In the early 1990s when the green cleaning movement began, the focus was to “green” the chemicals used by custodians. This was the logical place to start considering the level of exposures and risk to custodian and occupant health. It began by simply focusing on single claims such as biodegradable or fragrance-free.
In 1993, Presidential Executive Order 12873 defined “green” products as those that reduced health and environmental impacts compared with similar products used for the same purpose. Furthermore, the definition stated that the comparison should consider the entire life cycle, from extraction of basic raw materials to the product’s ultimate disposal.
The two main takeaways were defining green as a comparison, as opposed to listing some as “good” and others “bad.” Second, it made it clear that focusing on a single attribute wasn’t enough.
After 20 years, the cleaning industry has done a great job. Today, almost every chemical manufacturer, product distributor and service provider offers an option for high-performing and cost-effective green chemicals. So now it is time to apply the same thinking to sanitary paper products such as paper hand towels and toilet tissue, as well as plastic trash can liners.
These products may not appear as harmful compared with a caustic floor stripper or acidic bowl cleaner, but the extraction, production and disposal of these products have significant environmental and health implications. For example, the virgin pulp and paper industry contributes to deforestation, habitat destruction, water and air pollution, and is one of the top industrial emitters to global warming pollution.
Just as in the early days of greening chemicals, today many continue to define green paper and liners using only a single attribute (recycled content), even though the Environmental Paper Network, Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups list many more suggestions. There is no questioning the importance of recycling, but isn’t it time to consider these other attributes?
For example, when defining “green” paper, should consideration be given to the fiber that came from virgin sources? After all, EPA’s Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines (CPG) only require 40 percent post-consumer recycled content in paper hand towels and only 20 percent post-consumer recycled content in toilet tissue.
Should consideration include forestry management? Does it matter if the trees came from an old-growth forest, habitat for rare or endangered species, harvested in a way that caused land degradation, negatively affected local communities, illegally logged or other considerations? Should consideration be given to how the paper is manufactured or whitened? How does product performance (i.e., softness and absorption) and cost affect these considerations?
As for plastic can liners, EPA’s CPG requires only 10 percent post-consumer recycled content. But are there other attributes that matter? Does it matter if the bag is too large for the container, thicker than necessary, or so thin that it requires double-bagging as not to rip or leak? These common practices waste resources and money.
And just as cleaning chemicals where different standards were developed for a variety of product applications, should consideration be given to the specific use of the bags? The most important attribute for a trash bag could be recycled content, but what about a bag used for food waste that could be composted? What about a grocery store bag that far too often ends up on the side of a road or in a waterway? Should such a “green” plastic bag be degradable?
Schools and universities can take some easy first steps to further the greening of these products. Remember to ask suppliers the important questions. Just as there have been remarkable advances with cleaning chemicals, improvements can certainly be made with sanitary paper products and plastic bags.