The Government Printing Office isn't included in President Obama's sustainability plans, but the legislative branch agency may be helping its executive brethren reach their greening goals.
Public Printer Robert Tapella has launched a slew of environmental initiatives since taking over the helm of the agency in 2007. He has bought alternative flex-fuel delivery vehicles, installed a green roof and initiated several in-house recycling efforts.
But to executive branch agencies, his most appealing endeavors are focused on the paper they use and the printers that churn it all out. After all, the federal government is intent on greening its work, and the GPO is the main printer for federal agencies.
The GPO's large brick building on North Capitol Street in Washington, D.C., screams inefficiency, sporting a cavernous printing floor and 1.5 million square feet of space. But Tapella has upgraded the equipment within, cutting the plant's volatile organic compounds emissions by 86 percent in the past year. U.S. EPA once classified the agency as a large quantity generator of hazardous waste; now, it is a conditionally exempt small quantity generator, meaning it produces less than 25 gallons of hazardous waste each month.
Tapella says getting there was relatively simple -- and cost-effective. Three years ago, agencies' documents were printed on presses that used solvent once and then immediately discarded the hazardous fluid. Now the GPO recovers up to 90 percent of the solvent after its first use.
"'Why change something that works well?' is sort of the mantra," Tapella said of the attitude at the agency in the past. "Part of my discussion when I became public printer was to ask what we're doing, how we're doing it, and are there ways to make incremental or monumental changes."
Federal agencies are now asking GPO to go further. One agency requested that its paper not include oil made from menhaden -- a potentially overfished species most often used to make such non-petroleum oil. GPO officials were able to comply, Tapella said.
"What we're starting to hear from road shows and from visits with customers is they're asking questions they haven't asked before," he said.
Indeed, federal agencies have become much more focused on their greening efforts since President Obama directed them to create sustainability plans in an October 2009 executive order. Obama has set a governmentwide goal of reducing direct greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent and indirect emissions by 13 percent over the next 10 years.
More than 50 agencies released their plans last week, outlining ideas that ranged from infrastructure improvements to installing renewable energy systems. Almost every plan included goals for recycling and sustainable purchasing.
Consequently, Tapella hopes to soon offer agencies more opportunities for buying environmentally friendly paper. Right now, the GPO must follow a set of quality controls established by the congressional Joint Committee on Printing. But such standards -- such as a minimum brightness for copy paper -- can sometimes limit customers' options.
Instead of GPO predetermining "winners and losers," Tapella wants agencies to choose which standards are important to them. Copier paper must now be bleached in order to meet the brightness requirement, for example. But if an agency decides that its paper doesn't need to be white -- and can instead look like newsprint -- GPO would be able to offer paper with a higher recycled content.
"Because our customers both on the Hill as well as in the agencies are asking us for greater options, we're recommending to the JCP that there be an environmental schedule to choose aspects most important to them," Tapella said.
Tapella's term at the GPO is almost up, and the Senate is expected to soon confirm William Boarman, vice president of the Communication Workers of America, as the next public printer. But Tapella asserts that the changes he's made will help GPO's financial future and decrease prices for its customers.
"It's amazing what these incredible changes can do to the bottom line," he said.