It’s tough to keep your environmental impact to a minimum while you’re away from home. And when you’re in a highly-regimented environment like the office, reducing waste and shrinking your footprint can seem next to impossible. But don’t fret, eco-minded employee. With a few adjustments to your daily routine, you can easily reduce waste at the office. Check out these 10 simple tips for staying waste-free at work, and cut the footprint of your workday in half.
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1. Pack Your Own Lunch
Bringing your own lunch and snacks to the office in reusable containers not only reduces packaging waste, but can also put thousands of dollars back into your pocket annually.
A survey of 1,000 workers conducted by finance recruiting firm Accounting Principals revealed that the average American worker spends $37 per week on bought lunch, adding up to $2,000 a year (there’s that pay increase you’ve been looking for).
The same survey found that 50 percent of the American workforce spends $1,000 per year on coffee. So, bring your morning cup to work in a reusable mug and reduce hard-to-recycle coffee cup waste. Bypass your specialty café-made espresso drink — even if it’s just a few days a week — and you might be surprised at how much cash you save.
To get you started on your low-waste, low-budget revolution, check out these sustainable lunch and snack recipes that are perfect for the office, and banish those vending machine trips for good.
2. Make Supplies Last Longer
Reaching for a dried-out pen during a stressful workday can make you want to pull your hair out. But it can also lead to prematurely tossing your supplies. Are there really ways to make office supplies last longer? Absolutely.
The ink in your pens, highlighters, and markers tends to dry up more quickly if your writing utensils aren’t used regularly. So, try to use just one new pen of each type at a time to ensure you get full use of them.
And try to keep your pen tips clean. Inks naturally coagulate at the tip of your pen, making them trickier to write with over time. To avoid plastic waste (and frustration), wipe the tip of your pen with a cloth after each use, and store pens with tips pointing upward to prevent clogging.
Also, keep all pens, markers and glue sticks in a cool, dry place – like inside a desk drawer or closet. Heat and exposure to direct sunlight can cause inks and glues to dry up and harden.
3. “Precycle” Office Supplies
“Precycling” refers to the simple act of reducing non-recyclable waste before it starts. The term typically applies to choosing products packaged in materials that are easily recyclable, but it can also apply to your office supplies.
Choose supplies that are easy to reuse or recycle to stop waste in its tracks. When faced with a decision as to which supplies to use, try asking yourself: Can I recycle or reuse this? A simple change in mindset could mean lighter waste bins all year long.
Not sure where to start? Try using paper clips instead of staples for easy reuse, and opt for crumpled newspaper instead of bubble wrap to protect items during shipping.
At your desk, invest in a reusable metal tape dispenser to halt plastic dispenser waste, and reuse items like folders and media boxes for as long as possible before throwing them out.
You might even consider switching from disposable ballpoint pens to a refillable fountain pen. It’s an adjustment if you’re used to just tossing your pen when it dries up, but it’s a great way to reduce plastic waste. And you may even discover that you prefer writing with a fountain pen.
4. Green Your Commute
Commuting to work can be stressful – not only for you, but also for the environment. The average American family’s weekday commute produces around 7,000 pounds of carbon emissions every year, according to a study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The good news is that reducing your driving, even slightly, can carry huge environmental benefits. Driving a mere 10 percent less — by walking, cycling, carpooling, or taking public transit — can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 440 to 1,763 pounds per year, depending on the vehicle, according to the nonprofit ecology group Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley.
If you’re lucky enough to live close to your workplace, try walking or biking to shrink your carbon footprint, or opt for public transportation for a low-waste, low-stress commute.
If your office is on the other side of town, try carpooling with coworkers a few times a week to reduce environmental impact. Carpooling with two other passengers creates a mere 0.05 pounds of carbon emissions per person, per mile — even in an average car getting about 23 mpg, according to Sightline Institute. A vanpool with six occupants comes in at less than 0.04 pounds of CO2 per mile, the research group found.
