BCSPI Purchasing Power: How can procurement help reduce hazardous chemicals?

May 26th, 2023

British Columbia Social Procurement Initiative (BCSPI) brings together local governments and institutions to develop and grow social procurement policies and practices. BCSPI is supported by Buy Social Canada, Scale Collaborative, and Vancouver Island Construction Association.

British Columbia Social Procurement Initiative (BCSPI) hosted the final event in the 2-2022-2023 “Purchasing Power” series titled “How can procurement help reduce hazardous chemicals?”

We spoke with leaders Mathew Coady, an environmental scientist with SLR Consulting (Canada), Darrin B Derosia, Deputy Counsel for the New York State Office of General Services, and Brendan Woodruff, the Director of Sustainability at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Our conversation focused on the key contributors to hazardous chemicals in our environments, how public purchasers can use procurement policy and guidelines to minimize chemicals at the source, and what we can learn from the New York State case study.

Here are the high-level takeaways:

Why this is happening

Mathew Coady identified that a major source of hazardous chemicals entering our environments is municipal wastewater. “Wastewater treatment plants aren’t designed to deal with all the chemicals we put in them,” he says, and these “forever chemicals” are making their way into oceans and rivers.

While Coady acknowledges that there are options for solutions to add in treatment plants, they’re very expensive, so treating the problem upstream and preventing these chemicals from entering the wastewater at all is more valuable.

The top culprits

Some of the worst chemicals entering our environments are designated as PFAs, which are used in a wide range of products including fire retardants, paints, solvents, cleaning products, and home and workplace textiles.

Sustainable procurement becomes important when addressing these top hazardous chemicals, because “we don’t have time for remediation” before irreversible environmental damage is done, says Coady. Using sustainable procurement to reduce the goods we buy that contain hazardous chemicals is a clear way public purchasers can have a positive impact and support their local ecosystems.

British Columbians have seen the harm these chemicals can cause already. A recent CBC article highlighted the impacts of PFAs on the local population of already-endangered orcas, also called killer whales, which is a warning that it’s impacting the entire food chain.

Learning from New York State:

When planning this discussion, it became clear that one of the best examples of how to use social and sustainable procurement to reduce hazardous chemicals was New York State.


Since 2008, New York State’s Office of General Services (OGS) has had a GreenNY Council supporting design and implementation of green practices in State purchasing and operations. In 2022, this program was further strengthened by State Executive Order No. 22: Leading by Example: Directing State Agencies to Adopt a Sustainability and Decarbonization Program.

Through the GreenNY program, OGS Procurement Services have developed a list of over 75 approved specifications for products which limit or eliminate hazardous chemicals from their components, along with online resources including tip sheets, case studies and more – all open-source and free to access.

Sharing the knowledge

In addition to State policy, Brendan Woodruff leads the Green Purchasing Communities initiative, which supports local governments in New York State to update their local policies in line with what the State is doing, taking advantage of the “heavy lifting” of the State’s research and identification of green products and guidelines.

The program delivers an “easy to administer green procurement program” for local governments in New York, which automatically updates any specifications and guidelines as they are developed by the State.

Seeing the impact

Brendan Woodruff is optimistic about what the Green Purchasing Communities program can do in the state: “It increases the purchasing power of New York. The State already spends $7 billion per year, but adding municipalities lets us speak with a much larger voice and accelerate the development of sustainable products.”

Woodruff adds that “the market listens,” and the State is using its “purchasing power to accelerate that market shift for everybody, we also want consumers to have access to these products.”

Darrin B. Derosia also sees that while positive impacts are increasing, “costs are staying the same or have decreased” as a result of purchasing green products.

Related to cost, Woodruff believes these changes may decrease remediation costs in the State, although there have not been any studies to verify this at present.

“If we can lead the way and make change in community as well, over time we should be able to reduce the costs of remediation.”

Applying the learnings:

Derosia recommends not only relying on internal experts when looking to design or update social and sustainable procurement policies. He suggests that purchasers reach out to associations and non-profits working in this area, and to speak with industry representatives about what they’re seeing is possible.

“They’re going to comment [on your plan] anyway, it’s always best to bring them in and work with them.” – Darrin B. Derosia

Other best practice advice includes tailoring the approach to the right scale and focus, and looking for other programs and third party certifications to rely on as a place to get started, such as Green Seal and EnerStar.

Brendan and Mathew emphasize the importance of collaboration, and sharing work within a region – like BCSPI – or even internationally.  

“These learnings really translate government to government.”

Brendan Woodruff

The BC Context

Mathew Coady acknowledges that there’s some groups that are much more advanced in this process than in British Columbia and Western Canada as a whole. Those groups have had successes with phasing out hazardous substances.

As Brendan alluded to, however, Mathew is also conscious that there are “certainly some challenges for smaller municipalities or towns, and for us to scale up and have greater success we need to work towards collaboration and sharing the information that we’re learning.”

One possible solution would be to create a single destination for guidance and resources in the province, similar to what’s been established in New York and elsewhere.

Ultimately though, it’s about right-sizing efforts to match capacity.

“We can start smaller and scale up,” says Mathew.

Three concrete actions to take now:

  • Darrin: “Use third party certifications to find better products.”
  • Brendan: “Start the conversation internally with fellow purchasers and political leadership, let them know what’s possible and the costs we’re having to deal with. Put this on the agenda.”
  • Mathew: “Make yourself aware and try not to feel overly daunted. Others have already invented this wheel, follow their lead.”

Watch the full recording to learn more:

Please contact Rob Fisher at rfisher@scalecollaborative.ca to find out more about becoming a BCSPI member, and sign up for the BCSPI newsletter to stay up to date on procurement news, events and offerings.

For your reference and continued learning, here are the resources and links shared during the event:

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