Phasing PVC Out of NYC Purchasing: Lessons in Persistence
“Section 7 – Dioxin Reduction. Product: Paper Products. Standard: Process-chlorine free”
–Proposed Environmentally Preferable Purchasing rule, Mayor’s office of the City of New York, Feb. 27, 2012
“Environmental, Public Health, Labor Groups Call on Bloomberg Administration to Phase Out Toxic PVC Plastic, a Major Source of Dioxin.”
–CHEJ Press Release after March 29, 2012, public hearing
When we read the standard above, we knew that we had a lot of work ahead of us. To the public, the standard would seem like a positive environmental step, eliminating the purchase of chlorinated paper that produces toxic chemicals when burned. To CHEJ and our allies, it meant that more than seven years of work to phase polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic out of NYC purchasing was in danger of being thrown under the bus. So once again, on March 29th, we rallied the troops, this time for a public hearing before the Bloomberg Administration.
Greening the Big Apple
NYC agencies spend billions of dollars a year on goods, construction and services, which can have a huge impact on the environment. In 2005, CHEJ worked closely with members of the NYC City Council to help pass the “Environmentally Preferable Purchasing” (EPP) laws, which set standards for energy and water efficiency, “green” cleaning products, and recycled content in goods and construction materials bought by City agencies. Importantly, the laws also addressed hazardous substances associated with products purchased by the City, including a requirement that:
“By January 1, 2008, the director shall promulgate rules to reduce the City’s purchase or lease of materials whose combustion may lead to the formation of dioxin or dioxin-like compounds.”
This was a huge victory.
Dioxins, some of the most toxic chemicals on the planet, are associated with birth defects, developmental disorders, and cancer. They’re formed primarily when materials like PVC plastic containing chlorine are burned.
Chlorine, PVC and Dioxin – the Connection
As one of the largest sources of dioxin in the world, PVC consumes about 40% of all the chlorine produced worldwide. The plastic itself, which is found in many products purchased by City agencies, including flooring, siding, office supplies, carpeting, and electronics, contains and releases chemicals associated with asthma, learning disabilities, and other chronic diseases on the rise. When PVC burns in building fires it turns into hydrochloric acid, and has been linked to respiratory problems and cancer risks for first responders. The City Council legislators who drafted the dioxin provisions of the EPP laws did so with the intention of phasing PVC products out of City purchasing, as documented in the voting report discussing the legislation.
NYC: A Huge Opportunity
By January 1st, 2008, the City had missed their deadline for producing the dioxin-reduction rules.
In response to the missed deadline, we wrote letters to the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services (MOCS) signed by over 20 diverse organizations and experts, calling for the dioxin rules to be released, and for green purchasing provisions to address PVC. We called, emailed, and met with officials; more recently we gave testimony at a City Council oversight hearing. We made clear that safer and cost effective PVC-free alternatives are readily available on the market, and that companies such as Google, Apple, Target, Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and Microsoft all have policies to reduce or phase out the purchase of PVC.
Over four years late, in February of 2012, MOCS finally issued the draft rules, and announced a 30-day public comment period, culminating in a public hearing on March 29, 2012. We at CHEJ read the dioxin provision with great disappointment:
“Section 7 – Dioxin Reduction. Product: Paper Products. Standard: Process-chlorine free.”
MOCS was trying to meet the dioxin requirements solely by reducing the chlorine content of their paper products, ignoring PVC entirely.
On the positive side, while the proposed purchasing regulations did not address PVC, we learned that the City has already begun to make progress in reducing NYC’s purchase of PVC products. The City is working with Staples, NYC’s sole office supply vendor, to identify and purchase PVC-free office supplies. It has issued bids for a large new citywide carpeting contract that requires all carpeting to be completely PVC-free. And City purchasers are already selecting computers off of State contracts that have PVC-free requirements.
These are positive steps, and they should be codified in the proposed regulations. Including PVC in the rules themselves would not only meet the documented intent of the law, it would also ensure that future mayoral administrations will be bound by the same rules, and make NYC a national leader in safe, green purchasing.
Firefighters, Teachers, Doctors Speak Out
During the 30-day public comment period and at the March 29th hearing, CHEJ and more than 35 organizations and experts submitted testimony, including environmental health and justice groups, experts in children’s health and brain development, teachers and firefighters unions, and green businesspeople and architects. 100 citizen activists signed a letter, and City Councilman Robert Jackson sent a letter of support. Below are some key quotations from the hearing, and you can find more in the press release.
Captain Alexander Hagan, President of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association (UFOA), said, “Fire Officers take an oath to ‘protect the lives and property of the citizens of New York City’ and there is an ongoing interest to the public if laws regarding the purchasing and use of PVC products by the City are not being complied with. PVC is among the most serious dangers to humans and the environment when it is burned. … From a fire perspective, we urge compliance of the City to ensure an environmentally friendly purchasing process.”
Stephen Boese, Executive Director of the Learning Disabilities Association of New York State, said, “As advocates for persons with learning disabilities and related impairments, the Learning Disabilities Association of New York State supports initiatives that prevent disability. We therefore urge that the City of New York assure that its purchasing policies exclude products with harmful plastics like PVC that release dioxin, wherever feasible, and protect the health and well-being of City workers, those in the care of City programs, and all other City residents.”
Looking to the Future
If we succeed in getting PVC-reduction written into the rules, they will be among the first, if not the first, binding PVC-specific city-level purchasing regulations in the country, impacting the largest city in the United States, which spends approximately $17 billion annually on goods and services.
Let’s hope Mayor Bloomberg recognizes this opportunity to lead the country into a safer, greener future.
Contact Daniel at DGradess at a domain called chej dot org