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This content was published: March 10, 2017. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.

PCC tackles climate change head-on by purchasing green, reaps huge dividends

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PCC is on the forefront of green purchasing and is known nationally as one of the few colleges that is making serious efforts to reduce harmful emissions.

To serve nearly 78,000 students, PCC buys a wide variety of items, including copier paper, cleaning products, furniture and electronics. But these things can produce indirect emissions of greenhouse gases, which poses a significant challenge for the college’s Climate Action Plan and its mission to reduce its carbon footprint and “promote healthy, equitable systems.”

Portland Community College has been honored by APPA: Leadership in Education Facilities with the 2016 national Sustainability Award for community colleges.

Portland Community College has been honored by APPA: Leadership in Education Facilities with the 2016 national Sustainability Award for community colleges.

PCC has met the challenge head-on and in the process become a leader in the field of sustainable purchasing. In 2013, the college was invited to be a founding member of the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council, a national nonprofit that convenes buyers, suppliers and public interest advocates to develop programs that simplify and standardize sustainable purchasing. PCC is one of five schools and the nation’s only community college serving on the Founders Circle.

Sustainability Manager Briar Schoon said that much of the groundwork was laid earlier that year when PCC became one of the first colleges in the U.S. to complete an extensive greenhouse gas inventory. The inventory, which tracked back to 2006, revealed that the largest portion – about 60 percent – of PCC’s carbon footprint was caused by the supply chain of goods and services outside of the organization, everything from the energy burned in the transportation of paper towels to emissions produced when trash decomposes at a landfill.

“We have some aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets, and after doing this inventory it was pretty clear that we were not going to meet those reductions if we didn’t start looking at our purchasing habits,” said Schoon. “Other organizations that do similar types of inventories find that is the case for them, as well.”

Sustainable purchasing is part of PCC's Climate Action Plan.

Sustainable purchasing is part of PCC’s Climate Action Plan.

So PCC dug in and took what Schoon called a “holistic approach” to improve many facets of its system. Staff started by looking at PCC’s consumption of the products and services that heavily contribute to greenhouse gases. They also focused on categories – such as paper and electronics – that already had solid standards and protocols for sustainability in place.

“A big part of this is what I have started calling ‘preventative purchasing,’ thinking of the infrastructure that we put in and how we can reduce what we need to buy,” said Schoon. “Because the most sustainable purchasing is no purchasing. It saves greenhouse gas emissions and saves the college money. It’s a better stewardship of our resources.”

Students with the college’s student government offices were included in the conversation by helping to draft purchasing guidelines with a big focus on the events being held. The college also standardized requests for proposals and integrated the criteria that vendors will be graded on when they go out for bids.

“Facilities Management Services has really led this effort,” she added. “For example, it is increasing the sustainability requirements for custodial paper products to include a higher percentage of post-consumer recycled content. We are also looking at the supply chain of our vendors and telling them that we won’t purchase their super-sustainable paper line if they also carry lines made with clear-cut timber.”

Besides using healthy, fair trade products when possible and buying from minority- and women-owned firms and small businesses, the college has reduced emissions by nine percent since 2009.

Locally sourcing food from community gardens on campuses helps PCC meet its climate goals.

Locally sourcing food from community gardens on campuses helps PCC meet its climate goals.

Several changes contributed to this, including:

  • Cutting paper towel consumption by 60 percent thanks to electric hand dryers in restrooms.
  • Saving 170 gallons of conventional cleaner annually by switching to a toxin-free “aqueous ozone” cleaner.
  • Purchasing energy efficient computer products and appliances.
  • Installing water-fill stations, preventing consumption of more than two million plastic water bottles.
  • Improving indoor air quality with the elimination of flame-retardant fabrics.
  • Using recycled-content office supplies, which account for 27 percent of annual office purchases.
  • Working with Food Services to source local food options.

PCC’s commitment to the leading green building certification program (LEED) has also had an impact. The many new LEED-certified construction projects funded by the 2008 voter-approved bond measure helped minimize greenhouse emissions through sustainable practices like using recycled materials.

“Many organizations don’t even look at these emissions because they’re too difficult to tackle, but PCC is taking the challenge head-on,” said Schoon.

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x by katie henshaw 5 years ago

I like a lot of what I am reading but a few things caught my interest. We are cutting consumption of disposable paper towels by use of electric blow dryers in the bathrooms. What impact does the increased electricity have and what source does the electricity come from? How has this impacted disease prevention and sanitation? I hear from several students I interact with that they won’t use them because they do not trust that they will keep their hands clean, that they just blow the germs around. Where could we go to read the supporting documentation on them?

