Green products

‘Green’ Expectations

As more organizations mandate earth-friendly specification, managers rethink and update traditional approaches to specifying and using products

By Loren Snyder  

There is an excuse for everything, especially when it comes to resisting the use of earth-friendly, or “green”, products: They cost too much. Specifying them will delay our schedule. We’ve never done that kind of thing before. They don’t work as well as traditional products.

While maintenance and engineering managers in some regions still can get away with avoiding green products, it is becoming more difficult. More states mandate the use of environmentally friendly products by government agencies, and more businesses recognize that green products do not always cost more than traditional products.

Moreover, organizations in all sectors are learning that when they use green products, the positive public relations, productivity gains and other benefits often outweigh any cost differences.

This dawning realization is causing more organizations to specify environmentally preferable products, ranging from sustainable building components and environmentally safe cleaning agents to green purchases and recycled paper stock.

The Impetus

In June 2001, New York Gov. George Pataki issued Executive Order 111 mandating environmental awareness and improved energy efficiency from state agencies, including a stipulation that agencies adhere to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines for new construction.

For Walter Simpson, energy officer at the State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo, Pataki’s order helped push the campus even closer to the green guidelines that he favored.

“Even without the environmental advocacy that we have here at Buffalo, that executive order helps because it compels us to be green,” he says. Elsewhere, the push to use green products isn’t coming from above — as in New York — but from rank-and-file staff who sense that something is wrong with many of the current purchasing specifications.

“Sooner or later, green purchasing will be legislated, and everyone will have to do it,” says Marshall Skule, facilities manager at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (UM) campus. “But it’s the right thing to do, and it benefits the university community.” Skule was part of a team at the UM campus that overhauled the university’s custodial products purchasing specifications three years ago.

“At one point, we had 535 custodial cleaning products on campus,” he says, adding that many products in its custodial stores were redundant.

When a UM custodian accidentally splashed a chemical into his eyes, the university discovered that they had no material safety data sheet on file for the chemical. The university also discovered that many cleaning products contained chemicals listed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxic Release Inventory.

Now, the university had adopted specifications for environmentally preferable products and scaled back its products to about 100.

A similar situation motivated the director of plant operations at the Pittsburgh School District to switch to environmentally friendly cleaning products in 2000.

“I used to be a custodian myself,” says Jay Boyd. “I was working with a employee who didn’t know how to use floor stripper.” When the employee injured himself using the chemical, Boyd took the man to the hospital and decided it was time for a change.

“The environment is a personal issue for me,” he says. “I saw what we were pouring down the drains; I know what floor stripper does.”

Green Guidelines

Simpson is part of a team at SUNY-Buffalo comprised of administrators, faculty and consultants who are drafting green guidelines for the campus. The team aims to improve upon Executive Order 111’s mandate that state agencies also must achieve a 20 percent improvement over existing energy codes.

Simpson says that the team is only drafting guidelines, cautioning that the draft at SUNY-Buffalo will be highly recommended and will follow LEED guidelines as closely as possible.

UM also is discovering that sticking to stringent guidelines sometimes can be difficult. Part of the university’s plan had called for the use of 100 percent plant-derived cleaning products by 2005.

“We’re not going to do it,” Skule says. “Some stuff you just can’t do with entirely bio-based products.” But Minnesota did discover that some plant-derived products worked better than traditional products.

“In the case of floor strippers, some of the products didn’t work at all, and some of them worked better than our regular stuff,” Skule says. “Initially, cost wasn’t an issue. Only performance was. For example, it couldn’t take longer to apply an environmentally friendly floor finish. To clean 10,000 square feet using a slower product just wouldn’t work for us.”

But then cost did become an issue. So last September, UM partnered with a Minneapolis-based cleaning-product manufacturer. The university became a testing ground for the company’s new line of environmentally preferable products.

Skule says that the company’s environmentally friendly cleaning products are now price-competitive, and they clean as well or better than traditional agents.

Quantifying the Benefits

The analysis decision tool of Stanford University’s Sustainable Design Guidelines cautions readers, “Social and environmental benefits often do not have direct economic benefits and are thus difficult to quantify in dollar terms.”

One reason many organizations and business might be slow to adopt green specification requirements is because of the often-nebulous returns when buying green products. Benefits frequently are intangible, and while good case studies of cost savings exist, they can be hard to find.

Simpson’s argument for going green centers upon the high first costs of building.

“Buildings are financially burdensome from the outset,” he says. “You can build moderately green buildings for the approximately the same cost as traditional buildings. Design it right the first time, and you’ll be ahead of the game in life-cycle costs. For example, let’s say you get a 1 percent gain in productivity — and I think you’d get more — but let’s say it’s 1 percent. Over the lifetime of the building, you’d get back whatever the first cost is.”

For other products — including grounds- care chemicals, floor coverings, and cleaning supplies — determining cost savings can be slightly easier. For example, UM’s Skule is able to quantify the annual savings of switching to environmentally preferable products.

“Before we standardized chemicals, each of the custodial zones on campus had different training programs for their chemicals,” he says. “When a custodian was transferred between zones, he or she had to undergo all the new training for another set of chemicals. Now, with only 100 chemicals, we’ve standardized custodial training throughout the zones and saved $20,000 annually in training alone.”

And while Skule didn’t have exact numbers, he says that consolidation also saved the university money because of the increased purchasing power resulting from dealing with fewer vendors.

Like Buffalo and Stanford, UM also has established sustainable-design guidelines for new construction and found other ways to specify green products.

For example, when storms bring down trees that disrupt or threaten to disrupt power, the university’s energy provider goes through Minneapolis and collects them. The university provides storage space for the trees, but also finds a way to re-use what the utility sees as waste product.

“We use the chips that we make from those trees in our grounds care operations,” Skule says. “That alone has saved the university $10,000 a year in wood chip costs.”

Personnel Issues

Protecting workers has become a major motivating force for Boyd and others. To minimize workers’ contact with cleaning products, Boyd’s district requires all products to be in dispensers and self-mixing.

When the UM adopted the new cleaning products, it went to custodians to assess how they liked the new products. In one session, the university brought in 150 custodians to explain the new products and gather their suggestions.

“One custodian stands up — he’s been with us for 37 years — and I see him and think to myself, ‘Here we go, I’m going to get an earful from this guy,’ ” Skule says. “Instead, he says ‘It’s about time you guys started thinking of us.’ ”

Green Benefits: going to the net

The difficult part of specifying ‘green’ products is not so much convincing an organization that it is necessary. Rather, it seems difficult to sort out of competing claims about environmentally friendly products to come up with a tangible cost-benefit analysis.

The Web good place to start,” says Jay Boyd, director of plant operations for the Pittsburgh School District.

“Get on the Internet and start reading,” he says. When Boyd began drafting his district’s bid specifications for custodial products, he turned to the Internet for research. Managers then have to evaluate and select green products. Stanford University’s sustainable-design guidelines offer a five-step process:

  • Define your organization’s options.
  • Determine criteria for product specification.
  • Rank or weight the criteria
  • Give each option a relative score for each criteria.
  • Total the scores for each option and compare.

For example, one of Boyd’s criteria for product specification is that products are not bioaccumulative, in part because of the geographical proximity of Pittsburgh to regional waterways. Another of his district’s specifications requires that no product contains alkyl phenyl ethoxylates (APEs), a hormonal mimic easily spread by water systems.

Web Resources

Some Web sites that include tools to help managers make green specification decisions:

— Loren Snyder

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  posted on 4/1/2003   Article Use Policy

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