Day 11: Going Zero Waste at Work

Meaghan O'Neill

Thinking about going zero waste at work? Whether your office is focused on sustainable design or you just want to reduce your garbage output, going zero waste can be an important—and beneficial—part of your office culture. Diverting all or most waste into reuse or recycling may sound challenging, of course, but there’s a pretty easy roadmap to getting there.

“The word ‘zero’ can be daunting,” says Tiffany Threadgould, global vice president at waste management company TerraCycle, which offers a broad national recycling program. Begin where you are, she advises, and look for the low-hanging fruit. “Our office is a great example of one that’s evolved over time,” she says.

To get started, conduct an audit to determine what waste materials your office is generating most. Is it fabric samples? Junk mail? Chip bags? The audit doesn’t need to be formal, but it should include observing the contents of garbage cans, the amount of paper on desks, and single-use items in break rooms.

To go zero waste, it’s crucial to heed the three Rs—reduce, reuse, recycle, and in that order. Once you’ve identified your biggest culprits, figure out how to cut back. For many offices, lunch is a problem area. Replace disposable cups and flatware with reusables. Terracycle’s Loop program offers snacks, cleaning products, and more in reusable packaging that can be returned and refilled. And increasingly, subscription compost services will pick up your organic matter, too.

Precycling—the concept of considering how much waste a product will create before you even buy it—is also essential. How recyclable or reusable is a particular office supply? Do you really need it? “It’s about being cognizant of what you’re buying and what you’re using,” says Threadgould.

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Where it comes to paper, for example, by some accounts the average American office worker uses 10,000 sheets of paper annually. Reduce that by sharing documents digitally. When printing is necessary, a high-efficiency printer will use less ink and toner. Invest in quality, durable goods built to last, consider renting equipment you use only occasionally, and look for manufacturers—like office furnishings leaders Herman Miller and Humanscale—that meet high sustainable standards and offer take-back programs. And for materials that can’t be easily recycled regionally, check out Terracycle’s extensive recycling programs, many of which are free.

At LPA, a sustainable architecture firm based in Southern California, the zero-waste program includes eliminating personal garbage cans at desks, which reduced bins in their 280-person office from 300 to 24. The goal was twofold: minimizing waste by changing behavior, but also increasing collaboration by getting workers up from their desks. The move saves on maintenance costs, too.

The program is also a talking point with clients, many of whom feel inspired to go zero waste, too. “It’s a great PR opportunity for us,” says Rick D’Amato, the design director and principal who steered the effort. “But the minute you start talking about the bottom line, that really gets their attention.”

For any zero-waste program to succeed, educating employees is critical, and chances are good you’ll meet a little resistance. It helps to clearly spell out benefits to staff, says D’Amato, who admits he’s had to nudge a few coworkers into compliance. “Stick to your guns, though,” he says. “If everyone is on board, change happens much more quickly.”

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Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest