Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) - or Green Purchasing - identifies products that do not harm human health, are less polluting and that minimize waste, maximize use of bio-based or recycled materials, conserve energy and water, and reduce the consumption or disposal of hazardous materials.
Businesses spend billions of dollars each year procuring goods and services that have significant environmental impacts. From extraction, to production and manufacturing, to packaging, distribution and disposal, each phase of a product’s life wastes valuable resources and takes a toll on the environment.
What to Look For
Purchasers are encouraged to evaluate multiple environmental impacts of everyday products through their life cycle and to select products with attributes that minimize environmental and health risks. A product’s environmental attributes can include:
- Energy efficiency
- Recycled content
- Water efficiency
- Resource conservation
- Waste prevention
- No or low bio-accumulating, persistent or toxic chemicals
- Reduced packaging
What does environmentally preferable purchasing or “EPP” mean?
Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) means considering multiple environmental attributes of products and services before buying. It’s a market-based approach to making environmental improvement and protecting human health through our purchases without sacrificing price or performance. EPP also means not purchasing, or reducing the purchase, of a certain product or service when it may have detrimental environmental or public health effects.
The Federal Government (in Executive Order 13101) defines the purchase of environmentally preferable products as “…products or services that have 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.”
What are the benefits of buying recycled content or environmentally preferable products?
Choosing environmentally preferable products and services can mitigate the environmental and health impacts associated with purchases of everyday products. Recycled content paper, for example, can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent, cut solid waste disposal in half, decrease water use by 50 percent and practically eliminate wood use. One ton of 30% post-consumer recycled content paper (40 cartons of 10 reams each) saves over 7 trees.
Similarly, switching to safer, less toxic cleaning products reduces incidents of allergic reactions, asthma, burns, and eye damage.
How do I get started purchasing more of these products?
Environmental purchasing is no different from any other form of product evaluation done as part of purchasing by governments, businesses and consumers. Environmental purchasing simply considers a greater range of product criteria. Departments may begin an environmental purchasing program by focusing initially on certain types of products or services and expanding to others as they gain experience.
Many California cities and counties have started by looking at contracts as they come up for competitive bidding and revising specifications for environmentally preferable products in phases. Click here for links to more tools and resources.
What do the terms “post-consumer,” “pre-consumer” and “total recycled content” mean?
Recycled products may contain a percentage of materials collected from office/curbside recycling programs (post-consumer), materials generated after the manufacture of a product but before it reaches the end-user (pre-consumer) and/or virgin materials. The combination of pre-consumer and post-consumer content provides the total recycled content. For example, recycled content copy paper with 30% post-consumer and 10% percent pre-consumer content would have 40% total recycled content.
Recycled products, however, may not always contain post-consumer content. Remember to ask for post-consumer recycled content when purchasing products to support manufacturers that use the recyclables you set out at home or at work for recycling collection. Below are the formal definitions for these terms:
"Post-consumer Material" means a finished material which would normally be disposed of as a solid waste, having reached its intended end-use and completed its life cycle as a consumer item, and does not include manufacturing or converting wastes.
“Pre-consumer Material” means material or by-products generated after manufacture of a product is completed but before the product reaches the end-use consumer. Pre-consumer material does not include mill and manufacturing trim, scrap, or broke which is generated at a manufacturing site and commonly reused on-site in the same or another manufacturing process.
“Recycled Content” means the percentage of recovered material, including pre-consumer and post-consumer materials, in a product.
Do recycled content or environmentally preferable products cost more?
Overall, cost differences will depend on the product, its quality and the existing market conditions. There are environmentally preferable products that cost less. For example, several recycled printing papers cost less than virgin papers. Recycled plastic trash can liners (for commercial use) cost less than virgin because the post-consumer plastic resin is currently priced lower in the market than virgin plastic resin. The price of re-refined motor oil is now comparable with virgin motor oil. Also, many public agencies across the country have seen no overall cost increase switching to “green” cleaning products. On the other hand, environmentally preferable products may last longer or require less maintenance than their counterparts. So even with higher initial costs, substantial savings may occur over time as a result. A variety of building materials offer these benefits.
Will these types of products be inferior quality?
There are many recycled or environmentally preferable products that compare well to their virgin counterparts. As with any product on the market, quality depends on several factors. Commercial toilet tissue, for instance, may be manufactured at two quality levels by the same company, as an economical (lower quality) and a premium quality product. Quality may also depend on the product’s maturity in the market. The quality of recycled paper, for instance, has come a long way in the last twenty years and for the most part, has just as high quality as virgin paper.
As with any product (including virgin products), if one product does not meet your expectations, you may need to experiment with a different vendor or brand to find the product that meets your specific needs.
Will it cost more to buy recycled paper?
Many recycled papers are equal to or less than the cost of virgin papers – especially papers used for letterhead, brochures and business cards. Refer to Alameda County’s Fact Sheet on Environmentally Preferable Paper Office Products for additional information.
Will recycled copy paper jam my machine?
This is a persistent myth. As long ago as 1998, three office equipment manufacturers and the U.S. Government Printing Office tested over two million sheets of recycled content office paper on various types and models of copiers, laser printers and ink jet printers. They found multi-purpose paper containing 30% post-consumer recycled content worked just as well as virgin paper.
Do re-manufactured toner cartridges really work?
Yes, but like with most products, you need to be a smart consumer. For many years, re-manufactured toner cartridge companies have sold quality products to satisfied customers. To ensure quality service and product, check with the manufacturer on their quality assurance program. Ask for references. Refer to Alameda County’s Fact Sheet on Re-manufactured Toner Cartridges for additional information. The cost savings could be significant!
What other kinds of office supplies have more beneficial environmental attributes?
Look for rechargeable batteries, water-based and non-toxic highlighters and markers, and 10-100% post-consumer recycled content plastic trash bag liners. Plastic desktop accessories like notepad and pencil holders, trays and organizers can be made with 25-80% post-consumer content. Check for plastic binders with up to 100% post-consumer recycled content depending on the type of plastic. Refer to Alameda County’s Fact Sheet on Environmentally Preferable Non-paper Office Products for additional information.
- Cal Recycle – Recycled Products Database
- EPA Environmentally Preferable Purchasing – Policy and guidance, product and service evaluation, hands-on tools and more.
- Green California Environmentally Preferable Purchasing – Best Practices Manual, environmental specifications for many common products, policy draft language and more.
- Responsible Purchasing Network – Purchasing guides for common products, membership required for more detailed information.
- Santa Monica Green Office Buying Guide – Easy-to-use guide to identify opportunities for green purchasing.
- StopWaste.org - Alameda County Environmentally Preferable Purchasing – Fact sheets on recycled content/environmentally preferable products, guides to purchasing, policy draft language and more.