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|#803 -- Precautionary Mister Rogers, Part 2*, October 28, 2004|
In this "Precautionary Mister Rogers" series, we are exploring how the precautionary principle can work at the local level.
As mentioned in the last newsletter some of these ideas have been tried in the real world and some of them are half-baked.
Last week we began exploring two of the many approaches that are being used now -- the precautionary principle as an overarching guide to municipal or county policy, and precaution as a guide to municipal or county purchasing.
As Rachel's readers know, in the U.S., it was San Francisco that pioneered precaution as an overarching philosophy for guiding local government policy. In response to the first article in this "Precautionary Mister Rogers" series (Rachel's #802), we received an E-mail from Parin Shah, who was President of the San Francisco Commission on the Environment during the time when the precautionary approach was being worked out. The E-mail said simply, "The overarching principle that is of paramount importance in the discussion about implementing the PP [precautionary principle] is: Is this action necessary? When we break down 'action' to this level it opens up the options in a way that allows for a genuine alternatives analysis."
Is this action necessary? What a profound question. Try this yourself: In thinking about any activity that has the potential to harm the environment or human health (or your community), ask yourself, "Is this action necessary?" And, "Does it have to be this way?" These questions naturally lead to asking, "What are the alternatives?" Think what a different world it could be if everyone asked these questions routinely.
** In Seattle, a Precautionary Principle Working Group has proposed the precautionary principle as an overarching guide. The Working Group submitted a white paper to the city and surrounding King County, urging that they both modify their comprehensive plans to incorporate a precautionary perspective. (See http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=483.) The Working Group includes groups of doctors and nurses, a financial investment group, the powerful Washington Toxics Coalition (http://www.watoxics.org), the American Lung Association, advocates for children's health, the Asia Pacific Environmental Exchange (http://www.a-p-e-x.org/), and others. A toxicologist associated with the group, Steven G. Gilbert, has additionally proposed that the city and county incorporate new health goals into their comprehensive plans, specifically goals for reducing asthma, diabetes, and obesity in coming years. The goals would naturally be accompanied by indicators of progress toward the goals that local authorities would measure and publish each year. (See http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=484.) In the next part of this series (Rachel's #804), we'll discuss indicators.
Purchasing policies are an easy place for local governments to start taking precautionary action. They can look at their supplies and ask "are we buying the least harmful product?" For example, if a government agency asked, "What is the least harmful paper we can buy?" and then thought about the paper from cradle-to-grave they would consider options such as tree-free paper (example: kenaf -- see Rachel's #468), paper that isn't bleached with chlorine, and paper from post-consumer recycled stock. These sorts of questions could be asked for every product a government buys. Because governments buy so many supplies and services, they could leverage their purchasing power and push for least harmful alternatives and bring down the cost of these alternatives for other governments and for the average consumer. For example, if governments asked precautionary questions and ended up purchasing hybrid (electric-gas) vehicles, U.S. car makers would develop more models of hybrid vehicles. They would also develop better vehicles (using less fuel) and find ways to reduce emissions in the cradle-to-grave product lifecycle. Here is an example of local government precautionary purchasing policies:
** The 90 member groups of the Citizens' Environmental Coalition (http://cectoxic.home.igc.org/) in western New York are urging the city of Buffalo to adopt a purchasing policy that makes a best effort to eliminate products involving persistent, bioaccumulative toxics. Surrounding Erie County, N.Y., has already adopted an environmental purchasing policy. See http://www.erie.gov/environment/compliance/ pollution_epp.asp. The proposed Buffalo resolution can be found at http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=485.
** But governments are not the only entities that are adopting precautionary policies. A few corporations are taking precautionary action as well. In June, Samsung, the Korean electronics giant, announced a policy of phasing out the use of toxic materials, "as our way of embracing the precautionary principle." (See http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=486.)
Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), the pharmaceutical manufacturer, has at least partially embraced the precautionary principle in its research and production. "Scientific uncertainty alone should not preclude efforts to address serious environmental, health, and safety threats," says BMS on its web site. The firm has developed a "greenness" index for new products and is constantly striving toward a higher index score, according to its web site. Furthermore, BMS says it is looking for ways to keep pharmaceutical products and byproducts from entering the general environment. See http://www.bms.com/static/ehs/manage/data/polici.html#precautionary.
Consorta, one of the health-care industry's largest cooperative group-purchasing organizations, serves faith-based and not-for-profit health-care providers. Consorta has adopted an "environmentally preferable purchasing" policy. Specific elements in the policy target latex, mercury, certain phthalates, PVC ("vinyl") plastic, waste minimization, incineration, pesticides, and pollution prevention. Although the word "precautionary" does not appear on Consorta's web site, it is clear that precautionary thinking is motivating Consorta's management. http://www.consorta.com/wings/resource_mgmt/epp/ .
Kaiser Permanente, a non-profit health-care provider with 8.1 million members in 9 states, is in the process of adopting a precautionary policy for pest management at all its facilities (see http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=487 ). This involves least-harm purchasing, but also least-harm management. It seems likely that Kaiser Permanente will develop other precautionary policies to guide its health-care business.
PRECAUTIONARY LOCAL PURCHASING PREFERENCES
Precaution can also work at the local level to protect the local economy by giving preference to purchases from local businesses. The New Rules project of the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR) offers many examples of community policies aimed at strengthening the local economy, starting with policies that favor government purchase of goods and services provided locally. See http://www.newrules.org/retail/purchasing.html .
"When making procurement decisions, many cities and states give preference to local businesses as a means to nurture small businesses and local economies. Some of these jurisdictions give a local preference only in the case of tie bids, but others give preference if a bid from a local business is within a certain percentage of the lowest non-local bid. Washington D.C., for example, by administrative practice gives a five percent preference to local firms. More than two dozen cities and a handful of states have such laws. Internationally, the Government of Western Australia has a Buy Local policy."
The New Rules Project provides these examples:
** The city of Albuquerque, New Mexico provides a preference to local manufacturers, local businesses, resident manufacturers, and resident businesses. A local business is given up to a five percent credit in evaluating bids for goods and services. In other words, a local firm can bid as much as 5% higher than out-of-town competitors and still be considered a best buy.
** Columbus. Ohio gives a five percent preference if the government's purchase is under $10,000, and a one percent preference if the purchase is over $10,000. The buy-local preference credit is limited to $10,000.
** In Ketchikan, Alaska, unless contrary to federal or state law or regulation, a contract or purchase of less than $200,000 for supplies, materials, equipment or contractual services is awarded to a local bidder. The bid by such local bidder cannot exceed the lowest responsible non-local bid by more than 10% for $100,000 or less, and 7% of the non-local bid between $100,000 to $200,000.
** In Alaska procurement officers award a contract based on solicited bids to the lowest responsive and responsible bidder after an Alaska bidder preference of five percent. "Alaska bidder" means a person who (1) holds a current Alaska business license; (2) submits a bid for goods, services, or construction under the name that appears on the person's current Alaska business license; (3) has maintained a place of business within the state staffed by the bidder or an employee of the bidder for a period of six months immediately preceding the date of the bid; (4) is incorporated or qualified to do business under the laws of the state, is a sole proprietorship and the proprietor is a resident of the state, or is a partnership and all partners are residents of the state.
** The Government of Western Australia's State Supply Commission Act of 1991 set up a State Supply Commission with the authority to draft and implement supply policies for the region. The Commission set about creating a Buy Wisely program. Two of the Buy Wisely policies are "Supporting Local Industry" and "Value for Money": the purpose is to get the best possible outcome for every dollar spent by assessing the costs and benefits to government and the community, rather than selecting the lowest purchase price.
