Community Waste Prevention 5

Purchasing for Waste Prevention

Many businesses, government agencies, and institutions such as educational and medical facilities are purchasing goods made with recycled content as a way to reduce their impact on the environment. Others are finding that they can build on such programs by reducing the quantity or toxicity of the goods they buy. These initiatives can supplement institutional recycling programs by targeting for reduction items that do not have well-established markets and by procuring items that are recyclable. Purchasing for waste prevention can yield numerous ancillary benefits including lower procurement, maintenance, and disposal costs, as well as improved operational efficiency.

This fact sheet provides an overview of waste prevention procurement practices that government agencies and other public institutions can implement to improve their efficiency and environmental performance.

  • Ten Key Procurement Strategies
  • Additional Information
  • Notes

Ten Key Procurement Strategies

1. Reduce paper use.

Using duplexing printers and copiers can dramatically reduce paper consumption and postage costs. Set all printers and copiers to the default duplex mode. Columbia University saved about $105,000 by directing its copy centers to print all documents double-sided unless single-sided copies were specifically requested.(1)

2. Purchase durable goods.

Using life-cycle cost analysis, rather than automatically choosing goods with the lowest price tag, can help purchasers identify the best long-term value. Factor in a product’s estimated life span as well as its energy, maintenance, and disposal costs. Invest in goods with extended warranties. Save money and minimize waste by eliminating single-use items, such as nonrechargeable batteries, in favor of reusable ones. Stowe Elementary School in Duluth, Minnesota, for example, saved $6800 annually by switching to reusable cloth napkins, trays, and silverware instead of using disposable food service items.(2)

3. Lease and rent when appropriate.

Leasing and rental contracts give vendors responsibility for the upkeep of goods such as computers and vehicles, and for managing them at the end of their useful life. Businesses (such as Xerox) that lease equipment tend to manufacture more durable items, salvage reusable parts, and refurbish, recycle, or donate used equipment that can no longer be leased. Renting is a cost-effective option for short-term equipment needs.

4. Specify product and packaging take-back.

Increasingly, product vendors are offering to take back the products they sell when they become obsolete. Others will take back used items — such as carpeting and toner cartridges — when purchasers buy new products. For example, several carpet manufacturers have invested in sophisticated recycling facilities that turn old carpet into new carpet or other goods. These companies are looking for ways to collect specific types of used carpet and may ask purchasers for their old carpet when new product is installed. The states of Minnesota, Delaware [PDF], and Massachusetts have carpet procurement guidelines that can serve as models for this type of contract. Purchasing contracts can also require vendors to assume responsibility for some of their shipping materials, such as wooden pallets. Check with vendors to see if they will do this voluntarily, or write it into your contract requirements.

5. Buy goods in bulk or concentrated form.

This practice can significantly reduce the packaging associated with small product quantities. Aramark, a major food service provider, reportedly cut its purchasing costs at Cleveland State University by replacing single-serve packages of condiments with bulk dispensers.3 But don’t buy more than you need!

6. Manage surplus effectively.

Government offices and other public institutions can reduce waste by eliminating excess purchases. Surveying past needs can minimize the procurement of unneeded items. Operating a surplus warehouse or advertising surplus items on the Internet can assist purchasers in effectively redistributing surplus items. A model web site has been established by the Trenton Materials Exchange, which “kept 195,000 tons of usable equipment out of the waste stream in 2000.”

7. Establish food and yard waste reduction programs.

Organic waste can account for up to one-third of an institution’s waste stream. In 1997, Stowe Elementary School won the Minnesota Governor’s Award for Excellence in Waste and Pollution Prevention, in part for sending its leftover milk to a nearby animal shelter and establishing an on-site worm composting program to handle its food scraps.4

8. Purchase recyclable items and items with recycled content.

Local government agencies and offices can bolster their state’s recycling program by designing their purchasing program to be compatible with it. To reduce disposal costs and waste, avoid items that cannot be remanufactured, recycled, or composted and write your specifications for products and packaging accordingly. Standard-sized wooden shipping pallets, for example, can often be returned to vendors free of charge, while odd-sized pallets cannot. Many products made from recycled materials are available, including pavement patching mix, plastic sheeting, and other items used in construction and demolition work.

