By the end of this year local authorities are expected to have built sustainability into their procurement strategies, processes and contracts. As councils in England spend almost £40 billion of public money externally each year, they have considerable buying power and are finally being persuaded, incentivised and cajoled into green procurement.
Despite this, there are concerns that some local authorities are unaware of what is required of them within the National Procurement Strategy for Local Government. Likewise the recycling industry could be criticised for failing to exploit this opportunity.
The National Procurement Strategy expressly states that councils should use buying power to stimulate innovation, which would include creating markets for recycled materials. Fay Blair, consultant for sustainable development consultancy Global to Local and local governance policy issues advisor to the Sustainable Development Commission, stresses the need to understand the policy context in which local authorities are operating, both for the authorities themselves and for the businesses trying to approach them. There needs to be an awareness of common aims and the need to focus on creating markets from both sides.
Blair believes that the issue of councils harnessing their buying power to create markets for sustainable and recycled products impacts on broader concerns, such as creating a better quality of life and the consequences of our lifestyles on the environment. For some this may come across as being all too touchy-feely, especially when the pressure is on to find the best price, but there is no escaping that the UK must get to grips with resource management with better use of commodities, especially when we are using far more than our global share.
Local authorities and the public sector are bound by EU procurement rules and, from the providers point of view, understanding the framework and restrictions is important in knowing how to exploit markets for buying recycled, says Blair. Public sector reform has meant that councils are incentivised or forced to take on a more entrepreneurial and can-do role towards the services they provide.
According to Blair, we not only take for granted what we use, but are also completely unimaginative about what then happens to it when discarded. The Government Sustainable Procurement Group is driving forward standards and these include specifying recycled, creating significant opportunities to manoeuvre markets.
Tanya Berman, consultant and procurement specialist for Global to Local, believes that the once-prominent barriers to sustainable procurement are now weakening. According to Berman, barriers have included a lack of support from senior management, the excuse that green procurement is not a priority, a lack of time to find products and a belief that recycled products are in some way sub-standard.
These barriers are not real anymore, says Berman. Specifying recycled is an excellent first step towards sustainability with quick wins. There are the opportunities to create new markets, new jobs and new social entrepreneurs. It is not just a case of the cheapest price anymore but a product or service that delivers a social outcome as well.
Berman says that materials such as recycled glass, plastic, wood and aggregates are cost competitive. Community as well as local authority budgets benefit from specifying fences and walkways made from recycled plastics, which mean less maintenance and less end-of-life disposal costs.
The rationale of green procurement is undeniable, but the reality is an involved process. Unless councils are fully aware of the range of products on offer they are unable to make informed decisions about how sustainable procurement can be effectively integrated on a long-term basis and there is the risk that the best they will manage is buying recycled paper.
Equally, unless industry is made aware of local authority needs, in terms of price, products and the tende