The New Rules Project offers many innovative local policies to protect local economies; we only have space to list the categories here, but we urge you to explore the New Rules web site: Community Impact Review, Comprehensive Plans, Development Moratoria, Formula Business Restrictions, Neighborhood-Serving Zones, and Store Size Caps.
The New Rules Project also offers information on regional policies intended to protect local economies: Regional Impact Review, Tax-Base Sharing, Corporate Income Tax Reform, Curbing Corporate Welfare, Internet Sales Tax Fairness, Limiting Vertical Integration, Pharmacy Equity Laws, and Protecting Franchisees.
PRECAUTIONARY CONTRACT BIDDING
We have been told (but have not been able to confirm) that some Italian government agencies are using a precautionary policy for seeking bids on government contracts. When bids come in, the most expensive bid is excluded because it is assumed to be padded. Then, making a precautionary assumption, the cheapest bid is discarded because it is assumed to be cutting corners, which could lead to trouble in the future. Then the remaining bids are averaged, and the contract is awarded to whoever's bid came in closest to the average. This process allows local bidders to have a better chance of getting a contract. Often local bidders are smaller companies who pay higher wages and have higher expenses and cannot compete with large "outside" firms that have lower expenses.
ZERO WASTE POLICIES
Discarded materials aren't waste until you waste them. The Zero Waste movement is blossoming worldwide -- especially in New Zealand and Australia -- with the slogan, "Zero Waste, or Darn Near." The idea is simple: almost nothing need ever be wasted if we use our heads. What we have traditionally considered "waste" is usually really a resource that should be re-used in one form or another. That's how nature does it -- there is no such thing as "waste" in nature.
In 1976, Eco-Cycle, a small non-profit group, started a curbside recycling program in Boulder County, Colorado. Today Eco- Cycle is one of the U.S.'s largest non-profit recyclers accepting all types of paper, glass, plastic, and metal (see http://www.ecocycle.org/newsletters/pdfs/2004spring_summer_pull out.pdf ). They also run a hard-to-recycle center where they accept a variety of larger products including televisions, all types of hand-held electronic devices, cell phones, hard cover books, photocopying machines, and computers (see http://www.ecocycle.org/charm/index.cfm ). Recently they began a composting service for businesses; they collect food waste, plant waste and non-recyclable paper products from businesses in the City of Boulder. Eco-Cycle has plans to expand this program throughout Boulder and surrounding Broomfield County (see http://www.ecocycle.org/atwork/composting.cfm ).
Eco-Cycle is an excellent example of how a community can work towards Zero Waste. Here are a series of web sites where you can learn about the burgeoning "zero waste" movement. It started as a movement of municipal recycling officials who were dissatisfied with the target set by many governments -- to recycle 25% or even 50% of solid waste by a certain date. They knew much higher target percentages were possible. Now the "zero waste" movement has grown beyond municipal recyclers and has become a kind of global environmental movement all its own, often quite separate from the traditional environmental movement. They don't necessarily use the language of precaution, but instead of throwing discards into a hole in the ground, or into an incinerator, they are asking the fundamental precautionary questions, "Is this action necessary," "Does it have to be this way?" and then, "What are the alternatives?" It turns out that the alternative to landfills and incinerators is "zero waste or darn near" and it actually works. Find more information here:
As Ecocycle in Boulder Colorado, says, "Zero Waste is a new way of looking at our waste stream. Instead of seeing used materials as garbage in need of disposal, discards are seen as valuable resources. A pile of 'trash' represents jobs, financial opportunity, and raw material for new products."
Ecocycle defines landfills in the past tense: "A hole in the ground where valuable resources were needlessly buried."
[To be continued.]
* This series is a collaborative effort of Peter Montague and Maria B. Pellerano of Environmental Research Foundation, and Carolyn Raffensperger and Nancy J. Myers of the Science and Environmental Health Network (www.sehn.org). Any errors or lapses in this installment are Pellerano's alone.