sustainability that may forever change how institutions think about waste.

How do you define green purchasing?

Green purchasing, also known as green procurement, eco-procurement, or environmentally preferred purchasing, attempts to identify and reduce negative environmental impacts through the purchase and use of environmentally friendly products. Essentially, green purchasing adds environmental considerations to the price and performance criteria that businesses use to make purchasing decisions.

Principles common to green procurement include life-cycle perspective, pollution prevention, and resource efficiency. A life-cycle perspective looks beyond the final purchase price to consider costs and environmental impacts over the lifetime of a product or service, from raw material extraction, manufacturing, packaging, and transport to energy consumption, maintenance, and disposal. Pollution prevention [highlights] source reduction, that is, preventing the creation of waste from the start of a process rather than trying to manage the waste afterward. [It also includes] reducing or eliminating air and water emissions and preventing the transfer of pollution from one environmental medium—such as air, water, or land—to another. Resource efficiency concentrates on conserving water and energy and giving preference to reusable content and recycled materials over virgin materials.

What is the biggest obstacle to implementing green purchasing practices within higher education?

I think most college and university leaders are aware that green purchasing options exist, but there is still widespread belief that environmentally friendly products and processes cost more.

Do they?

Be Careful of What You Ask For

In May 1992, the Rutgers University Senate unanimously passed policies for recycling and source reduction and for recycled products procurement and use. A key leader behind this charge was Kevin Lyons, the university’s director of purchasing and author of a book about writing environmentally sensitive contracts and developing and implementing green purchasing policies.

“In most cases,” says Lyons, “unless you ask for a green product, suppliers won’t typically offer information or options because they don’t want to lose a bid.” The first step is to ask.

Step 1: Query current suppliers. “Start by finding out what your current suppliers can provide. Simply by asking, you may find they can already offer the products and services you want,” suggests Lyons. Rutgers launched its green procurement efforts by sending a letter to current suppliers telling them the university was moving toward greening purchasing and asking what suppliers could do to help. “This is an easy step, and you will be amazed by some of the creative ideas your suppliers can come up with for reducing waste,” says Lyons. Be certain to ask how these changes might increase costs for the institution. “Merely transferring responsibility to someone else,” he says, “may mean you will pay for it another way.” For instance, it could also be that a particular green process may take longer, requiring additional labor. That alone isn’t reason to abandon a new approach, but you do need to factor this into your total costs.

The rationale behind this first step is twofold, says Lyons. It helps you research the options available from your current suppliers and gets them on the same page about what your institution expects. “Because we were breaking new ground when we first started,” he says, “it took about three years before it really sunk in for our partners that if they wanted to continue doing business with Rutgers, these were the new requirements.”

Step 2: Explore other options. Once you understand the capabilities of your current suppliers, begin researching options from other suppliers whose products and services may be an even better match with your institution’s policies.

Step 3: Put your request in writing. The next step is to include specific requirements in your RFPs and contracts. Since the proof is in the details, says Lyons, the tools used to request products and services are key for being able to assess your purchasing options. “A request for a quote is simply that. You want this particular widget, and whoever has the best price gets the bid.” Green purchasing is better served, says Lyons, by an RFP in which you can request specific characteristics, such as a high energy-efficient rating and no hazardous offsets, a locally produced product, reduced packaging, and an opportunity to return the product for remanufacturing. “By stating all these attributes,” he says, “a supplier that wants your business must respond in some way to those criteria, providing the best match based on what you ask for.”

Step 4: Evaluate product options. Rutgers uses a team approach and an internal rating system to evaluate bids. While cost is certainly a factor, list price can be deceiving, says Lyons. You may have a highly rated product that costs 85 cents and a second highly rated green product priced at $1. While both products may meet your requirements, says Lyons, you then need to assess the useful life of both products, the cost to use the products, and the people power required to maintain them. “In doing so, you may find that the higher-cost green item is far less expensive than the first product based on lifecycle costs.” Says Lyons, that’s why an RFP process and supplier contracts are extremely important tools for setting your expectations and building a standard on which to evaluate products not only on the basis of cost, but also on how well they meet all your green requirements.

In all cases across the board, our procurement practices at Rutgers have not increased our costs. In most instances, our costs have stayed the same, so we also haven’t dramatically reduced costs per se. But, for any purchase you make, you have to calculate cost or savings beyond the purchase price. For instance, switching to energy-efficient lightbulbs saves on not only energy costs through decreased energy consumption but also on personnel costs. Because these lights have a longer life, employees don’t have to get up and down on ladders as often to switch out the bulbs. You also save by reducing physical waste, since fewer bulbs are entering the waste stream.

