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Using your buying power
  • Many Alameda County (CA) government departments no longer buy letterhead.
  • San Francisco's municipal Paint Shop hasn't bought paint thinner for months.
  • Federal Express's envelope supplier convinced it to cut its envelope orders in half.

    And everybody's happy with the arrangements.

Why? Each has found a creative way to reduce waste, save money, please their publics, and benefit the environment.

Source reduction, the highest goal in the solid waste management hierarchy - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - should be the centerpiece of every business or government procurement program. But the concept of buying for source reduction is far less developed than the concept of buying recycled products.

Although policies for both are similar, implementation is quite different. Practices that encourage recycled products, such as price preferences and content standards, generally do not work for source reduction products.


"Source reduction product" can be defined as a product that results in a net reduction in the generation of waste compared to the previous or alternate version and includes durable, reusable and remanufactured products; products with no, or reduced, toxic constituents; and products marketed with no, or reduced, packaging.

Sometimes source reduction comes from the product itself, e.g. lighter product packaging. Other times, it has more to do with how the product is used. Sometimes buying for source reduction means that several different parts of an organization must agree on policies that result in fewer or different products being purchased.

Some people use the terms "waste reduction" and "source reduction" interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Waste reduction includes recycling and other strategies that decrease disposal quantities as well as reduce waste at the source. Source reduction, on the other hand, is a sub-set of waste reduction and refers to reducing waste by not producing it at all. Starting at the source - before products are used and often before they are produced - prevents waste from ever even occurring. That's why "waste prevention" is now a synonym for source reduction.

"Pollution prevention" is sometimes called source reduction because it deals with minimizing the use and production of hazardous substances. This article deals with source-reducing toxins in a purchasing context but not with other processes covered under hazardous waste reduction programs.


Source reduction is first in the solid waste hierarchy for good reason. While recycling rightly questions and changes how products are manufactured, it is not designed to question why they are produced. Source reduction asks those questions: Do we need this? If we do, can it be produced with fewer resources, take up less space, make a lighter environmental impact?

By itself, recycling does not address issues of overproduction or wasteful product use. Source reduction, however, goes to the heart of both issues. Applying source reduction and recycling together is environmentally and globally responsible, particularly when they result in significantly reduced demand for resources and eliminate the environmental damage that often accompanies resource extraction. Thoughtful application can create this heightened level of responsibility without reducing our standard of living. Purchasers, through their financial clout, can encourage manufacturers to implement source reduction strategies in all their production processes.


Unlike recycled-content products, there is no "standard" to follow in choosing source reduction products, although the definition of a source reduction product does provide some parameters. Buying with source reduction in mind requires creativity and the willingness to re-think what needs your purchases serve and whether there are better ways to meet them. It's often an exciting process and usually results in long-term cost savings.

Begin the process by applying the solid waste hierarchy. Can you reduce or even eliminate certain purchases? What can be reused? Evaluate current policies and processes. You may need to collaborate with other departments to come up with organizational policies that reduce purchasing requirements. Ask staff and vendors for their suggestions. The links with this article list many examples. Following are some highlights.


  • ELIMINATE. Sometimes you can simply eliminate a product yet not lose its function. When it moved to new offices in the San Francisco Bay Area, Alameda County's General Services Agency eliminated the cost of printing new letterhead by switching to the use of templates in their word processing program. Now GSA staff simply type their letters and memos on the appropriate computer template. Printouts always include an up-to-date letterhead design, which can be customized for every office, and even incorporates the recycled paper logo.

  • LOOK FOR DURABILITY. Durable products can return investments for years. Workers at Berkeley, CA's Building Maintenance department are enthusiastic about the high quality, single-polymer plastic lumber benches they bought for city streets and parks two years ago. They particularly appreciate that the benches' composition makes it easy to remove graffiti and repair holes and damage, and it holds up well even under determined skateboarders. Initially, the benches cost more than comparable wood products, but their significantly reduced maintenance requirements made them very competitive over the long run.

  • RETHINK NEEDS. Durability sometimes results from manufacturers rethinking how to meet clients' needs. Modular carpets, for example, come in 18-inch "tiles" instead of 12-foot widths. That makes it easy to refurbish and keep up-to-date the 20% of commercial carpet traffic-ways that show wear and tear, while allowing longer life for the other 80 percent of the carpet still in good condition.

  • RETHINK USE. Changing the way that you use some types of equipment can cut down on purchasing requirements. Many departments of Pacific Gas & Electric Company reprogrammed their photocopiers to default to two-sided copying. Now people have to manually choose single-sided if they want that alternative. As a result, far less paper is used.

  • REDUCE TOXICITY. Reducing toxicity, whether in a product's effect on employees or on the environment, is also source reduction. The City of San Francisco's Paint Shop runs a still for cleaning and reusing paint thinner, returning more than 95 percent of it for reuse. The Shop hasn't bought paint thinner for months and, even after distilling several hundred gallons, only ends up with about five gallons of paint sludge that has to be disposed of as hazardous waste.


Even the common envelope can offer many source reduction savings. Federal Express uses a two-way envelope to send out millions of bills a year. Customers easily refold the outbound envelope to use as a return envelope for their payment. Using one envelope in place of two saves money for Federal Express, not only on envelope costs, but also in inventory, warehousing and handling. Some two-way envelopes even incorporate space for a letter, questionnaire, or returnable billing form.

Offices all over the country are successfully using remanufactured laser toner cartridges, saving up to 40 percent over the price of new cartridges. Different from so-called "fill-and-drill" shops, remanufacturers replace used drums and other parts in the cartridges when necessary, to ensure high quality copies and long life.

