NYC’s Plan to go Green in the Great Indoors

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The familiar smell of ammonia could soon be dissipating from the hallways of many city-government buildings.

In the next phase of ongoing efforts to "green" indoors, the city is overhauling codes that govern everything from paints and cleaning supplies to rugs and writing paper.

The city recently released 25 pages of proposed regulations that would impact construction, renovation and maintenance practices in hundreds of city-owned and -leased buildings and other spaces. The new rules require materials, supplies and equipment to be more environmentally friendly — either less toxic, more energy-efficient or more recycled.

Some highlights include:

  • All city business printing will be done exclusively on chlorine-free paper. The city last year purchased almost 13 million pounds of paper. Much of it is eventually incinerated, and the coating on typical office paper emits carcinogenic dioxins when it burns.
  • Almost all cleansing agents must now meet “Green Seal” standards and emit many fewer fumes. Over time, those fumes adversely affect the lungs and other tissues, increasing the likelihood people will develop asthma and other conditions.
  • Paint, other coatings and carpets (including glue and pads) all must have very limited fumes that meet strict environmental guidelines for "off-gassing."

“These standards really do improve the health of both the city workers who come into contact with these chemicals and cleaning solvents and also the people who work in these offices as well,” said Lisette Camilo, in the Mayor's Office of Contract Services.

The new rules do not affect city schools. Procurement rules for the Department of Education come from Albany, Camilo said.

Nilda Mesa, the head of environmental stewardship at Columbia University, says some of the green products are marginally more expensive than their traditional industrial counterparts, but “the health benefits make up for that.”

“Any price difference is a tiny fraction of overall operational or renovation costs,” Mesa said. “Buying in large quantities, as the city does, would reduce the price difference even further.”

Mesa said she is hopeful the city’s purchasing power will greatly increase both supply and demand for green products, and, in the process, lower the cost for everyone else.

Several environmental advocates praised the proposed city codes but said they were disappointed the city wasn’t committing to reduce or ban the purchase of materials containing PVC plastic, which also releases toxic dioxins when it burns. PVC is found in many items, from pipes and computers to vinyl binders and plastic-coated paperclips.

Mike Schade, from the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, said  by not including PVC in the new rules the city wasn’t fulfilling a 2005 law requiring it to commit, in writing, to reduce its purchasing of materials that could ultimately lead to dioxin being released into the environment.

“There are safer and cost-competitive alternatives that city agencies are already beginning to purchase,” Schade said. He cited a multi-million-dollar contract the city has with Staples which voluntarily reduces PVC-tainted purchases – but said that purchasing emphasis should be given the force of law.

But Camilo said with its shift toward chlorine-free paper, the city is fulfilling the 2005 dioxin-reduction requirement. She said the city is accepting public comments on the new rules for 30 days and is “certainly open” to suggestions.

At the end of March, the city will hold a hearing on the proposed regulations and after that, it can issue the final rules.


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