Green Government

amaxwell@govexec.com

Robert Cox was thumbing through the massive Federal Acquisition Regulation when he stumbled on a section outlining the federal government's standards on environmentally preferable purchasing practices. Suddenly, he had a revelation.

"I'm a strong believer in trying to do environmentally sound projects," says Cox, a repair and improvements program manager at the Defense Department. "When I saw the opportunity, that's when I started to get excited."

Cox quickly made a vow to himself to put the standards to work on a project to repair the Pentagon's aging parking lot. But he wondered how he could possibly negotiate contracts, procure reliable materials, keep costs reasonable and consider the environment at the same time.

That's a concern of many federal procurement professionals, says Eun-Sook Goidel, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Program.

She offers the following scenario: "When you are in the market to purchase a car, you don't base your decision on whether to purchase the car entirely on color. You take into consideration the car's price, dependability, safety, power and overall suitability." Likewise, she says, federal procurement experts should consider all of a product's attributes, including environmental impact.

"For procurement officials, it's tough, because there are no easy answers," Goidel concedes. "But in the absence of answers, we ask that you take into consideration the environment."

Cox made environmental desirability one of his top concerns at the Pentagon. In 1995, he began work on the parking lot effort as part of an EPA pilot project. He made sure the Pentagon's request for proposals specified a preference for environmentally friendly products during construction.

Cox researched the products needed to complete the renovations and conducted a market survey on the environmental characteristics of each of them. He determined which products met DoD's operational and efficiency standards and set guidelines for DM&S Inc., the Woodstock, Md.-based contractor on the project.

If DM&S exceeds Cox's guidelines and offers more environmentally preferable products, the contractor gets a bonus equal to 2 percent of the contract, which is valued at up to $5 million over five years.

That's a fairly small monetary incentive, Cox says. But, he adds, "We felt the information we gained we would share with the rest of the government."

DM&S has already pledged to use recycled asphalt, recycled plastic car stops and a joint sealer made with recycled tires, and it is determined to exceed Cox's requirements. Cox expects the parking lot renovations to begin this fall.

EPA's Ruth Heikkinen worked with Cox on the project. DoD, she says, "was really committed to making this work, because they knew they are a great consumer of products. The Defense Department and the contractor are both going to build the environmental knowledge. It's a kind of different relationship between the contractor and the government."

Cox is not alone in his quest to buy green. Procurement officers around government are purchasing more eco-friendly items. For example, the General Services Administration reports that agencies have purchased more than $7 million worth of environmentally preferable floor care products this year, up from only $1.25 million in 1994.

"There is a definite movement that is starting to accelerate now," says Marc Merson, president of Eco Expo, an organization that runs environmental trade shows and conferences. "There has been a substantial success in pushing recycling paper and oil, but now we're at the next step to move ahead in running the government in a greener, more efficient way."

Call to Action

For more than 20 years, laws have mandated that the government respect the environment when making purchasing decisions. The 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, for example, required agencies to buy certain recycled goods. But the law's success has been limited.

The green purchasing movement, though, has blossomed since October 1993, when President Clinton issued an executive order requiring agencies to implement cost-effective procurement programs favoring the purchase of products and services "that have reduced impacts on human health and the environment when compared to other products and services that have the same purpose."

The order, says Goidel, was "a call to action for federal agencies. This is the opportunity for the government to step forward and become an environmental steward."

Since executive orders are not law, agencies that do not buy green face no penalties. The order "expresses the mandates of the President, but there are no sort of hammers that come down on federal agencies if they don't follow the order," Goidel says.

After Clinton issued the order, EPA issued a set of seven guiding principles to aid agencies in procuring environmentally preferable products.

EPA also set up pilot projects like Cox's Pentagon effort for agencies to gain practical experience in purchasing environmentally safe products. "We took the approach of encouraging pilots because each agency is different," explains Jim Aidala, associate assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances. "We aren't smart enough to figure out what everyone needs in Alabama and Alaska, so there is a lot of flexibility built into our program."

In one project, EPA's Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Program teamed with GSA to evaluate cleaning products.

EPA and GSA asked manufacturers to provide data about their cleaning products. EPA then conducted field tests to evaluate performance and health and safety attributes. The agencies developed a list of attributes that could be used to assess the environmental desirability of commercial cleaning products. The list included: irritation potential, chronic health risks, biodegradation time, bioconcentration factor, percentage of volatile organic compounds, amount of product packaging, presence of ozone depleters, potential exposure to concentrated cleaning solutions, flammability, presence of cosmetic additives and energy needs. GSA ultimately produced a catalog providing environmental information about 55 different biodegradable cleansers and degreasers.

GSA and EPA have also teamed up to identify key environmental attributes for latex wall paints. Laura Davis, a GSA environmental engineer in Auburn, Wash., says the agencies plan to develop a matrix similar to the one used in the cleaning products pilot. "What we're trying to do is give our customers a choice," she says.

The goal, says Goidel, "is to have those products that perform better in terms of environmental attributes get the federal government dollars."

Costs and Benefits

Goidel admits that "it's not easy buying green." Environmental products can be expensive and trying to buy them adds another set of steps to an already complicated federal procurement process. But she says agencies need to factor in the benefits of such products.

"Using a less damaging cleaner means a better working environment, not only for the occupants of the building, but also the people who clean the building," Goidel says. Using green cleaners can also cut disposal costs.

Nevertheless, managers often have trouble seeing the benefits of loftier-priced environmentally friendly products. "Cost can definitely be a deterrent," says Goidel. "But now there is more of a desire to look at value engineering and performance issues, rather than just the initial costs."

Merson says environmentally preferable products can save money on cleanup costs in the long run. The military, he notes, "is now spending billions of dollars cleaning up or mitigating the mess that has already been made with nuclear waste and harsh chemicals," he says.

Now, Merson says, DoD is taking the lead in green purchasing. Its hierarchical structure makes it easier to push the change, he argues. "If the base commander says, 'Hey we're going to do this,' you're going to do it. But in the rest of the government, someone says 'Do it,' and you say, 'Well, maybe.'"

Merson and Goidel say that while there is room for improvement in environmentally preferable purchasing in government, the idea is catching on. "In five to 10 years this whole concept will become yet another part of what people do on an everyday basis as part of their decision-making process," predicts Goidel.

Or, as Aidala says: " I would say the future of environmentally preferable purchasing is very bright, but in this case we could say it's very green."

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