Pennsylvania's Allegheny Power Systems, an electric utility serving several East Coast states, is one of many companies and governments that buy retread tires. Allegheny gives an "excellent" rating to the retreads that they've used on their nearly 3000 large trucks.


  • INVEST IN SOURCE REDUCTION. Thinking about source reduction purchases should start long before a building even is built. The types of hardware installed and storage spaces designed, for example, will encourage or discourage many options. But replacing hardware in existing buildings can often be cost-effective in the long-run, too. Changing light fixtures to accommodate fluorescent or sodium lights incurs an initial cost, but their greater illumination and longer life pays off over time. Changing restroom towel dispensers to hold roll towels rather than folded also means initial short-term costs, but roll towels reduce waste by 25-35 percent in paper alone, as well as save on expense, packaging, labor and storage.

  • CHANGE HABITS. Some source reduction practices simply require a change in habits. The City of Palo Alto (CA) calculated that it costs more than $300 to outfit a 4-drawer letter-size file cabinet with new supplies. Re-labeling and reusing file folders, hanging folders and plastic tabs, instead, saves plenty for their offices as well as the environment.

  • ORGANIZE. Other practices require organization. The City of Tucson, Arizona, for example, takes reuse seriously. The Water Department has a unique unit that refurbishes metal water delivery components. Not only does this practice reduce the need for expensive replacement parts, but the department also has a much wider range of parts in inventory for emergency response. The Facilities and Design Management Division recovers doors, windows, bathroom fixtures and hardware for reuse when spaces are renovated.

  • INTEGRATE SYSTEMS. Alameda County (CA) provides inter-office envelopes to its vendors so that invoices that must be authorized by several departments before payment by Purchasing can be routed directly into the county's mail distribution system. No invoices are lost in the mail, postage costs are eliminated, and envelopes are used over and over again.

  • CONTINUE REUSE. Source reduction also includes selling or donating any usable products or materials you no longer want. The City of Tucson sells everything from bicycles to fire hoses, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Waste exchanges match up donors with organizations that can use your no-longer-wanted materials, even unusual ones. Schools and arts centers need all sorts of materials, including used paper, film canisters and cardboard tissue tubes.

  • PLAN AHEAD. Think "minimum impact" when ordering equipment or designing processes. For example, in order to use rechargeable batteries with your equipment, you may need to buy rechargers and different types of batteries but after this initial expense you can realize important savings. Installing reflectors with fluorescent lights can cut in half the number of tubes needed. When buying or renting copiers, be sure they both accept and produce double-sided copies easily. Purchase plain paper faxes to eliminate the need to copy thermal sheets. Develop an on-going, closed-loop system with your bank for reusing deposit bags. Choose permanent landscape plantings instead of annuals.

  • CHECK RECYCLABILITY. Ensuring recyclability reduces resource demand at the source the second time around. Whenever possible, look for products compatible with your local solid waste management systems. Non-recyclable products may contaminate collection systems or increase disposal costs.

  • MINIMIZE PACKAGING. Packaging can contribute significantly to purchasing costs, particularly if you have to pay to get rid of it, whether or not it's recycled. Ask your vendors to help you achieve source reduction goals by shipping products with the minimal amount of packaging necessary. Major purchasers in particular can influence packagers to reduce waste. You may also be able to arrange to return packaging to vendors.


  • OWNERSHIP COST. One of the most important purchasing tools to encourage source reduction is calculating the so-called "ownership cost," the total expense to the purchasing organization during the product's life cycle, including, but not limited to, acquisition, extended warranties, operation, supplies, maintenance, disposal costs and expected lifetime compared to other alternatives.

    Buyers often make these calculations for major capital purchases but not for smaller ones. While some source reduction products cost more initially, their durability, concentration, repairability and other features often make them more cost-effective in the long run.

    The City of Berkeley's plastic lumber park benches were competitive with wood benches once the maintenance savings were calculated in. The original purchase cost for plastic lumber car stops for parking lots may be nearly double the cost of concrete car stops, but over several years their ownership cost drops to as little as one-quarter that of the concrete alternatives. The plastic lumber car stops are durable, while the concrete ones must be replaced repeatedly, with attendant maintenance costs. Rubber playground surfaces are more costly initially than sand and other loosefill materials, but they eliminate the need to continually clean and replace the loosefill and make playgrounds more accessible to disabled children.

  • REVIEW SPECIFICATIONS. Just as with buying recycled products, you must also check language in your bids and contracts to be sure that source reduction products are allowed and encouraged. If you use an "all new" clause, be sure that it makes clear that approved remanufactured items as well as recycled products qualify. Use functional rather than design specifications; if you say that a bench must be made of wood, you preclude benches made of other materials which may better serve your source reduction goals.

    When writing specifications, insist that equipment or vehicle warranties do not discriminate against remanufactured or recycled products used for standard maintenance. And include a clause that encourages vendors to reduce waste volume and toxicity by using environmentally preferable packaging whenever possible.


Which do you buy when a source reduction product competes with a recycled product? Strive to achieve the highest level possible in the solid waste hierarchy.

Even better, combine the levels. A product with both source reduction characteristics and recycled content doesn't just add, it multiplies the environmental and solid waste savings. In some cases, you may find an item which uses less material than its predecessor product, is reusable, and also contains recycled material, thereby combining all three levels of the hierarchy.


As a society with bountiful natural resources and enormous wealth, we've gotten out-of-touch with the impact of our everyday choices and habits. Rethinking what, why and how we buy, especially when we carry the purchasing clout of a business, manufacturer, or government, can have a tremendous effect on rebalancing our demands on natural resources, energy, water, air, habitats and land.

And if that's not motivation enough, then think about how much implementing source reduction can also rebalance your bottom line.

Source Reduction Links:

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