Last year our recycling rate hit 34.3 percent, an all-time high. The bad news is that the rest was either incinerated or ended up in a landfill. Why is this a problem? Because the tons of organic waste sitting in landfills produces methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. According to the EPA, recycling and composting kept 87.2 million tons of material out of landfills in 2013. This prevented the release of about 186 million metric tons of methane into the air — equivalent to taking 39 million cars off the road for a year.
So we know what we need to do: divert as much waste as we can from landfills (the goal of the zero waste movement). This can be a daunting prospect as an individual or household. So how about tackling is as an office? That’s what we set out to do early last year.
In preparation for an office remodel, Simple Truth’s Green Team was asked to recommend changes that would help reduce our office waste and overall energy consumption. We took a hard look at our behavior patterns and got the whole office together to brainstorm actions that would reduce the amount of waste we produce. The result was a long wishlist!
Most of the solutions implemented are tied very closely to our habits as a group. They may not all apply to every office (beer isn’t popular everywhere!) but I’m guessing many of them will apply.
1. Reduce single-use plastic.
“Disposable” plastic straws, stirrers, knives, forks and spoons plague offices and they aren’t recyclable. So we’ve tried to eliminate them; my favorite switch being these stainless steel stirrers. They’re a great example of moving from disposables to reusables, also called precycling: rejecting items that are bound for the landfill in favor of things that will last. It took a minute for people to get used to the new stirrers (they have to be washed?!). But they did it.
2. Use real silverware.
We always had real silverware in the kitchen. But not enough for occasions when we all ate together (staff meetings, reviews etc.). So we ordered more and now we never need to use the plastic stuff. If you do one thing differently this Earth Day, make it this: forget the idea of “disposable” plastic – it doesn’t decompose. For extra motivation, watch the Story of a Spoon.
3. Real, cloth dishtowels!
We still use paper towels and napkins (see the tip on composting below), but the presence of real towels does make a difference. One of our Green Team members takes them home every Friday and throws them in the laundry.
4. Lots of real plates and glasses.
Similarly, we now have enough flatware, glasses, tea and coffee cups to remove the need for single-use plastic or paper versions.
5. Energy-efficient appliances to cope with all the non-disposable stuff.
As all this was planned, it was obvious that we’d need to deal with a few more dishes. So now we have two dishwashers. Good, energy-efficient models. They also help with the reusable lunch containers many of us bring in every day (read more about the benefits of packing your own lunch).
6. Sparkling water on tap – no more cans or bottles!
When we looked at our habits, we noticed an office-wide addiction to canned, sparkling water. So our new water cooler provides sparkling water too. No more aluminum cans of trendy, bubbly water.
7. Beer on tap – bye bye packaging.
Another habit: buying beer for the office every Friday, which resulted in recycling bins full of bottles and cans. The solution: local beer on tap. We love the beer made in Chicago and now it’s all we drink. And we no longer deal with packaging – the empty kegs are picked up as part of the delivery rotation.
Between the new water cooler and the beer taps, the reduction in our packaging waste is marked.
8. Do you look like your reusable water bottle?
Reusable water bottles aren’t a new feature of our office. But look at all those different designs!
9. Say no to single-serving creamers.
While our coffee machine produces very little (entirely compostable) waste, we realized that the little single-serving creamers we all use are just like K-cups and plastic stirrers: non-recyclable. So we’ve gone back to buying bottles of cream that can go in the recycling.
10. Clear waste separating.
Since the kitchen was designed from scratch, we got to ask for a spacious waste station. And we created graphic signs to make it as simple as possible for people to understand what can be recycled, and what can’t. And then we introduced composting.
11. Office composting.
We pay a local, women-owned firm to collect our compost once a week. We compost the expected things like tea bags and orange peels. But because it’s industrial composting, we can now also divert greasy paper (think pizza boxes), used paper towels and napkins from the landfill. We also fill these buckets with the coffee grounds and filter paper produced by the coffee machine. And the compostable salad containers people bring into the office from nearby delis and salad bars.
Composting is probably the most radical step we’ve taken and we’re still learning. But it’s a significant step in the direction of reducing landfill waste.
12. Reloved furniture.
We didn’t ask for this but were so excited when it arrived. A large kitchen table, handmade from salvaged wood by Susan’s husband Chris. And mismatched chairs that were all salvaged and handpainted by Rhonda and Ryan.
13. Paper recycling.
A no brainer but easy to get lazy about it. So we have large recycling bins in the copy/printer room. And smaller boxes at every desk.
14. Pen refills versus disposable pens.
With a little research, we discovered that our favorite pens are refillable. Yes, they still break and so we still have to order actual pens. But go Pentel for making refills!
15. Motion-sensor lighting.
We installed motion-sensor lighting wherever lights are most often left on accidentally.
16. Dual-flush toilets.
As part of the bathroom remodel, the toilets were retrofit with dual-flush handles – a significant water saver.
17. Hand dryers.
We bid the paper hand towels goodbye and installed dryers. They’re really loud. And yes, they use energy. But less energy (and water) than it takes to make, package and transport the paper that we used to dry our hands on.
18. Low-waste moving.
Moving is not only stressful – it’s wasteful! One of the best things we did to minimize packing waste was to use rented, reusable crates (care of Redi-Box) instead of cardboard boxes.
19. One person’s trash…
During the move, we created a donation area. Anything that was possibly reusable landed here for a while. Once we’d all helped ourselves to each other’s junk, we donated everything we could. Books went to Open Books and piles of blank compact disks were shipped here. See last year’s Earth Day post for a long list of things you might not have guessed were recyclable!
20. Recycling unmentionables.
There are lots of things that get trashed simply because we don’t know what else to do with them. Bras are a great example! But do a little research and you’ll be surprised by the difference you can make with your old stuff. During breast cancer awareness month last year, we collected bras to donate to Free the Girls. With very little effort, we not only made a donation to a great cause, we kept about 40 of these garments out of the landfill.
There’s a lot more we can do — zero waste is a mindset that takes practice. We still print too much, and we haven’t yet switched to a renewable energy provider. But we’ve made huge strides in reducing the landfill waste we produce. And some of the new habits we’re developing in our office are making their way into our lives. I know of at least one colleague who has started using a composting service at home.
Happy Earth Day from all of us at Simple Truth!