Procurement and the Environment

This page provides brief and simplified explanations of the connection between purchasing and the environment, and helpful concepts when purchasing green.

Why Consider the Environment When Purchasing?

Environmental stewardship is about taking steps to ensure that the air, water, and land, and the flora and fauna, are healthy - now and into the future. Purchasing green products and services is one of these steps. There’s also an economic advantage to green purchasing - here’s how it works:

It’s a fact that:

  • all products require energy to be manufactured, delivered, and disposed of at the end of their useful life;
  • some products require energy while being used (e.g. vehicles or computers);
  • sometimes energy is used in the delivery of services (e.g. when contractors travel, or when they use equipment);
  • in many instances this energy creates harmful greenhouse gases (GHGs); and
  • hazardous and toxic substances are sometimes created and released in the manufacturing and disposal of products.

The costs for this associated energy use, remediation of climate change due to GHGs, and clean-up of hazardous substances can be attributed to the goods and services that the Province purchases.

Consumers may not be aware of these costs because they are paid separately, through utility bills or environmental taxes. When consumers link these costs to their source, they can be reduced by purchasing goods and services that are developed and used with environmental stewardship in mind.

Rethink Purchasing

The Province needs goods to deliver programs to the citizens of B.C., and when used efficiently so that less is needed, the end result can both save taxpayers’ money and reduce the associated environmental footprint. Here are some ideas:

  • RETHINK and only buy what is needed.
  • REUSE furniture and equipment through BC Auction.
  • REDUCE purchasing by choosing durable products that will last, rather than ones that may need replacing in a short time.
  • RETHINK purchases of products that are used infrequently, or products with technology that changes regularly – why not rent or lease them?
  • REPAIR – adopt preventative maintenance programs.
  • REDUCE by optimizing – replace multiple pieces of equipment at the end of their useful lives with one device, as the Province did when it replaced photocopiers, printers and fax machines with multi-function devices
  • REDUCE by buying REUSE-able goods – such as refillable pens and rechargeable batteries.

Environmental Cost of Ownership

The term “total cost of ownership” means evaluating not only the upfront cost of the product, but any costs associated with it after purchase, and until it is disposed of, such as maintenance costs. Some products, in comparison with others, might cost less up front but more to maintain; including maintenance costs when calculating the overall price at time of purchase ensures a fair and complete price comparison.

Total cost of ownership can include environmental considerations too.  For example, if the product being purchased uses energy, there are two costs to calculate when determining the purchase price:

  • The upfront price; and
  • The cost of the energy used over the time the product is used.

A more energy efficient product might cost more upfront, but save money in the end.

Consider this example using refrigerators:

Fridge with freezer
16-18 cu ft

Upfront cost

KWH per year

Energy cost
over life span*

Total cost

Standard fridge

$750.00

1044

$2,021.50

$1756.31

Energy Star fridge

$1050.00

450

$871.34

$1483.76

*Assume average life span 17 years at Large General Service Energy Rate of 0.0567 per kWh (data sourced from BC Hydro)

Design for Environment

Often purchasers can rely on environmental labels to identify greener products, but not always – many greener products aren’t certified, but are designed with environmental stewardship in mind, using a methodology called Design for Environment (DfE).

The way greener products are designed contributes to a low environmental footprint over their whole life cycle (i.e. when they’re manufactured, distributed, used, and disposed of at the end of their useful lives).

Understanding these design considerations helps in selecting a greener product. The following table shows the categories of a typical DfE program on the left, and how they translate into what to look for in a product, on the right. Some products are inherently greener than others – they have been around for years, but exhibit the same characteristics as a DfE product.

Note that these are examples to help with choices when choices are available; performance and cost should always be considered in any buying decision.

Design for Environment

What to Look For

Energy efficiency (during manufacture, assembly, distribution, use, and disposal).

  • Less dense products (i.e. soft plastic vs. hard plastic, aluminum vs. steel) take less energy to manufacture
  • Lighter products take less energy to ship
  • Fewer parts take less energy to assemble
  • Energy efficient products (choose Energy Star if available) use less energy when operating
  • Less volume overall equals less to break down when disposed of at the end of the product’s useful life

Reducing hazardous materials (toxics and ozone depleting substances).

  • Certified 100% biodegradable
  • Lowest VOC (volatile organic compound) emissions
  • Urea Formaldehyde free

(These are hazardous materials typically found in cleaners, paints and adhesives – review the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy’s Common Air Pollutants for further information.)

Material selection (recycled, recyclable, bio-based plastics, lighter for shipping).

  • Recycled content: should be post consumer PCR) or post industrial (PIR) regrind, (PCR is better than PIR); look for highest percentage recycled content
  • Bio-based plastics (i.e. corn plastic)
  • Choose materials that are readily accepted for recycling in BC (cardboard, paper, glass, aluminum, steel, rigid plastics)
  • Lighter products take less energy to ship

Product longevity.

  • Durable – looks like it will last
  • Manufacturer’s suggested life span
  • Repairable – if it breaks, it can be fixed cost-effectively (i.e. repairs are considerably lower than the price new)
  • Available replacement parts
  • Standard and extended warrantee

Design for end of life.