9. Procure remanufactured goods and use refurbishing services.

It is generally much less expensive to buy remanufactured goods such as retread tires, refurbished pallets, and remanufactured toner cartridges, or to use refurbishing services for computer upgrades, carpet repair, and furniture reupholstery, than to buy new items. Retread tires cost about half as much as comparable “virgin” tires and “recharged” toner cartridges typically save buyers 30 to 50 percent per sheet of paper. In 2000, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts purchased more than 10,800 remanufactured toner cartridges, saving more than $260,000 and diverting more than 13 tons of material from disposal.5 Remanufactured items should require no sacrifice in performance.

10. Purchase goods containing fewer toxic constituents.

By specifying goods with fewer or no toxic chemicals, purchasers can reduce their hazardous waste disposal costs, future liability concerns, and the risk of occupational exposure and spills. Low-toxicity products such as mercury-free (digital) thermometers, lead-free solder and road paint, and printing inks low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are increasingly available and cost-competitive. The City of Santa Monica has implemented a model program to promote the use of environmentally preferable janitorial cleaning supplies. Massachusetts and Connecticut have both adopted new contract language for mercury-free medical supplies, based in part on the following recommendations from INFORM’s Purchasing for Pollution Prevention Project:

As part of [state’s] efforts to reduce the use and disposal of mercury and mercury-containing products, the [state] has determined that any contracts resulting from this solicitation must meet the following requirements:

  • In their response, Bidders must offer non-mercury alternatives to all products which contain intentionally added mercury (mercury added products) where such alternatives exist.
  • Should such alternatives not be available, bidders must submit with their response a list of products without non-mercury alternatives and an explanation of why alternatives are not available.
  • Following a contract award, contractors must not sell any mercury added products, even if they have received a direct request from a contract user, unless they have submitted a written request and received written prior approval from the [procurement office].

Additional Information

For waste-reducing practices, products, and procurement strategies that have been successfully implemented by businesses and institutions:

John P. Winter and Anne Marie Alonso, Waste at Work: Prevention Strategies for the Bottom Line, INFORM, Inc., 1999.

David Saphire, Getting an “A” at Lunch: Smart Strategies to Reduce Waste in Campus Dining, INFORM, Inc., 1998.

Purchasing Strategies to Prevent Waste and Save Money, Source Reduction Forum of the National Recycling Coalition, Inc., and INFORM, Inc., 2000. This publication can be ordered at

For analysis and case studies of leasing as a waste-reducing alternative to purchasing:

Bette K. Fishbein et al., Leasing: A Step Toward Producer Responsibility, INFORM, Inc., 2000.

For analysis and case studies of product take-back in the United States:

Bette K. Fishbein et al., Extended Producer Responsibility: A Materials Policy for the 21st Century, INFORM, Inc.

Bette K. Fishbein, “Carpet Take-Back: EPR American Style,” John Wiley u0026amp; Sons, 2000.

Bette K. Fishbein, “Industry Program to Collect and Recycle Nickel-Cadmium (Ni-Cd) Batteries,” INFORM, Inc., 1997.

For analysis and case studies of strategies to reduce construction and demolition waste:

Bette K. Fishbein, Building for the Future: Strategies to Reduce Construction and Demolition Waste in Municipal Projects, INFORM, Inc.,1998.

Also see:

The Commonwealth of Massachsetts’ Environmentally Preferable Products Procurement Program web site at

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines at

For information on products that contain persistent, bioaccumulative toxic chemicals and less toxic/nontoxic alternatives, visit INFORM’s Purchasing for Pollution website at


11John P. Winter and Anne Marie Alonso, Waste at Work: Prevention Strategies for the Bottom Line, INFORM, Inc., 1999, 15.

2 National Recycling Coalition (NRC) Source Reduction Forum and INFORM, Inc., Purchasing Strategies to Prevent Waste and Save Money, 1999, 25.

3 David Saphire, Getting an “A” at Lunch, INFORM, Inc., 1998, 21.

4 NRC and INFORM, Purchasing Strategies, 26-27.

5 Personal communication, Eric Friedman, Environmental Purchasing Coordinator, Environmentally Preferable Products Procurement Program, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, April 2001.

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