Buying Into Buy Recycled

July 1, 1999

16 Min Read
Buying Into Buy Recycled

Kivi Leroux

Buying recycled products is critical to the recycling industry. Without thriving markets for such products, building a long-term, stable recycling system is impossible. But problems with recycled products' prices, quality and availability historically have prevented them from reaching mainstream America.

Nevertheless, a review of today's marketplace shows that the emphasis on buying recycled has been somewhat fruitful. The good news is that high-quality recycled products are available at competitive prices. However, with the exception of paper, buy recycled programs have not affected recycling commodities purchases significantly. But that could change as buy recycled policies debated during the late 1980s and early 1990s are implemented.

Buy recycled programs are facing the same challenges as recycling collection programs, says Richard Keller, director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Buy Recycled Training Institute, Washington, D.C. "We've done all the easy stuff and need to move to the next level," says Keller, who has trained about 5,000 procurement officers in 30 states.

While people are buying recycled products that are easy to find, getting customers to step up their recycled products purchasing requires focusing on an ever-increasing list of products and eliminating the remaining price, quality and availability barriers.

The Buy Recycled Gatekeeper Which recycled products are ready to compete in the marketplace? Most buy recycled program managers refer to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., which is responsible for designating which recycled products the federal government is supposed to buy.

Technically, the EPA guidelines apply only to agencies and organizations using federal funds, but by default they have become the national standard for all users. This is because the EPA standards are the only national ones available, although some states have their own guidelines.

With revisions in its research and decision-making processes, the EPA is designating products more quickly than ever before. Currently there are 36 designated products and 19 more are expected this summer, including carpet cushion, foodwaste compost and plastic lumber landscaping timbers.

And in its attempt to build recycling markets, the EPA plans to look more closely at low-value recyclables such as glass, plastics, and construction and demolition debris, says Terry Grist, program coordinator for the EPA's procurement guidelines.

For each product, the EPA recommends the appropriate level of recycled content and post-consumer materials. For example, most printing and writing papers should contain 30 percent post-consumer recycled content, and traffic cones should include 50 percent to 100 percent total recovered materials, according to the EPA. The EPA may begin a schedule of designating new items every other year and updating the content levels for existing products in the off-years.

Grist believes the guidelines have encouraged manufacturers to increase their use of recycled materials, especially paper makers. "The issues [around a particular recycled product] get worked out when trying to sell the products to the federal government," Grist says. "A lot of manufacturers are using the higher end of our post-consumer ranges to market their products."

Data on just how many people are using EPA's guidelines and buying recycled products is hard to find. But progress is being made.

The federal government is responsible for developing a list of recycled products and for leading the nation by purchasing the items on the list regularly, according to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and presidential executive orders - most recently President William Clinton's Order 13101 "Greening the Government through Waste Prevention, Recycling and Federal Acquisition." But following through has been easier said than done.

Fixing the Paper Jam Federal Environmental Executive Fran McPoland's greatest accomplishment may be getting federal purchasers to do what they were supposed to have done years ago - only buy recycled copier paper. [See "A Close Look At Recycled Copier Paper" p. 78]. After a prolonged battle that ended last fall, McPoland and other recycling advocates convinced the General Services Administration (GSA), which supplies federal agencies, to stock only recycled paper. "The federal government uses 10,000 sheets of copier paper every hour of every business day," McPoland says.

McPoland believes that more than 70 percent of the paper purchased by federal agencies contains the required 30 percent post-consumer recycled content. She credits this success to the automatic substitution policies adopted by 12 agencies, starting with the Department of Defense.

Under the policies, the GSA sends recycled paper even if the purchase order requests virgin paper. The Departments of Justice and Defense have agreed to extend the automatic substitution policy to re-refined oil as well. McPoland expects the Defense Logistics Agency, which supplies federal agencies with motor oil, to cease selling virgin oil just as the GSA stopped selling virgin paper.

