Office supply products encompass a wide variety of manufactured goods such as paper, paper products, binders, clipboards, highlighters, markers, pens and pencils, adhesives, toner and ink cartridges, and labels. Most of the environmental impacts of office supplies occur during the extraction of raw materials (such as plastic, paper, and metal) and industrial processes used to manufacture the products, which use natural resources and energy and generate solid and hazardous wastes. Some products may also contain hazardous materials that can affect users if handled improperly. Careful attention to the use of recycled and non-toxic materials for office supplies can reduce the environmental footprint of purchases.
Paper manufacture using virgin pulp consumes trees and is highly water intensive, energy intensive, and polluting. The use of chlorine-based bleaches results in toxic emissions to air, water, and soil, as well as the formation of chlorinated organic compounds, such as dioxins and furans, exposure to which can have biochemical and biological effects in animals and humans. Alternative fibers for paper production, such as kenaf, hemp, bamboo, or sugarcane may not require bleaching and their overall environmental impact may be lower if their cultivation yields more fiber per acre and they are not transported over long distances. Natural unbleached kraft paper is brown, but the use of semi-bleached or fully bleached sulfate pulps produces lighter shades of brown, cream tints, and white.
Plastics are petroleum based products and though often recyclable, can have negative environmental impacts. PVC, a commonly used plastic, is produced from vinyl chloride monomer, a potent human carcinogen, and contains stabilizers, such as lead (a toxic metal), and plasticizers (usually phthalates) that may be released into the indoor environment. Plastic packaging like Tyvek (high-density polyethylene) may have post-consumer recycled content but may not be recyclable in many recycling programs.
Office supplies, other than paper and paper products, are typically made of various types of plastics and metals – and many products, like pens, binders, clipboards and staplers, are made from both. These products may have recycled content, but are seldom accepted in recycling programs and end up as solid waste destined for landfills or incinerators. Products made from biodegradable biopolymers, such as cornstarch or other starches, have been introduced to the marketplace, but unless they are accepted into a composting program, they are handled just like other solid waste.
Pencils are traditionally made with a graphite and clay core in a wood housing. The housing is often made from virgin hardwood like cedar, but recycled content housings made from newspaper, cardboard, and plastic provide a market for these materials.
Markers, highlighters and correction fluid may contain organic solvents such as xylene, ketone, or alcohol, but water-based, non-toxic, low-odor alternatives are widely available.
Like other office supplies, toner and ink cartridges are made up of plastics and metals, but unlike some other office supplies, there is a robust market for recycling these items. The resulting remanufactured toner and ink jet cartridges reduce waste, save natural resources, and cut costs by reusing empty cores and parts. Properly remanufactured cartridges are thoroughly disassembled and reconditioned, not just filled with new toner or ink, and they commonly cost 30 to 60 percent less than new cartridges. Another cost-effective waste prevention strategy is to purchase high-yield toner and ink cartridges, which contain more toner or ink per cartridge. Look for models labeled “high yield” or HY or “large capacity”.
Paper and paper products should have recycled content and be processed chlorine free.
Maryland State Finance and Procurement Article §14-402 requires 90 percent of the paper products purchased by the Secretary of General Services to have recycled content.
Toner and ink cartridges should be remanufactured. When remanufactured toner and ink cartridges are unavailable, state agencies should consider high-yield or large capacity models.
In addition to using fewer supplies (such as electronic rather than printed calendars, etc.) and reusing supplies (such as intra-office envelopes, etc.), state agencies should purchase office supplies that:
The U. S. EPA has issued Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines for the recycled content of many paper and office supply products:
Paper and Office Supplies Specification
301 West Preston Street, Baltimore, MD 21201