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PCC tackles climate change head-on by purchasing green, reaps huge dividends
Photos and Story by Katherine Miller
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.”
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.”
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.
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.