McPoland's office only oversees agencies in the executive branch, and she proudly notes that 100 percent of the paper used by the executive office of the President has recycled content. However, she is frustrated with the legislative branch, which purchases very little recycled paper, and the Library of Congress, which purchases none. "You can't tell me that the Library of Congress is so special that their paper is more valuable than the paper coming out of the executive office of the President," she says. "There's just no reason for it."

State Your Preference Moving from adoption of a buy recycled policy to implementation also has been challenging for state governments. While 47 state governments have these policies, according to a 1997 study by Raymond Communications Inc., College Park, Md., only 30 have attempted to buy recycled copy paper and just four have tried to buy recycled plastic products. [See "Recycled Purchases Wane, Despite 47 State Laws" World Wastes, January 1999, page 7].

However, some states have made significant progress. Massachusetts, for example, has increased its purchases of recycled products by 1,300 percent in six years, from $2.7 million in purchases in 1992 to more than $35 million in 1998. Marcia Deegler, the environmental products trainer in the state's Operational Services Division, attributes their success to placing two environmental employees in its procurement office. Using surplus revenues from the state's Bottle Bill, Deegler and a co-worker help purchasing teams write specifications, research recycled products and train buyers to use the state contracts for recycled products. For example, Deegler's office negotiates a contract between the state of Massachusetts and a product supplier.

When an individual state agency, such as the transportation department or education department, needs that product, there is no need to renegotiate with the supplier. That agency can order the product and pay the price using the contract Deegler's office already negotiated. Because all state agencies purchase products through a centralized system, tracking the program's success is easy.

In the past few years, Deegler has seen a shift in the concerns of Massachusetts procurement officers. "Before, people were concerned about how recycled paper looked," she says. "Now they are asking about specific content levels and bleaching processes. Many of the people I work with really have come up to speed on the issues."

But agencies still are buying the virgin product even when they can get the recycled one for less, Deegler says, especially remanufactured toner cartridges and re-refined oil.

With the rise of environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP) programs, procurement agents are diverting their attention to products such as energy-efficient office equipment and less toxic cleaners and pesticides.

Buy recycled advocates are concerned that purchasing organizations may develop EPP programs without ensuring their existing buy recycled programs are as effective as possible. "An EPP program should be built on a strong buy recycled program as the base," Keller says. "The two are not separate things."

Keller agrees that he spends less time training purchasing officers about price, availability and recycled products' quality in his seminars because they now are more comfortable with recycled products.

He knows of more than 250 local governments that now have buy recycled policies and another 250 that are buying recycled without a formal policy, although he believes the actual numbers are significantly higher.

Local governments are buying recycled products without regard to the virgin alternatives available, he says. Buying only the recycled version of a product is quite different from the standard approach of five or 10 years ago, which granted a price preference to the recycled products while still requesting bids for virgin products. Consequently, Keller now can focus his seminars on implementation issues such as determining the appropriate level of recycled content, cooperative purchasing and record keeping.

Private Sector Peer Pressure Why should a private business make the effort to buy recycled? Coordinators of buy recycled programs for businesses, including EPA's WasteWise program and the National Recycling Coalition's (NRC) Buy Recycled Business Alliance (BRBA), Alexandria, Va., believe that consumers reward good corporate citizens. [See "WasteWise Helps Businesses Save Money" World Wastes, November 1998, page 15]. Consequently, these agencies focus on peer to peer networking and positive press exposure for participating companies.

Harnessing the power of peer pressure, the BRBA, a coalition of more than 3,000 businesses, launched an advertising campaign with the Harvard Business Review to lobby Fortune 1000 company CEOs to buy recycled. Every other month for one year, the CEOs received their copy of the Harvard Business Review with a message from BRBA attached to the cover, which emphasized a buy recycled theme, such as construction and renovation, remanufacturing and office products.

"The BRBA sponsors have taken a bold step to make very public their commitment to recycled products," says Will Ferretti, executive director of the NRC. "Peer to peer endorsement of practices is a potent way to motivate behavior changes."

