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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Paper Oaths

Air Date: Week of

In 1993, the Clinton Administration ambitiously declared it would make the federal government a major purchaser of environmentally-friendly products, including recycled paper. Considering that the federal government is the nation's largest user of paper, the move was expected to boost the recycled products market. But as James Jones reports, although President Clinton signed an executive order two years ago requiring the Adminstration to use recycled paper, the President's own stationery still comes from 100 percent virgin stock.


CURWOOD: In 1993 the Clinton Administration ambitiously declared it would make the Federal Government a major purchaser of environmentally friendly products, including recycled paper. Considering that the Federal Government is the nation's largest user of paper, the move was expected to boost the recycled products market. But as James Jones reports, old habits die hard, even for those at the top.

GORE: With this executive order, Federal purchase of printing and writing paper -- all Federal purchase of printing and writing paper -- must contain at least 20% recycled material by the end of next year.

JONES: That's Vice President Al Gore unveiling the Administration's recycling order in 1993. Executive Order 12873 requires that all paper products bought by the government, from stationery and copy paper to paper towels, even toilet paper, contain at least 20% post-consumer recycled fiber.

(Paper being pulled through a copier)

JONES: The paper in this copying machine at the President's Council on Environmental Quality complies with the order. It turns out sheets that contain 25% recycled fiber. But most other government agencies aren't doing nearly as well, as Lisa Culver of the watchdog group Government Purchasing Project recently discovered.

CULVER: The reaction of our group when we found out that more than 80% of the copy paper that the Federal Government purchases, for example, does not comply with its own Executive Order, was one of I guess amazement. And a number of us had thought that this was just being followed.

JONES: So Culver and 200 other groups took their newfound concern to President Clinton. They asked him to instruct government supply agencies to sell only paper that complies with his own recycling order. The response they received on the President's personal stationery promised full compliance. But on closer examination, Culver says it also added insult to injury.

CULVER: I noticed, by shining the paper in the light, that it said 100% cotton. And there was no recycling logo on it, there was nothing printed at the bottom saying "printed on recycled paper." And I thought that if the President was fully committed to this issue, that the paper that he uses every day, that he puts his pen to, should comply.

JONES: White House staff admit that the President's stationery contains no post-consumer recycled paper. But they pleaded mercy, saying no one makes recycled content paper that meets the archive's quality standards required by the Oval Office. After all, we're talking about paper history is being recorded on. The President, staff say, was technically in compliance with the order. Kathleen McGinty, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, admits to the oversight.

McGINTY: We realize that there was a glitch in the market.

JONES: So McGinty says the White House went in search of someone who could supply the stationery it needed.

McGINTY: We now have a major paper manufacturer in the United States who will supply to us this tree-free paper that in fact will have 20% post-consumer content. And we are hopeful that even in the next few weeks or a month, we will be able to begin procuring that paper.

JONES: McGinty adds that over 65% of all the paper products used by the government now comply with the order. That's up from 40% in 1992. Also, at the urging of the White House, the Defense Department, which accounts for half of all the paper the government uses, recently directed the General Services Administration to only supply it with 20% post-consumer paper. These measures to comply with the President's recycling order may seem like small steps, but they are strongly supported by environmental groups and industry. They hope the Federal Government's vast purchasing power will breathe new life into what today is a sluggish paper recycling market. Emily Wiggins with the environmental publishing group Earth Island Press.

WIGGINS: I believe that the Federal Government, if it sets its own mandates and it practices what it preaches, is going to be able to do this and really, really jump start a revolution. A forest saving revolution.

JONES: For Living on Earth, I'm James Jones in Washington.



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