It’s one thing to organize our home and family lives around Zero Waste to principles, but it’s something else entirely to go Zero Waste at work where you have much less control over your environment (unless you work from home, of course). Whether you work in an office, a hospital, a school, or in another setting completely, the workplace is rife with wasteful practices. Of course, there are some situations such as food service and medicine where it’s a requirement to use disposable gloves and other materials, and there may not be much you can do in these scenarios. However, there still are many other opportunities to reduce waste wherever you work. Instead of lamenting things we can’t control due to policy or safety concerns, we should instead focus our energy on the things we can control and the policies we can influence.
I know when I started my Zero Waste journey, I was amazed at the amount of plastic I created just by visiting the office candy jar. Those little plastic wrappers seemed to be following me everywhere! That along with lunch takeout, coffee at the espresso bar (where I would often forget my reusable cup), afternoon trips to the vending machine, and poor habits surrounding printing and using paper, I realized I had room for a lot of improvement.
While I’m still nowhere near perfect, I’ve come a long way (bonus: no more plastic candy wrappers falling out of my pockets and clogging up the washing machine). Based on what I’ve learned so far, here are my top 10 tips for practicing Zero Waste at the office.
1. Pack your own lunch with reusable containers, napkins, and cutlery. I know, I know. This one is the most obvious, but it bears repeating since so much of our waste is food-related.
2. Don’t forget to bring snacks too. Okay, so I realize everyone else in the world doesn’t eat 18 times a day like I do, but seriously, don’t forget to pack some Zero Waste emergency snacks like fruit, veggies, or nuts. There’s nothing worse than realizing you’re starving at 3:00, only to realize the only options are the vending machine or corner store where everything comes wrapped in plastic.
3. Pack out your scraps. Unless you are fortunate enough to have composting onsite, be ready to take your scraps like banana peels and apple cores home with you to compost so you don’t end up throwing them in the garbage at work. Simply pack your scraps back into your lunch container or bring a bag just for the task.
4. Be smart about takeout. When you opt for takeout with your coworkers, be thoughtful about what you order. Request no plastic cutlery or order something that doesn't need a fork. If dietary needs allow, encourage everyone to get something like pizza, which doesn’t involve cutlery and you can take the box home to compost.
5. Bring your own cleaning supplies. If you have your own space such as an office or cubicle, bring your own reusable paper towels or rags to clean your space instead of using disposable wipes and paper towels. I realize hanging a hand towel in the bathroom or other shared spaces is probably off-limits, but cutting down on the disposables you use in your own space is still a win. If you make your own dish soap or surface cleaner, bring some of that along for cleaning your own space and dishes so you use less of whatever more plastic intensive/environmentally unfriendly products they use at work. You can easily repurpose a jar or old soap dispenser for the task. Check out this post to learn how to make portable cleaning wipes to take to work.
6. Use less paper. Try to send and read as many things electronically as you can. If you must print, print on both sides of the paper whenever possible. Use a list app on your phone or computer instead of writing your to-do list on sticky notes (I say this as someone who adores sticky notes. It has taken all of my willpower to stop using them constantly).
7. Build a sustainable work wardrobe. While the type of work you do dictates your day-to-day workwear, choosing quality and sustainability over fast fashion is definitely the way to go. No matter where you work, buy secondhand and take care of the clothes you already have. Sites like Poshmark and ThredUp allow you to purchase high-quality used items in all styles and sizes. Wash your clothes in cold water and lay them flat to dry. Learning to do simple mending such as sewing a button or stitching a torn hem can go a long way toward maintaining your wardrobe. If you must buy new, look toward high-quality items from companies that support sustainability. After my second child was born, I bought a capsule wardrobe from Vetta for my workwear. I mix and match a few items for a week or more before washing them, and then I wash and maintain them meticulously.
8. Advocate for change. Many large workplaces have committees you can either join or pitch ideas to. If so, go through the appropriate channels to advocate for recycling, composting, or other similar initiatives. If you work in a smaller place, you may have more direct access to managers or owners with the power to instigate changes. Find opportunities to advocate these ideas, and be prepared to explain why it would be a good idea (not just for the planet, but for the company in regards to its reputation, customers, etc…) If you get turned down, don’t be discouraged. Even bringing the idea up may plant an idea that will take root sometime in the future.
9. Avoid the plastic traps: Offices are full of plastic traps. The candy jar and coffee station are the two most common plastic traps that come to mind. All those little wrappers, stir sticks, and sugar packets add up. Also if vendors or reps come to your work or conferences bearing giveaways, beware. Those trinkets are tempting but often they turn out to be junk. Be prepared to kindly but firmly refuse the things you don’t need. No one will get their feelings hurt, but you’ll end up producing a lot less waste.
10. Accept what you can’t control. I touched on this in the intro, but it really is important to remember that we can only do the best we can, and we can’t control everything about our workspaces. It’s basically the Zero Waste version of the Serenity Prayer. We can’t control policies that result in waste or work environments where some waste is necessary for safety. We can’t control it when our coworkers bring in individually wrapped treats and gifts with the best of intentions. We can’t control the actions of others. We can only control our own actions and our reactions to these situations. By staying positive and instead celebrating the small wins, we can continue making meaningful strides toward real change.