BRBA Chairman Jim Bosch of the Dayton Hudson Corp., Minneapolis, agrees. "We can raise the level of understanding and comprehension among the Fortune 1000 CEOs while gaining recognition for our sponsoring companies at the same time." The organization is considering a second year of the campaign and is looking at other high-profile advertising options as well.

A recent survey by the BRBA of environmental affairs managers at Fortune 1000 companies revealed that nearly 98 percent were familiar with recycled products and 88 percent considered their firm's use of recycled materials either somewhat or very important. Forty-eight percent believed recycled products were easily available, and 82 percent reported that recycled products had performed to their specifications.

Does the Public Buy Recycled? Organizations such as BRBA and WasteWise are not only looking at the recycled products that companies buy and use, but also what they stock on their retail shelves. At a recent workshop sponsored by the Recycling Association of Minnesota, Shoreview, Minn., Bosch encouraged retail buyers from grocery, hardware and large discount stores to participate in America Recycles Day, on November 15, by offering the general public more recycled products.

"We told the buyers that their customers would like to buy recycled products, and America Recycles Day gives them the opportunity to tie into that demand," Bosch says.

As the manager of environmental services for Dayton Hudson Corp., which owns Target, Mervyns and Marshall Fields, Bosch is putting his own advice to work by selling recycled products under Target's private labels. For example, last year Target sold molded rubber doormats made from nearly 4 million pounds of recycled tires. Trying to close the waste loop, Target also markets plastic dog food bowls made from its worn-out shopping carts.

Government and corporate commitments to buy recycled products have made it easier for consumers to find quality recycled products at reasonable prices. But it still is not as easy as it could be.

In 1997, the NRC surveyed consumers about their attitudes and purchasing habits. "The results showed us that people want to buy more recycled products, but they don't know how," Ferretti says. "There's not enough information on the label or the shelf to help them make the decision."

A U.S. Postal Service study corroborated NRC's results. In that study, when asked to identify a recycling leader, no one organization or individual emerged as a leader. "People are looking for leadership in how to be better recyclers, including buying recycled," Ferretti says. "America Recycles Day is one attempt to respond to that."

Since its inception in 1997, the America Recycles Day themes have centered on recycled products, including this year's theme: "For their future ... buy recycled today," which accompanies five young children at a beach holding an American flag. Ferretti expects the America Recycles Day committee to stick with the buy recycled message for a few more years.

Tracking Progress Calculating the total amount of recycled products purchased is nearly impossible, because few public or private sector purchasers have systems that track purchases to that level of detail. Also, numbers can be skewed by the actions of one or two major corporations. For example, WasteWise members purchased about 1 million tons of recycled products worth $3 billion in 1997, but that total is driven by companies such as Coca-Cola and Anheuser-Busch, which use significant quantities of aluminum and glass in their beverage containers.

Instead, most programs use anecdotal information to demonstrate progress. The EPA's WasteWise program annually asks participants to identify their largest recycled purchase and a recycled product they've purchased for the first time.

Even without quantitative evidence, buy recycled advocates believe they are making a difference, even if the pace is slow.

Many say they find the incremental, product-by-product approach a frustrating way to change purchasing habits, yet it is the most reliable method.

Despite receiving a direct order from President Clinton, "it still took a year and half of constant work to convince a significant number of federal purchasing agents to buy recycled copier paper," Ferretti says. "And that's just one product."

EPA's Grist believes the ease with which the agency is designating new recycled products is one measure of progress. "I think the fact that we are not getting a whole lot of comments from the environmental community (on our proposals) does not mean people are less interested necessarily, they just feel like we are making progress."

A national satellite forum on buying recycled products will air on Nov. 4, 1999, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. EST. The program will be presented by the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's WasteWise program and the Alexandria, Va.-based National Recycling Coalition's Buy Recycled Business Alliance.

The forum is designed to provide businesses, governments and other organizations insights on how to buy high-quality, cost-competitive recycled products. Panelists include Bob Langert of McDonald's, one of the largest purchasers of recycled products in the United States; Susan McCloskey of Office Plan, a small furniture remanufacturer with an aggressive buy recycled program; Eric Nelson of King County, Wash., a leader in local government buy recycled programs; and Richard Keller, a nationally recognized buy recycled trainer. For more information about how to participate in the forum, e-mail [email protected] or fax (703) 841-1440.

