The Key Sustainable Products Initiative

Is your bathroom tissue squeezably soft? Does your soap leave your hands germ-free? Advertisers lie awake at night worrying about whether consumers are worrying sufficiently about such things. And as for the federal government—well, officials there have been worrying that suppliers and agency managers haven’t been paying quite enough attention to the environment, whence a set of guidelines that has recently come online governing procurements ranging from flooring and insulation materials to hand soap to the little paper liners on top of cafeteria trays.

As a result, as of late in FY15, new regulations are online by way of the Public Buildings Service (PBS) of the General Services Administration (GSA) covering what are called “Key Sustainable Products.” These are defined as the materials and products used in the construction and operation of buildings—and in particular, buildings owned and leased by the federal government.

The product of several related policy and executive orders (particularly EO 13693 Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade, signed by President Obama on March 19, 2015), the KSP initiative holds that these products and materials are as important as energy use and waste management in the overall “green” operation of federal properties, and it requires that all federal organizations and employees under PBS jurisdiction, as well as contractors, follow guidelines found in the online Green Procurement Compilation. Key sustainable products are defined as those that PBS uses most frequently and for which it (or other agencies, such as the EPA) has developed environmental standards. Among the products listed are nylon carpet, acoustical ceiling tiles, concrete, floor cleaner, interior latex paint, paper towels, and wastebasket liners, along with the aforementioned hand soap, bathroom tissue, and tray liners.

For example, acoustical ceiling tiles in new construction projects must meet California section 01350 standards for low-VOC (volatile organic compound) materials—and not just that, but they must also be at least 20 percent recycled content, be recyclable themselves, and meet USDA Certified BioPreferred guidelines. Bathroom tissue must be at least 25 percent postconsumer recycled content, while concrete must be greater than 25 percent fly ash, a waste product of coal firing, or greater than 15 percent ground granulated blast-furnace slag. And as for carpeting, in the language of one regulatory document: “Face yarn must be 100 percent nylon fiber. Loop Pile shall be 100 percent Bulk Continuous Filament (BCF); cut and loop shall be 100 percent BCF for the loop portion and may be BCF or staple for the cut portion; cut pile carpet shall be staple or BCF.”

There’s some inconsistency built into the standards as they are now set. For example, vendors and suppliers are being actively solicited to provide a range of products, adding to the roster of existing contractors and supply lines. As the GSA notes, almost all the listed products are available at prices less than or equal to their non-sustainable counterparts, conforming to government policies otherwise mandating cost saving. At the moment, though, lessors are not bound by the standards set for wastebasket liners, since products have not yet come onto the market that meet both the environmental and the cost-effectiveness requirements.

General contractors, janitorial-services providers, office-supplies sales personnel, property holders and lessors—the KSP initiative affects a wide range of people and agencies. How thoroughly they comply with the new guidelines remains to be seen—and it will be seen, since the GSA has also instituted a program of audits and “green lease clause” tracking instruments.

For those of you who have been actively leasing over the last couple of months, you may have noticed new lease clauses relating to this policy. We believe GSA’s sustainability policies will continue to evolve, especially as there are other initiatives underway.

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