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Uncle Sam's green wallet: will federal spending support environmental technologies?

For years, environmentalists have urged the federal government to become the jolly green giant among green consumers. After all, the U.S. runs up a $480 billion shopping bill each year, buying eight percent of our gross national product, while the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal landlord and supply store, would rank in the top 50 of the Fortune 500 if it were a private company. Last Christmas, Ralph Nader gave the Clinton administration his wish-list disguised as a present, a recycling bin loaded with 40 items it should buy to build a greener economy. He included brown unbleached paper napkins, a low flow showerhead, an energy efficient "exit" sign good for 10 years and copier paper made with kenaf, a plant fiber substitute for trees. "Not only is the government the largest single consumer in this country, its buying power could leverage new technologies, create jobs, protect the environment, save taxpayer money and stimulate emerging technologies for a broader civilian marketplace," he said.

Former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator William Reilly actually launched programs that were a Republican version of Nader's dream: voluntary joint ventures between the EPA and industry to develop green technologies. In a "Golden Carrots" contest, the EPA and 25 utilities pooled $30 million as a reward for the manufacturer of the first line of super-efficient, chlorofluorocarbon (CFC)-free refrigerators. Last June, Whirlpool took the prize. In its "Energy Star" program, the EPA worked with 13 companies to make computers that "fall asleep" when people neglect to turn them off, cutting their energy use in half. The new machines began appearing this summer from Apple and IBM among others. The GSA now wants to buy only Energy Star computers for the government. And the granddaddy of these efforts, the "Green Lights Campaign," has recruited over 750 businesses and groups to retrofit their offices with compact fluorescent light bulbs and other smart devices. In his Earth Day speech, President Clinton said: "Long-lasting energy-saving light bulbs didn't even exist in 1985. Now American companies sell over $500 million worth of these products, with sales expected to reach $2 billion by 1995 and $10 billion by the year 2000, creating thousands of new jobs."

Back in the slow tech world of government offices, however, papers pile up, copy machines never stop churning and lavatories always need cleaning. Here the government doesn't need new inventions so much as it needs greener habits. President Clinton has signed several executive orders to make federal agencies "do more than ever to buy and use recycled products." Yet he is recycling good intentions dating back to the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which first required agencies to take "affirmative" steps to buy recycled products.

Critiecs say that FCFA has worked so poorly because the 50,000 procurement employees who actually do the shopping have little incentive to buy green. If you work in a government office and need supplies, such as paper, and "you don't specify that you want an environmentally responsible product, or a certain percentage of recycled content, they will give you whatever they have," says Gail Miller Wray, the EPA's federal recycling executive. Other programs to buy goods from minorityowned or small businesses work better because thier laws carry penalties for employees who ignore them. But, she says, "There's no way to enforce RCRA except by embarrassment." And things do get embarrassing. When Eleanor Lewis, who works for Ralph Nader's Government Purchasing Project, visited the Government Printing Office (GPO) in March 1992, she found that it didn't use copy paper made with post-consumer waste. "They said it would jam the machines," she says. "I told them California has been using it for 10 years. You think they tolerate jammed machines?"

The GPO has improved lately. It now publishes the Congressional Record and the Federal Register on recycled newsprint made from 100 percent post-consumer waste, and it makes private contractors who print material for the USDA use soy-based ink in support of our farmers. The GSA has also turned over a green leaf. As the federal purchasing agent, it buys everything from cars to computers to paper supplies in bulk at deep discounts for federal agencies. Their giant supply catalog now lists 2,100 products in green ink as environmentally friendly, including less-polluting paints, retread bus and truck tires, remanufactured toner cartridges for copiers, and some 900 recycled paper items. And Bill Clinton has appointed a task force to help the GSA and other agencies, like the Post Office, buy up to 30,000 alternative fuel vehicles by 1995.

These numbers sound impressive -- until one remembers the huge size of the government. The GSA catalog still has 15,000 products in black ink, and fills two thirds of its paper orders with virgin fiber products. Critics say that the GSA doesn't do enough to push the green products to the agencies. In one horror story, the Walker-Goulard-Plehn company offered recycled copier paper in the GSA catalog for four months without getting a single order, after being told by the GSA to expect $2.5 million in sales. The government also needs to learn its own "Green Lights" program. At six Department of Energy sites, for example, inspectors found that employees wasted $14 million a year by forgetting to turn off lights, computers and other equipment. Eleanor Lewis says: "In some buildings occupied for only one 8-hour work shift, energy use was about the same at midnight and at noon, as well as on holidays and weekends."

But the trickiest issue concerns paper, which sometimes seems like the only thing government produces. By law, agencies should use recycled paper, but the EPA has defined the "recycled" printing and writing grades of paper so that they need not be made with any post-consumer waste. They can slide by with mill waste, even sawdust. Paper companies insist that this material would otherwise be dumped, but the definition seems more like a linguistic loophole, since the general public assumes that recycled products are made with the garbage it produces. And recycling mill waste doesn't answer the problem of all the paper still going into municipal landfills. Alas, the smaller mills that do make recycled paper with post-consumer waste have fallen on desperate times, thanks to a huge glut of virgin paper that has driven prices incredibly low. Early this year, two of 10 de-inking mills for recycled paper closed for lack of business. Bob Schaeffer, speaking for Conservatree, the largest wholesaler of recycled printing and writing paper, says that without dramatic help in the next 18 months, this green industry could collapse. And what more logical savior than the federal government?

Conservatree now promotes the "Mobro Principles," which more than 70 companies and groups have endorsed. Named after the famous New York garbage barge that circled the world, they include definitions for "recycled" that boost the percentage of post-consumer waste usage, as well as new recycling logos to help the public understand the importance of this issue. Conservatree has taken the Mobro Principles to the EPA and the White House, but it faces stiff competition from the American Forest & Paper Association, whihc promotes a definition that keeps postconsumer waste as an option, not a requirement.

Gail Miller Wray says that all of these issues are puny compared to the real purpose of federal spending: supplying the military. "Ninety percent of government procurement is for weapons systems," she says. So the EPA and others must start considering environmentally-friendly weapons systems. It sounds like an Orwellian oxymoron, she admits, but it means using recycled metals, more efficient computers, fewer toxic chemicals and repairable parts. Needless to say, a green bomb was one item Ralph Nader did not include in his Christmas gift to the president.

Contact: Conservatree, 10 Lombard Street, San Francisco, CA 94111/(415) 433-1000; Government Purchasing Project, P.O. Box 19367, Washington, DC 20036/(202) 387-8030.
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Author:Nixon, Will
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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