Starting off Zero Waste is so exciting and so rewarding. There are so many simple swaps you can make that will drastically cut down the amount of waste you produce. But, unfortunately, there are areas of life that require a bit more thought – I find the workplace is one of the key ones!
There are several reasons for this:
- Things aren’t always in your control. Each office will have its own system for things like recycling and compost, as well as common waste generators like printing, and sometimes these are problems that can seem really hard to overcome!
- People are around you are creating waste! From paper towels in bathrooms to disposable plastic water cups, it’s easy to slip into wasteful habits when everyone around you is doing the same.
- Disposables are everywhere! I work in a University and almost every day there is a conference or large meeting going on where there will be a suite of disposable cups, plates and cutlery. Again, seeing everyone else use these items time and time again can be both depressing and debilitating.
However, there are some really easy changes you can make in your behaviour while in the workplace to reduce the amount of waste you produce – and you might encourage others to change their habits too.
1. Zero Waste Your Stationary
Simplify the stationary items that you use. I use a notebook, black ink pens, coloured and plain pencils and a ruler. That’s it! Rather than buying new items of stationary, keep an organised drawer at work or home and use up what you have before buying new. You might be surprised at what you already have lying around! And it goes without saying – Refuse freebies when you’re offered them, such as free plastic pens and highlighters from organisations and conferences.
For printing: again, try and reduce the amount you print! It might not be possible to eliminate the need for printing completely, so try and ensure you print on recycled paper, and try and print smaller sizes (2-4 pages per sheet) so that you use less paper.
To further reduce paper waste, consider getting more organised with your online notes (I like EverNote or OneNote for making notes online, and I use Trello for to-do lists). That being said, I also love making notes on paper, as I find it helps me to organise and brainstorm my thoughts better, and also reduces the amount of time I spend staring at a screen during the day (very important!). I use either recycled paper to make notes, or notebooks that are made only of paper – I like these Moleskine ones that are sewn together rather than glued together, so should be fully recyclable / compostable.
Mail: I accumulate a lot of mail at work. It’s often impossible to prevent plastic waste like sticky packing tape, but you can save and reuse jiffy bags and envelopes, saving both money and resources.
Files and organisers: I also continually sort and reuse files and folders. At the end of a project, I remove everything I no longer need and recycle it (removing staples before I do this!), archive the notes I want to keep in a larger file, and then reuse the original file for something else. The same with dividers, which are a handy organising tool. Write on dividers with pencil and you can rub the labels out and reuse them again and again!
Otherwise, rather than buying new folders and files – try a large charity / thrift shop – they are normally a treasure trove of secondhand stationary items.
Zero waste swaps.
If you must buy items new, try and choose ones you can reuse again and again. Piston refillable fountain pens are the holy grail of zero waste stationary. I haven’t invested in one yet as I’m still working through the huge collection of pens and pencils I already have! But I’ve heard they are great. You can buy ink in recyclable glass bottles and just refill from those.
I also love Sprout pencils – they are fully compostable (including the packaging!) and are plantable in your garden, with each pencil containing some seeds.
It goes without saying – make sure you recycle correctly, and fastidiously, in your workplace. No recycling bin at work? Take your rubbish home with you! Which leads me on to my next point …
2. Bring Your Waste Home With You
This one might take a bit more thought at first, but once you get into a system it’s easy. You might be lucky – your workplace might be super equipped to complement a zero waste lifestyle with recycling bins and compost bins galore. Mine is unfortunately still a bit stuck in the past, and has only just managed to install recycling bins on most floors. There’s no compost in the office either, so while I’m at work, my KeepCup doubles as a super handy little compost bin! I just collect the food waste I create during the day such as apple cores and loose tea leaves and then empty it once I get home. If you have a fridge/freezer at work you could even keep a small container of compost in there and empty it once every couple of days.
3. Swapping out Paper Towels
My workplace lacks hand dryers and instead uses paper towels in all the bathrooms and the kitchen area. My solution? Have tea towels of my own at work for drying hands and doing the washing up. I just take them home to wash every few days. Sometimes I forget not to use paper towels, but it’s a great way to slowly cut down the amount of paper waste you produce. This one can be seen as a more advanced zero waste tip!
4. Travel and Work
Travelling for work can seem one of the hardest ways to be zero waste. Travelling for pleasure is often a bit easier as you are in control of your movements, including things like meals. When I travel for work it’s normally for a conference or meeting where there might be a whole load of disposables everywhere I go: disposable coffee cups, plates, cutlery, plastic wrapping on food, plastic freebies, paper handouts – you name it! Here are some top tips:
- Bring your zero waste essentials for Life on the Go – such as a reusable coffee cup if you drink hot drinks, a water bottle, a cloth napkin, and reusable cutlery/spork. Even if you eat out for lunch every day, it’s super easy to bring your own reusable cutlery with you – next step is to bring your own container!
- Bring your own zero waste snacks if you are going on a long trip – it’s often easier to stay healthy and energised this way too! I like to bring a small container of oats and seeds for emergency zero waste porridge, along with an energy dense snack mix like dates, raisins and nuts.
- If you drink tea, bring your own ingredients for zero waste tea in your hotel room – I use a ball infuser and loose leaf tea.
- If you have access to a fridge, save your compost in a small container and bring it with you, or bury it (totally acceptable for small items like apple cores or banana skins!).
- Refuse wherever you can – as long as you are polite about it, no one should have a problem with you refusing a free plastic pen or returning a paper handout at the end of a talk or presentation so that they can reuse it for next time.
- Save your recycling – this is the final option, and is only possible if you don’t have to travel too light! But I often save things like paper handouts, food wrapping / foil and other bits to recycle once I get home.
5. Lobby For Change!
There might be really easy ways in which your workplace could change to be more eco-friendly, such as switching to recycled paper in printers. Or, there could be things you and your colleagues will all benefit from that are also zero waste friendly – such as lobbying for a small discount on hot drinks when you bring your own reusable cups!
Other things you can do to make your workplace more zero waste friendly:
Ask your facilities manager if you can switch to paper cups at water fountains, rather than plastic ones.
If you work in a small enough office, consider switching to washable towels / tea towels rather than paper towels in any communal bathroom or kitchen areas.
Start an envelope and jiffy bag saving and reusing system for communal mail (it can be as simple as putting a box next to the mailbox with a sign saying “used envelopes” on it!)
Start a stationary donation box where people can donate ring binders and other items that they no longer use/want
Ask others to save scrap paper from unwanted printing next to the printer, so you can all have some extra paper to brainstorm on rather than using fresh paper every time
If you don’t have recycling bins – ask your facilities manager to install them.
Apply for a pen recycling station.
If your office has curb-side composting collection, Ask your facilities manager for a compost bin.
For communal tea and coffee making facilities, suggest to others that you start buying loose leaf tea instead of tea bags (which almost always contain plastic and so are not fully compostable). This obviously depends on how open to change your colleagues are! Otherwise, suggest you start buying tea bags in bulk, so that you can cut down on packaging waste.