The true cost of any product also includes social and environmental impacts as well as economic [ones]. As a society we don’t always consider these; but, if you want to establish procurement practices with a sustainability focus, then you have to consider a product from its beginning as raw material, the labor required to make it, and the fossil fuels used to transport it to your doorstep. There are also impacts to the health and well-being of employees and students who may use or be exposed to a product.

What example can you provide along those lines?

A prime example is commercial cleaning products. We used to purchase 25 different cleaning agents, requiring our janitorial staff to essentially become chemists who mixed what they thought was needed to do a job. As we thought about this, we questioned not only how many products we actually needed, but also what effects these products were having on our janitorial staff. Through going out to bid for biodegradable cleaning products, we ultimately downsized from 25 products to 6. These are now housed in dispensable systems. Based on the cleaning application required, an employee pushes a button to dispense only what is needed. This new system is far more efficient; and, because the products we now use are safe, we’re protecting employee health as well. And that certainly carries a cost savings by reducing employee sickness and risk of injury.

What are some other examples of the green products or processes you’ve implemented?

We purchase the bulk of our furniture from Steelcase. Previously each piece of furniture was packed in multiple layers of cardboard. After unpacking several chairs, the dumpster would be full. We were paying twice—once for the chair and again to throw away the packaging that came with it. We worked with Steelcase to come up with a different process and incorporated language into our contract stating that we wanted all our furniture to be wrapped in packing blankets that would then be sent back to Steelcase to reuse. This was an overnight success. Wrapping the furniture in this manner did not significantly reduce our delivery costs, but we started saving about $5,000 each year in reduced packaging waste.

Another seemingly small change, but one that’s had a significant dollar impact, involves our garbage can liners. We included a requirement in our contract that we wanted recycled-content garbage bags. That carried an immediate cost reduction in a way most might not expect. Because standard garbage bags use a lot more petroleum, the cost of those bags actually fluctuates with petroleum prices. So, we realized an immediate savings simply by switching the content of our garbage liners and by altering the types of packaging the bags came in. By our calculations, the university has saved about $25,000 annually since we implemented this change in 1995.

Buying green products seems more straightforward than greening a process. How do you get contractors and suppliers to share in this responsibility?

All our university contracts contain language requiring vendors to help Rutgers identify and minimize waste and maximize environmental responsibility. The contracting process allows numerous opportunities for negotiating the recycling or remanufacturing of products. We include a condition in some contracts requiring that the manufacturer take back the product or involve a third party to do so. For example, Phillips, our fluorescent lightbulb supplier, found a third-party contractor to shear the metal tips and remove the hazardous materials so the glass tubes can be recycled. We also employ language in our road and parking lot paving contracts that require contractors to recycle or use their excavated materials.

Why aren’t more higher education institutions engaging in green purchasing and developing related policies and practices?

Most college and university purchasing departments don’t have time to do the kind of marketplace research that we’ve done. Consequently, purchasing staff aren’t always equipped to ask the right questions in ways that can impact the bottom line. Some institutions may not even have a purchasing department beyond a single individual within the institution’s finance division. Or, perhaps the procurement personnel operate within a decentralized environment where faculty and staff are allowed to purchase what they want and the role of accounting staff is simply one of reimbursement. The further down that purchasing function is within the hierarchy of an institution, the less an institution will be able to do what I am describing, since everything must pass through layers above.

Then what recourse do institutions have if they lack the internal expertise or support?

Hear More From Lyons

Kevin Lyons will share additional insights and advice at NACUBO’s annual meeting, July 28-31, in New Orleans.

In general, higher education doesn’t tend to operate as a collective industry, but institutions can and should begin thinking about new ways to approach green procurement in a collaborative manner. For instance, recycled content paper historically has been more expensive to purchase. Even for an institution of our size, the marketplace was telling us we were not purchasing enough to drive our prices down. So, we included contract clauses to extend our contract into a cooperative purchasing agreement, negotiating to bring in local schools and municipalities to purchase against our contract. That changed the whole dynamic and drove costs down to where we now pay slightly below the costs of non-recycled content paper and other green products.

