Unless you live or work where a connection to the land is easy to see, the importance of environmental protection can feel distant in a cubicle office in a city. Here’s how to conserve the earth through intentional use of plastic, paper, and food at a typical office — whether you’re closer to a concrete jungle or a real one.
First area of focus: single-use plastics. Corporate offices can be a magnet for single-use plastics — from trash can liners to disposable kitchen cutlery to takeout lunch containers, single-use plastics are everywhere you look. These nonrecyclable plastic items take up landfill space and often make their way into the ocean, harming sea life. You’ve probably heard the startling statistic that by 2050 the ocean will hold more pieces of plastic than fish.
Your office coffee or tea habit is an easy entry point to reduce paper and single-use plastic at the office. Most obviously, you can purchase a reusable coffee cup or mug to keep at your desk. Some coffee shops will even give you a discount for bringing a takeaway cup. For in-office coffee makers, make sure that you’ve got a mug instead of the wax-lined cardboard cups (or, even worse, Styrofoam).
Other tips might require the cooperation of your office manager. Request an end to disposable cups at the water and coffee stand. A coffee pod machine (i.e., Keurig) is another easy target: request a switch to a drip coffee machine to eliminate pod waste. In 2014 alone, there were enough pods sold to circle the earth more than 12 times if laid end-to-end.
If ousting the coffee pod machine is not possible, you can purchase a reusable coffee pod filter for just a few bucks and fill it with your own coffee. And if your office has a drip coffee maker, encourage the office manager to purchase a reusable coffee filter.
Next, keep a set of utensils, a cloth napkin, and a ceramic plate for lunch at your desk. It takes a few minutes to wash all your dishes after a meal, but it saves daily plastic and paper waste. For example, the large office building I used to work in held a couple thousand people and provided disposable utensils and napkins in all 20 of the building’s kitchens. I don’t even want to think about how many single-use paper and plastic products were disposed of daily in our building alone.
Ask the cafeteria to ditch the straw for your Diet Coke. Go even further by purchasing your own reusable straw. The Last Plastic Straw movement aims to cut down on the 500 million straws that are thrown away in the United States every single day.
Next, we’ll move to ways to conserve the staple of 9-to-5 office life: printed paper. Use digital files instead of printed handouts for meetings when possible. Simply request your meeting attendees to bring laptops to follow along with a meeting agenda or presentation. Why print something that’s only going to be glanced at a few times?
Another culprit for unneeded paper use is printing things with a typo and then having to correct and reprint again. Use print preview to check for edits — save time and paper and print right the first time!
The lunchroom is another easy place to make quick earth-friendly changes. Ordering only what you’ll eat eliminates food waste. If you do have leftovers, come prepared with Tupperware to take it home. Tupperware will give it you an easy way to take home extra food without needing a plastic or Styrofoam container from the cafe. And of course, bring your own reusable water bottle.
Last, reduce the use of plastic bags at work. You can take your trash bin out of your cube and use a communal trash can instead. My prior office’s cleaning staff emptied my cubicle trash bin every single day and replaced it with a new trash bag. I found this unnecessary for the little trash I had, so this change enabled me to save one garbage bag per day. You can also keep reusable grocery bags in your desk drawer for lunchtime errands.
As you can see, just a few easy changes to everyday activities at the office can significantly reduce food waste and the use of single-use paper and plastic items. You might get a few second glances from your colleagues for your actions, but these moments can open a dialogue about the values behind your actions. Don’t forget that caring for our common creation is a collective effort with many opportunities to make an impact — and that every action helps.