Zero waste office
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How to bring zero waste back to the office

With a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, 40 million Americans are expected to return to the office in 2021.

Chances are, your employer is currently making plans for how to bring you and your colleagues back to the office safely, at least for some days of the week (if you aren’t already).

Zero waste office
Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

The question is – what kind of workplace will you return to? Will it be sustainable as well as safe?

While living a zero waste lifestyle hasn’t been easy during the pandemic, at least we were in control of how much waste we produced while we were working from home.

But how can you bring your zero waste habits back to the office? And how can you motivate your co-workers and your employer to cut the trash?

After all, waste from buildings (construction and operation) makes up approximately 40% of the volume of American landfills. And during the pandemic, consumption of single-use plastics is estimated to have increased by as much as 250% to 300%, according to the International Solid Waste Association.

So, it’s clear that “back to normal” isn’t an option – we need to turn our workplace into a zero waste office.

Being zero waste at the office

As with most attempts to change people’s behaviors, it’s easiest if you lead by example.

1. Bring your water bottle

Before you roll your eyes at me stating the obvious, hear me out – I know this is a habit for anyone at least mildly concerned with zero waste. I wanted to bring it up here because you might be facing a backlash because of COVID. Haven’t Starbucks & Co. banned bringing your container for hygienic reasons?

A desk with a water bottle for a zero waste office
Photo by Federica Galli on Unsplash

According to a statement by more than 125 virologists, epidemiologists, and health experts from 18 different countries, reusables are no less safe than disposables, as long as they’re cleaned correctly. And in that sense, your water bottle is probably cleaner than any of your colleagues’ laptop bags, so there should be no reason for concern.

If your employer still doesn’t allow you to refill your container at the water dispenser, then get a bigger bottle that will last you the whole day. Means you’ll get some extra exercise when you’re climbing those office stairs!

3. Bring your lunch

Did you know that 20-30% of the average person’s trash is made up of food waste? And that 40% of all food produced ultimately ends up being wasted? Many offices don’t offer compost or organic waste bins, so much of the excess food from offices and cafeterias ends up in landfill.

How to take waste out of takeout COVID-19
Zero waste lunch – yummy!

As an avid reader of this blog, we know that your percentage is much lower and that you’re conscious about meal planning and cooking. So if you’ve prepared your zero waste meals for the week, why not bring them to the office for lunch?

Alternatively, consider low-waste take-out options if your cafeteria is waste-heavy with single-use plates and utensils.

3. Go paperless

A couple of years ago I decided to go paperless at work. I’ve swapped my paper notebook for OneNote, a digital note-taking tool that’s part of Microsoft’s office suite and also syncs across all of your devices. It has a handy search function so no more frantically flipping through pages trying to find those important remarks from your boss three weeks ago… (Evernote is a similar tool).

For brainstorming, I use a whiteboard, and I ask people to send me digital copies of documents to review and feedback on.

A white board helps avoid waste in the office
Chapeau if you can work out what she has written on this whiteboard!
Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

Only print if you can’t avoid it, and if you have to, print double-sided, or even 2 or 4 pages per sheet of paper (if you have eagle eyes). Once done, reuse for scrap paper for shopping lists or packaging material (if not confidential).

4. Refuse free stuff

Who needs another branded plastic pen, or stress ball, or other freebies that your merchandise team came up with? Breathe in, smile, and just say “no, thank you”.

How to get your colleagues and your employer to create a zero waste office?

Now that you’ve firmly established yourself as a zero waste hero by leading by example, we need to deploy your leadership qualities to make an impact and get others to follow suit.

Here are some ideas of how you can get your colleagues involved.

1. Use your volunteer days

If your company offers volunteer days, suggest environmentally-themed team building and community service initiatives. Think plogging, a local trash pick-up, or supporting a local zero waste charity.

Plogging the new zero waste trend for office workers
Plogging keeps you fit and your environment clean

2. Form a “green team”

Many companies have local employee groups run by people who are concerned about the environment. Get colleagues together to educate each other, hold swap events, organize zero waste talks and movie screenings, and use strength in numbers to speak up and pressure your employer into doing more.

3. Start a competition

Even if your colleagues aren’t that bothered about reducing trash – I bet you they love competition. Just like a FitBit challenge, where teams compete over steps walked, imagine setting up a competition for which team/floor/building can reduce the most waste.

You can do this by simply taking photos of the trash cans in each area before they get emptied at the end of the day and posting this on your intranet or Slack channel, or even in a private Whatsapp or Facebook group.

A spare-it zero waste station in the office
Spare-it’s waste station and dashboard

A start-up from Boston has taken this idea one step further: Spare-it has developed a solution that tracks office waste in real-time and encourages employees to reduce trash through games, competitions, and real-time data feedback. It also comes with an app that lets you monitor your office trash and provide you with estimates for the pollution you’re causing.

You can only change what you measure. Documenting the trash being produced in the office will allow your employer to understand their waste stream and eliminate sources of trash, as well as to set targets and publicize their results.

A zero waste office post-COVID

We all know that “back to normal” isn’t an option if we want to save our planet. I hope these tips will help you lead by example and work with your colleagues and your employer to turn your workplace into a zero waste office when you return.

Please let me know any comments or any other ideas in the comments. Cheers, Bettina

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