Ten years ago, office workers scoffed at using recycled paper in copier machines. It jammed, created too much dust, looked dingy and cost much more than the clean, efficient, bright white virgin paper they always had used.

Some manufacturers even threatened to void warrantees on copiers if they were stocked with recycled paper. But the paper recycling world has changed dramatically. Millions of dollars in investments by the paper industry, prodded by state and federal buy recycled programs, have created recycled copier papers that perform as well or better than virgin papers.

Late last year, with the support of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Washington, D.C., the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., and three office equipment manufacturers - Tokyo-based Canon USA, Lake Success, N.Y.; Hewlett-Packard Company, Palo Alto, Calif.; and Lexmark International, Lexington, Ky. - evaluated the quality and performance of dozens of brands of copier paper with up to 30 percent post-consumer recycled content.

Testers ran more than two million sheets of virgin and recycled paper on copiers, laser printers and inkjet printers. They found that the recycled papers performed as well as the virgin papers in a variety of tests, including paper feeding, readability, paper curl and image quality. Paper with 30 percent recycled content jammed 1.5 to 3.2 times per 100,000 sheets, while virgin copier paper jammed 2.9 times per 100,000 sheets.

Office supply stores comprise about 20 percent of the paper market, which is growing with the rise of small businesses and home offices. National office supply chains such as Staples and Office Depot stock hundreds of recycled products, including recycled copier paper.

When purchased in large quantities by a government agency or major corporation, the price difference between recycled and virgin copier paper often is negligible. However, consumers purchasing a ream or a case from a large retailer still are likely to pay 30 percent to 50 percent more for recycled paper than for comparable virgin copier paper.

On the other hand, recycled copier paper prices, even in small quantities, usually beat out the private label papers now marketed by office equipment manufacturers such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM. These virgin papers, which equipment manufacturers recommend for their machines, can run anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent higher than recycled paper of similar quality.

The overall market for recycled paper has decreased somewhat in the last few years, which is attributable to several factors, according to Susan Kinsella, who has tracked the recycled paper industry for nearly 20 years.

"Many people assume that all papers have recycled fiber in them, so they aren't asking for it specifically," she says. "Also, buyers are much more focused on price than they were even a few years ago."

Fort James, the largest manufacturer of recycled copier paper in the West, calculates that while 9 percent of copier and printer purchases have recycled content, another 16 percent of the market is ready to buy recycled paper, but is not doing so, mostly because of price.

"For that 16 percent of the market, our 30 percent post-consumer content paper isn't fitting the bill [because of the price]," says Mark Ohleyer, marketing manager for Fort James' Eureka paper line.

So, the company has created a paper with 10 percent post-consumer content that it can sell at the same price as virgin paper. "We want to take away any reason a consumer might have to not buy recycled," Ohleyer says.

Now, the Eureka line includes four papers: 50 percent and 100 percent post-consumer content for those willing to pay higher prices; 30 percent for those complying with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., standards; and 10 percent for those who want to buy recycled without paying more.

Ohleyer understands critics who fear a 10 percent post-consumer content paper may chip away at buyers of higher content papers that meet or exceed the EPA's 30 percent standards. But he believes the opposite actually will occur and the 10 percent paper will act as a "starter" paper for the 91 percent of the market not buying recycled currently.

Once people get used to the 10 percent paper, they'll become more educated about the issues and move up to the higher content papers, he says. He also believes that the 10 percent paper will help Fort James reach the economies of scale it needs to allow it to reduce the price of its 30 percent post-consumer content paper, which makes up more than 90 percent of the Eureka line's sales.

To help the recycled paper market to rebound, Kinsella asks consumers ordering paper and printing jobs to request recycled paper every time. Even if it isn't available or cost-competitive, asking for it demonstrates a demand for the product that will translate into more options down the road, she says.

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