As an added bonus, carpooling is also a great way to bond with your coworkers and form relationships you may not have had otherwise. So, round up the gang and hop in the car for a commute that’s low-waste and fun.
5. Reduce Paper Use
The average office worker in the U.S. uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper each year. That’s 4 million tons of copy paper used annually — leaving plenty of room to reduce paper use and shrink your office footprint.
Avoid using paper by emailing important documents to coworkers and clients, and using presentations rather than handouts at weekly staff meetings. To further reduce paper consumption, print documents only when you absolutely have to, and print on both sides of the paper whenever possible.
And don’t forget to recycle. Recycling one ton of paper saves enough energy to power an average U.S. home for six months, saves about 7,000 gallons of water and about 17 trees, and can reduce greenhouse gas levels by one metric ton of carbon equivalent.
6. Be Ready With Reusables
From impromptu lunch outings and office birthday parties to lunch-break errands and shopping trips, there are loads of opportunities to get stuck with single-use products during your workday.
Reduce the disposable plates, cups, silverware, and shopping bags you contribute to our waste stream by being prepared with reusable alternatives ahead of time.
7. Shrink Your Energy Footprint
Computers, printers, and other office necessities can use up loads of energy, racking up enormous bills and expanding the footprint of your workplace. While office energy use may seem nearly impossible to avoid, you can dramatically cut back your kilowatt-hours with a few easy steps.
If you work from home, put all of your electronics on a power strip, and flip the switch off when items are not in use to avoid vampire power. And take a moment to adjust your computer’s settings to optimize battery usage and hibernate after a period of inactivity.
If you work in an office, talk to your supervisors and IT department about adjusting the settings on all of your office computers and installing power strips. Your bosses will likely be receptive when they realize how much money it could save.
8. Take Paperless Notes
Taking notes is a natural way to keep track of busy projects and get the creative juices flowing. But why take notes on paper when waste-free alternatives abound?
Most word processing software includes an easy highlighter tool to mark important sections of your notes. But if you’re going to take e-notes, you might as well opt for a program that can multi-task. Try an online note-taking program (like Evernote or UberNote) that allows you to bookmark sites of interest, jot down ideas and collaborate with multiple users.
If you’re still craving the pen and paper, invest in a whiteboard or chalkboard for your desk, so you can jot down notes and erase them at your leisure without the waste.
9. Cut Back on Packing Waste
Packing and shipping can create loads of office waste, but you can still do your part to keep those trash cans empty. When shipping, try to pack boxes as densely as possible to avoid cardboard waste, and reuse boxes when you can.
For boxes that can’t be reused: Compost them! If you work in an office building or don’t have a compost pile for your home office waste, many farmers accept compostables for use in fertilizing their crops. Talk to a local composter about starting a partnership with your office and sending all of your boxes there.
When transporting office supplies from one office to another, ditch the cardboard boxes in favor of a reusable solution like Rent-A-Green Box. Featured on Earth911 in 2010, this “zero-waste pack and move solution” rents out reusable, recycled-content containers for a fraction of the cost (and waste) associated with cardboard moving boxes.
10. Help Give Coworkers the Green Bug
Sharing eco-minded ideas with coworkers is a great way to make sure your whole office gets in on the waste-reducing action.
Try giving out reusable water bottles, coffee mugs, and shopping bags at the office on holidays to encourage fellow employees to reduce waste. Or send out a mass email about useful file-sharing tools provided by your workplace to remind coworkers of alternatives to printing.
When discussing your values with coworkers, remember to frame the conversation as providing information, not dissing their habits. For example, if you notice a coworker tossing a plastic bottle in the trash, politely telling him about a recycling bin in the next room will yield far better results than berating him about his disposal habits. With the right approach, you can get everyone in your office excited about going green.
Feature image courtesy of Mark Botham
Editor’s note: Originally published on February 13, 2016, this article was updated in February 2019.