We have since tested several other cooperative purchasing agreements, including contracts for biodegradable cleaners and biodiesel fuel. We see this as a natural evolution of our green purchasing efforts—expanding market demand and sharing the benefits with other entities.

How can institutions take advantage of such purchasing partnerships?

One good resource is the Educational & Institutional Cooperative Service, a nonprofit purchasing cooperative and sister organization to the National Association of Educational Procurement. I’ve been involved with E&I in its efforts to begin releasing joint purchasing contracts that have a strong sustainability focus for products such as carpeting and furniture. These collaborative agreements will focus on securing competitive prices for green products and on reducing waste on a scale that can have a huge impact.

Beyond pushing market demand for sustainable products, is the goal of green procurement to put an end to garbage?

RESOURCES
  • Buying for the Future: Contract Management and the Environmental Challenge, by Kevin Lyons (Pluto Press, 2000).
  • Rutgers University’s green purchasing policy and guidelines (http://procure.rutgers.edu/green) includes a checklist for assessing products and suppliers.
  • National Association of Educational Procurement (www.naepnet.org) and its sister organization Educational & Institutional Cooperative Service (www.eandi.org) offer resources on green procurement for higher education.

Most people and most institutions look at waste as something they want to remove. For an institution, that translates into a line item. This is what we paid last year for campus waste removal, so this is how much we are probably going to spend on garbage this year. Increasingly, a small but growing number of institutions are beginning to look at how to close the loop on waste. In essence, that means taking a traditional waste product and turning it into a different marketable item.

One example at Rutgers is our recent venture into biodiesel fuel conversion. As is the case at most institutions, food services generates a lot of grease. This spent oil—often vegetable, soy, or corn-based—is actually a good base product for creating biodiesel fuel. Conversion kits for doing this are popping up on a growing number of campuses. As part of a research contract I have with a private boarding school for grades 8 through 12, we have worked with the school to invest in one of these kits. The school disposes of the grease from its dining services operation, and the fuel is then used to power its diesel-run vans and trucks. The theory is that if you have to pay to get rid of a particular waste, why not take those dollars and invest them in a technology that allows you to convert your waste into something you can use again.

Are there other examples of waste conversion taking place on campuses?

Some institutions are also implementing anaerobic digesters. These allow you to use food waste and agricultural waste to make methane that you can then capture and convert to run motors and generators. Rutgers has a small anaerobic digester at its off-campus Rutgers EcoComplex research site located next to our county landfill. Every landfill generates methane gas. In most places, this is burned off because it is among the worst of the greenhouse gases.  Through a partnership with Burlington County, we’re tapping into the landfill to capture the naturally occurring methane gas and converting this into clean liquid natural gas. Right now, we’re testing this fuel on the county’s garbage trucks and to run the heating and air conditioning systems at the EcoComplex. Our plan is to eventually bring this into commercial use.

While this may sound a bit extreme, it won’t for long. These processes are working. The next generation of these converters will be miniature versions that can fit on the back of a building. Let’s say you locate one at your dining services facility. In addition to recycling your spent oils, you can put any food waste and even paper waste into this enclosed digestive system, add moisture and heat, and your waste will rapidly decompose. The methane byproduct can then be siphoned off and converted to fuel or other energy byproducts to power your building.

Conversation Starter
What actions have you taken to introduce sustainability goals into your purchasing practices? E-mail carole.schweitzer@nacubo.org.

Given that such ventures may still be quite a distance down the road for some, what is the easiest way for an institution to get started on the path of green procurement?

The biggest gain you can make most quickly is through reduction. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. For instance, if every chemistry lab can purchase what it wants, some may purchase a three-year supply of chemicals. But how much do they need? Forget about being green for a moment. First, take a hard look at how much you are buying. Are you purchasing wisely? Once you begin purchasing efficiently, then you can drill down and question whether more environmentally responsible versions of these products exist.

It’s important to think about this move into green purchasing as a natural progression. A common complaint I hear is that incorporating green practices and policies is too much work—one more thing we have to do. The truth is, your institution must buy goods and services, and that process requires making purchasing decisions about a range of products and services, regardless of whether your focus is on green procurement. While it does take time to step back and develop policies and practices that are in line with a broad sustainability focus, once you build those into your purchasing processes, green procurement is no more difficult—and it has a much bigger payoff.

KARLA HIGNITE, principal of KH Communication, Tacoma, Washington, is senior editor of Business Officer.