A similar question arises with the new cleaning chemicals. how do they rate with sanitation and disease control. As an in home caregiver, this is something I take seriously. Taking something home from school could have drastic effects on my clients.

x by Joshua Baker 5 years ago

While it is great to hear about all the measures that the college has taken to minimize it’s damaging impact on the environment, The Portland Community College system could to the most beneficial step towards ‘sustainability’, by offering more class options at the campuses located closer to the city center.
The incredible number of people, who by virtue of where they reside in relation to the Sylvania and Rock Creek campuses, need to drive to attend classes, stands in the way of the college implementing meaningful steps towards the goal of being recognized as a ‘Green’ institution. The lack of class options at both the Southeast and Cascade (although it is improving) campuses contribute to the high number of students who live in those areas but are resigned to driving to the Sylvania and Rock Creek locations to access classes or class times not provided at these more convenient locations.
This seems like an obvious goal to work towards in the effort to reduce impacts on climate change. However I have not previously seen it addressed in any of the instances that the schools sustainability efforts are mentioned.

x by Briar Schoon 5 years ago

Hi Katie,

Really good questions, and ones that PCC had to ask before making the switches.

Regarding the question about the environmental impacts of electric hand dryers:

Modern-day hand dryers, such as the Mitsubishi Jet Towels that we have installed, use far less energy and materials in comparison to paper towels — even paper towels made with recycled-content paper — and have much less of an environmental impact over the course of their use.

That is, the manufacturing, shipping, and regular use of a hand dryer uses less energy and resources than the ongoing manufacturing and shipping of paper towels and those paper towels’ packaging. (The difference is even greater if the paper towels are dispensed via a touch-free style towel dispenser.) The hand dryers also save money (they paid for themselves after 3 years), which helps us tackle other projects to better serve the college.

The difference in energy use is pretty sizable: The average embodied energy usage per single paper towel is 0.0097 kW. 10 seconds of a Mitsubishi Jet Towel uses 0.0001 kW of energy, which means that I would have to run one of these hand dryers for 16 hours and 10 minutes for me to match the energy use that goes into one paper towel.

There’s more that goes into paper towels than just energy, though. On average, one paper towel dispenser on campus would use up an amount of paper that is the equivalent of a tree that is 26 feet tall and 5.5″ around per month. Add up the number of paper towel dispensers that have been replaced, and we can start to see how intensive that is, even with our policy on recycled-content paper products. There’s also the need to dispose of all those single-use paper towels, which would ultimately be trucked out to our region’s landfill in Columbia Ridge, 150 miles east of Portland.

As for the second question about electric hand dryers’ safety:

The collective research demonstrates that properly washing our hands has waaaaay more to do with our exposure to germs — and whether we expose others to them — than the method we use for drying our hands. Making sure our hands are totally dry makes a big difference since that’s the easiest way to spread stuff, though, so let the hand dryer do its thing and wait until yoru hands are fully dry. There have been a number of studies on this topic, and I should note that it’s important to consider what the collective conclusion is.

(For the curious folks, the one exception in which the difference is worth considering is in a clinical facility, such as a hospital, where the extremely heightened level of pathogens and bacteria, coupled with patients’ extremely compromised immune systems, makes paper towels the safer bet.)

I’ll keep the info about our cleaning system much briefer:

The lotus PRO’s ozone cleaning system is an extremely effective cleaner — more effective and faster-acting than bleach — and it’s much safer for people and the ecosystem by avoiding the heavy use of toxic chemicals. The ozone-infused water used for cleaning eventually reverts back to just water and oxygen. It has been tested by multiple third-party labs that have verified its antimicrobial effectiveness as a cleaner and sanitizer. It’s used in many health care facilities, schools, hotels, and businesses around the world, and we’re proud to use it here. It’s essentially a win-win: It’s better at killing germs, and it doesn’t present problems for indoor-air quality or water quality. Not only that, but it prevents us purchasing, shipping and disposing of containers from 170 gallons of cleaner annually – which results in a big reduction in scope III-related emissions like purchasing and waste.

The health of everyone who comes to our campuses to study, work, or simply visit is extremely important to us, and we won’t compromise that. Both electric hand dryers and the lotus PRO system are safe, environmentally preferable to other options, and save the school money in the long-run.

Feel free to email if you’d like to chat more. I am unable to link or provide attachments here.