Life Cycle Considerations: Environmentally Preferable Purchasing

In addition to providing economic benefits, recycling offers environmental benefits. By reducing our reliance on virgin materials, recycling reduces pollution, saves energy, mitigates global climate change, and reduces pressures on biodiversity. Recycling’s environmental benefits are found at every stage of the life cycle of a consumer product, from the mining of the raw material, through its manufacture, use, and final disposal.


Life cycle assessment (LCA) is one tool increasingly used to organize the comprehensive analysis of environmental impacts across a product’s entire life cycle, “from cradle to grave.” LCA is an imperfect and evolving tool, still lacking a standard methodology and dependent on data that is imprecise at best, unavailable at worst. But even without a commitment to a formal life cycle analysis program, your organization can still apply life cycle thinking to its design, purchasing, and operations decisions.

You can start by examining your most significant inputs (energy, water, raw materials, equipment, supplies, finished goods); outputs (products, product use, and non-product outputs); and processes (focusing first on those with the largest inputs or outputs). For each, consider the direct impacts of your actions, and then move “upstream” and “downstream” to look at the impact of the actions of the companies you do business with, and further to the companies they do business with, and the companies they do business with and so on. Consider the choices your organization can make that can improve profitability, reduce environmental impacts, and increase resilience for both your organization and for the rest of your food chain.

A product or service has environmental impacts throughout its life cycle—both long before and long after it is purchased and used. A product’s life cycle includes activities associated with raw material acquisition, product manufacturing, packaging and transportation, product use, and ultimate disposal.


Let’s examine some of the environmental attributes associated with each stage in the life cycle of paper, a product that all government agencies purchase in large volumes.

Paper can be manufactured from trees, paper collected from recycling programs, rapidly renewable trees like bamboo, or from tree-free alternatives such as kenaf or agricultural waste materials which are known as residues. Each of these raw materials has a different environmental impact on water consumption, pesticide use, and transportation issues.

Chlorine has traditionally been used in the bleaching process to make pure white paper, but chlorine use results in the release of small, yet potent amounts of dioxins and furans, which are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic substances. Using an alternative bleaching agent, such as hydrogen peroxide, can help to minimize paper’s environmental impact.

Photocopy paper is frequently packaged in reams of 500 sheets. The paper packaging around each ream can be made of either recyclable material or nonrecyclable material. Obviously, recyclable material is preferable to material that must be disposed. Materials that are “secondary” or post-industrial are preconsumer recycled. Materials that are “postconsumer” are recycled after it has been utilized by the consumer.

During the use phase, individuals can use a single side of the paper or both sides. You will use less paper and save both money and natural resources by using both sides of the page. The use of electronic systems (e-mail and e-faxes) can also contribute to using less paper. Many things effect the recycling of office paper: packaging, quality of the paper, the type of printer or machinery being used, the office culture (does each worker have their own printer or do you share with many other workers, therefore printing fewer documents), pricing, and availability of the vendor also may be of issue.

Recyclability—meaning the ability to be recycled—is an important issue during the disposal phase. Not all paper types are recyclable in every community. Purchasing recyclable paper has a different environmental impact than purchasing nonrecyclable paper. Similarly, recycling waste paper or discarding it has different environmental impacts. Using recyclable paper, then recycling it instead of throwing it away, is preferable to many of the alternatives.

As you can see, opportunities exist to reduce environmental impacts throughout each phase of the life cycle. Although we are not always able to completely eliminate each life cycle stage’s environmental impacts for every product or service, we do need to understand and minimize as many of these impacts as we can through our purchasing decision. Most people examine only the use and disposal phases, but as our paper example illustrates, other life cycle stages are just as important, if not more so. Even if you choose to recycle, that process has environmental impacts you may need to consider.

You might be asking, “How do I know what environmental impacts are caused during each of the lifecycle stages?” or “How do I know which of the environmental impacts are most important to minimize?” These are important questions. The answers depend on the kind of product or service you are purchasing, as well as that your organization has established environmental priorities.

To help answer these types of questions for purchasers, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, with funding from U.S. EPA and other federal agencies, developed a lifecycle-based decision support tool called BEES, which stands for Building for Economic and Environmental Sustainability. With BEES you can set your own environmental priorities or rely on priorities other experts have established to make preferability determinations.

Alternatively, you can contact nongovernmental organizations such as Green Seal, Scientific Certification Systems, or other organizations and contractors specializing in environmental purchasing. They can help you evaluate the environmental impacts of a potential purchase.

A product’s environmental attributes can serve as a measure of its overall environmental impacts. Comparing environmental attributes such as recycled content, energy efficiency, or reduced toxicity is a good way of comparing the environmental impacts of competing products.

Although environmental preferability should be based on multiple environmental attributes examined from a lifecycle perspective, purchasing decisions can be made based on a single environmental attribute, such as recycled content or energy efficiency, when that attribute is the strongest distinguishing characteristic of a product’s or service’s environmental preferability. For example, it might be determined through a lifecycle-based analysis that a washing machine’s greatest environmental impact occurs during the use phase. Thus, an environmentally preferable purchasing decision can be based solely on the energy and water efficiency levels.

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