  • Readily accepted for recycling in B.C.
  • Minimal number of materials (i.e. a tool that is all metal can be recycled – if it has a rubber coated handle that can’t be removed, it has to go to the landfill because mixed materials can’t be processed for recycling)
  • Easy to disassemble (e.g. if the rubber coating can be separated from the tool, both materials can be recycled)

 

To learn more read the report “Design for Environment (DfE) Best Practices – Lessons for British Columbia’s Ministry of Environment”.

Environmental Standards and Certifications

There are many ‘eco’ certifications and standards out there – what do they mean, and how reliable are they? Here are some tips:

  • There are single attribute labels (e.g. Energy Star, which only applies to energy consumption or GreenGuard, which applies to indoor air quality).
  • There are multi-attribute labels (e.g. EcoLogo, or C2C (Cradle to Cradle)), which apply to a variety of issues related to sustainability, such as energy consumption, waste reduction, water conservation, social equity, etc.
  • Rely on labels that are created by government agencies, industry associations or not-for-profits, rather than those created by a company for their own products.
  • Watch out for labels that have typical environmental symbols on them (planets, leaves, trees, etc.), but very little, or vague, detail about what they’re claiming. If the environmental label isn’t familiar, try to find it online. Some labels are ‘green washing’ (false or misleading environmental claims), and can’t be verified by an internet search.

FAIR USE OF CERTIFICATIONS

  • If using certifications in a specification for a solicitation, cite all the reliable ones in the category, and include “or equivalent” at the end of the sentence. For example, when specifying wood products, cite “should be FSC, SFI, or PECF  certified, or equivalent” rather than citing just one of them. This example is particularly important, as  products may not all be certified by one organization. Citing all reliable certifications ensures fairness to vendors, who may have achieved only one certification for their product. (Not sure which are reliable? Click on the list below.)

 

View a list of labels that are commonly used in North America, and are associated with the types of goods that the Province buys.

Packaging

Because most products come in some sort of packaging, encouraging vendors to use greener packaging is an opportunity to make a difference.

Packaging serves an important function by protecting goods from breaking and moisture damage while they’re being shipped, so it has to meet performance and safety specifications first. But there might be greener options that meet all specifications.

Here are some tips on what to look or ask for:

  • Less is greener –if there’s less packaging there’s less to recycle or dispose. Buy bulk to reduce individual packaging.
  • Take back – wherever possible, ask vendors to take back their packaging. Ask for blanket wrapping for furniture or appliances, or for the vendor to take back all the cardboard boxes and re use or recycle them.
  • Reusable transport packaging – Some vendors offer reusable bin delivery to reduce use of packaging in shipping.
  • Recyclable packaging – ask for packaging that’s made from a material that can be recycled. Cardboard is better than plastic, because it can be endlessly recycled into new cardboard, while plastic degrades each time it’s recycled.
  • Recycled content – choose cardboard, or pressed paperboard (like egg cartons) which is made from recycled newsprint. If plastic must be used, ask for the highest content of recycled material available. Both soft (LDPE) and hard plastic (HDPE) are available with recycled content.
  • There are two types of recycled content:
    • Post-consumer recycled content is best because it’s already been used once – PCR (Post Consumer Regrind) is made from the plastics that are put into blue boxes or taken to the depot; and
    • Post-industrial recycled content is okay too – PIR (Post Industrial Regrind) is made by recycling end cuts or waste product from within the plant where the virgin material is made.
  • Plastics – most plastic packaging (other than “biodegradable”) is made from LDPE, HDPE or PET:
    • Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) takes less energy to make, less energy to recycle, and takes up less room in the landfill than High Density Polyethylene – choose LDPE when it’s an option. LDPE includes ‘foamed’ polyethylene, like the wrap used for breakables or bubble or stretch type wraps – the softer, or lower density, the better, environmentally speaking.
    • High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) is used in some plastic bottles and ‘blister packs’. There are some instances where HDPE is required for protection of liquid products, or those that are susceptible to crushing in shipping.
    • Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, is used for most clear bottles that hold drinks. A recycling deposit is paid at time of purchase – be sure to take bottles back, claim the deposit, and ensure they’re recycled.
    • All these plastics are available with recycled content – choose the highest percentage recycled content available.
  • Biodegradable – if packaging claims to be biodegradable, make sure it’s 100% Certified Compostable. Biodegradable packaging should meet ASTM D6400 (North American standard) or EN13432 (European standard) for compostability.

DID YOU KNOW?

The Province’s Waste Management program has information that can help when making purchasing and disposal decisions.

Waste Management

Users pay to dispose of products at the end of their life, through janitorial contracts, landfill tipping fees or taxes. This document has provided tips on reducing disposal costs through planning and purchasing green.

Government plays a role in reducing waste through supporting Extended Producer Responsibility - EPR is a market-based strategy that incorporates the environmental costs of products into the product price. The most familiar example of this is the deposit paid on beverage bottles; EPR also includes electronics and tires. Refunds incent good waste management. To learn more, visit the Province’s Waste Management program.