As the zero waste movement continues to gain steam, many people are extending their eco-conscious efforts into their workplace with reusable items like coffee mugs and stainless steel straws. But with wasteful office practices, are these efforts in vain? After all, most offices have mountains of paper, disposable coffee pods running rampant, and supply closets stuffed with plastic pens.
While it is undeniable that many office habits leave a lot to be desired, that doesn’t mean a few changes can’t help amend the disposable culture. In fact, by implementing the right changes, a zero-waste office isn’t only possible, but it can help save money, help employees collaborate, and, of course, protect the environment.
Use What You Have on Hand
The first step in any zero-waste journey is to use what you have on hand. Even if this means a pile of rubber keychains for tradeshows or plastic coffee pods, you should use these items in their entirety before replacing them with zero waste swaps. Otherwise, you’re defeating the purpose of zero waste—being mindful of resources and eliminating landfill waste.
If you truly don’t want to use these items, then at least rehome them to a place where you know they will get used. Have excess office supplies? Schools are always short on notebooks and pens. Alternatively, you could also pass these items on to another office.
Do a Waste Audit
Alright, this one admittedly isn’t for everyone, but if you are serious about converting your office to zero waste then a waste audit is an excellent place to start. Go around to the garbage and recycling bins and look through to see what you find. What items are found in abundance? Spoiled food? Paper products? This is one of the easiest ways to identify problem areas in the office and the solutions to address these problem areas are often straightforward. If you feel lost getting started, try the simple solutions below.
Reduce Paper Usage
From files to sticky notes, offices use quite a bit of paper, so it can be overwhelming to try to reduce consumption. But if you start small, you can start making an impact almost immediately.
- Handouts: Resist printing a handout for everyone at a meeting. Instead, project the information as you go through it, email it out afterward, or both.
- File Cabinets: Instead of printing files to stash them away in file cabinets, convert to a cloud-based storage system like Google Drive, One Drive, or Dropbox. These not only save a ton of paper, but it can also improve productivity since files will be easier to find in digital folders.
- Invoices: Invoice clients whenever possible by email. If you do need to mail an invoice out, use a lick-on stamp instead of a sticker stamp. Sticker stamps have non-recyclable paper backings.
- Switch to Recyclable: If you can’t eliminate paper completely, swap to recycled paper. This paper is made from recycled paper products, meaning no new deforestation was required. Plus, recycled paper requires much less water to process and uses anywhere from 28% to 70% less energy.
Rethink Break Room Waste
- Disposables: If you find your waste bins littered with plastic cutlery, paper packaging, and dining disposables, try a Break Room Separation Box. Once full, this box gets shipped back to TerraCycle—a company that specializes in recycling hard to recycle items. While it would be best to eliminate these single-use items from the office, this is a good secondary solution if you are having trouble getting employees on board with zero waste.
- Coffee Pods: These plastic capsules were created for their convenience, but the reality is they are wreaking havoc on the environment—9 billion were sold last year, with the majority ending up in landfills. You don’t have to get your office to kick their caffeine habit, but you can make a cup of java much less wasteful by swapping to refillable pods or a single-serve coffee machine with a reusable filter. This creates far less waste, but employees still get a fresh cup every time. Or, better yet, reduce energy consumption with a French press.
- Food Waste: Did you know that collectively America generates 80 billion tons of food waste each year? And some of that is probably from the kitchen in your office. If moldy fridge food ends up in the trash, then you should consider a compost bin. You can compost a variety of organic materials, such as vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, leaves, grass clippings, and more. However, avoid adding meat, dairy, or oily foods, which can attract pests. Read this post on adding eggshells to your compost to familiarize yourself with the process. You can compost a variety of organic materials, such as vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, leaves, grass clippings, and more. However, avoid adding meat, dairy, or oily foods, which can attract pests. Read this post on adding eggshells to your compost to familiarize yourself with the process. While it is always best to avoid food waste, when it does happen, sending it to the landfill produces harmful gases like methane and CO2. When composted, though, food can decompose in an aerated environment, so these gases don’t get released.
Want employees to be more mindful of their food waste? Try running a zero waste food challenge. This challenges employees to create a whole week of healthy meals using zero waste ingredients. Try incentivizing participation by offering entry to a draw for anyone that takes part. Also, creating an online forum to chat about the experience is a good way to share thoughts, encourage each other, and bond over the process.
Once those plastic pens and highlighters run dry, recycle them at your local office supply store and consider these zero waste alternatives.
- Pens: Try refillable pens, like fountain pens or refillable ballpoint pens.
- Highlighters: Skip the plastic markers and give highlighting pencils a whirl.
- Staples: Using paper clips is a better choice than staples since they’re reusable. Or, there is always stapleless staplers.
- Binders: Look for binders made from recycled cardboard or aluminum.
While purchases like the zero waste swaps above aren’t as harsh on the environment, note that every purchase you make has an impact. So, purchase only what is necessary, use items for their entire lifespan, and dispose of them correctly when finished.
While converting an office to zero waste doesn’t happen overnight, being more mindful of your office habits and where your waste ends up can help get you there. Remember, zero waste isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon—and every small change gets your office one step closer to the finish line.
Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED-accredited, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability operations manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices and writes for Zero Waste.
recycling waste concept -DepositPhotos