Simple Steps to Greening Your Office E-mail
Tuesday, 06 November 2012 00:00  |  Written by Erica Mukherjee | Article

Green Office photo by TazEach year, the average American office worker uses 500 disposable cups and 10,000 sheets of paper. In the same time frame, computers thrown out by businesses and homes contribute 1 billion pounds of lead to landfills. And offices spend $1.51 dollars per square foot bringing light, heat and electricity to their workers. Needless to say, offices are not always the greenest places to work.

There are, however, both large and small changes any business can make to not only reduce its ecological impact, but also reduce its operating costs. Acting on some of these tips may require the CEO’s blessing; others can be done by individual workers right in their own cubicles. Even if you have control over just your desk, there are many easy steps you can take to work greener.

Plant Some Happiness
Take a plant to work and care for it—at your desk, in the break room or in any shared area. Living plants make an office feel less institutional and more natural, while absorbing carbon and releasing oxygen into both your personal space and the atmosphere. This makes you and Earth healthier. As a bonus, studies have shown that taking care of a single houseplant can increase your happiness level.

There are a wide variety of plants—ranging from bamboo to cactus—that thrive with little water and light. And many plants—like the areca, mother-in-law’s tongue and money plants—actually improve indoor air quality as well, a big plus for your health. However, small grow lamps can bring natural-spectrum light to your plant if there are no windows in the vicinity.

See if your office can’t sponsor an outdoor green space or community garden, either adjacent to your building or up on the roof. Green roofs are especially popular in cities like Chicago, where uses range from temperature regulation to vegetable patches to employee rest areas. Studies have shown that employees have a higher rate of job satisfaction and retention in a company that makes noticeable efforts to be environmentally sustainable.

Personalize the Kitchen
We’ve all heard stories about the game rooms and fireman’s poles in Google’s offices. While most businesses aren’t willing to go that far to create an individualized workspace, a few simple changes in the office kitchen will not only personalize the office, but make it more environmentally friendly as well. Cups, paper napkins and plastic forks are ubiquitous in most offices. This “use and throw” mentality means more wasted energy and pollution from production, and more overflowing landfills from disposal.

As an office manager, let your current supply of disposables run out and then go to a thrift store or rummage sale and purchase reusable dishes and cutlery. Employees will either begin to use and wash the office dishes or bring their own from home. As a company Christmas present, give everyone in the office a personalized coffee mug—then get rid of all the disposable coffee cups. For items that must be thrown away, try to purchase those that are sustainable and/or recyclable, such as wooden stir sticks. By filling the kitchen with items that have “personality,” the workplace can become a bit more welcoming, home-like and ecological.

Bringing Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance coffees and teas into the office can be another way to not only green the workplace but also improve job satisfaction.

If you do not have the power to revamp the kitchen, you can revamp at least your own lunch. Treat yourself to a fun shopping trip where you buy special dishes just for the office. This way your lunch break really becomes a break. You’d be surprised how relaxing it can be to take the time to eat your soup out of a real bowl with a real spoon. Also, by doing this you personally are saving hundreds of plastic utensils from ending up in landfills. You are also serving as an environmental role model for other employees, potentially saving even more.

Think Before You Print
Though the concept of a paperless office first appeared in 1975, office paper usage more than doubled between 1980 and 2000, mostly due to the rise of easy-to-use printers and copiers. While this trend has shown a minor slowdown in the past 10 years, an average office worker can easily use 500 pounds of paper a year.

As an individual, spend a week creating a paper log. Make a record everything you print and copy. Then see if there is any way you can cut back by using emails, PDFs or electronic storage. Set your printer default to print two pages per sheet. For longer documents, print on both sides of the paper. Ask if you can bring your laptop into meetings so you can reference documents electronically rather than on paper. Create your backups on flash drives and CDs rather than on paper. Above all—think before you print. Many emails and other documents simply don’t need to be printed. When you do have to print, use 100% recycled paper.

Office managers can also help to cut back on waste paper. If a recycling program is not in place, it is time to implement one. There may be initial overhead costs in purchasing recycling bins and contracting an appropriate recycling vendor if one does not already operate in the building. However, many large businesses, such as Bank of America, save hundreds of thousands of dollars per year by recycling paper. If recycling is operational but not widely used, see what can be done to publicize and encourage it. Having more recycling receptacles readily available and rewarding groups or individuals for their recycling efforts are two easy ways to ensure more participation.

Greening Technology
Disposal of e-waste can be both difficult and expensive. There are, however, many companies that will take your donations of e-waste or even pay you for it. Online resources can help you to find companies in your state. Since offices will often do en masse upgrades of computers and other electronic equipment, it might be possible to strike a deal with one of these companies for a bulk deposit.

When it comes time to upgrade office computers, consider purchasing laptops instead of desktops. On average, laptops use half the power of desktops. For most office purposes—word processing, spreadsheets, Internet and email—the capacity of a recent-vintage laptop is more than adequate to the task. Only for specialized work, such as 3D rendering, are desktops necessary anymore.

Another simple upgrade is compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. Even though the argument for CFLs has been given before, it bears repeating. For each incandescent bulb you replace with a CFL you will save $40 in electricity costs over the lifetime of the bulb. Low-end bulbs last for approximately four years, for a savings of $10 per year. Multiply that by the number of light bulbs in a typical office and you’re looking at yearly savings in the hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.

These are just a few suggestions for greening your workplace. Additional ideas can range from taking the stairs to building a solar-passive office. Use your imagination. Changes large and small add up quickly to improve your workplace, your health and the environment. Talk about multitasking.

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