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The 5-step guide to creating a zero waste office

Written by

Polly Barks

Thanks so much to Christa of @showme_zerowaste for writing this guide to creating a zero waste office.

If you’ve achieved a low-waste lifestyle at home, tackling a zero waste office may be your next goal. So let’s get busy protecting your company’s triple bottom line: people, profits, and planet.

You’ll find that by creating a sustainable office, you will impact profits and add substantial value to your workplace. All while saving the planet!

#1: Join the Club

If a sustainable committee or club is not a part of your workplace culture, you should first seek out like-minded people to form one. It’s easier to impact change and get financial backing with a handful of interested, determined people making the request.

Not sure how to find these folks? This sounds trivial but look for the people with the reusable cups, those co-workers who lament how much is thrown away after lunch, or start by recruiting your friends.

Being part of a committee, and taking ownership of projects within the office, is often something an employer will assess during annual reviews. Taking an active stake in your company may just get you a raise!

#2: Gain the Support of Your Employer

Generally, it’s best practice to ensure you have support from your employer. When meeting with your employer, come prepared with one or two initiatives your committee plans to tackle that year. The more detailed your plans, the better.

For example: when getting support from my employer, our committee first recommended a composting program. We provided data regarding the harmful effect landfills have on the planet, and the positive data surrounding composting. We also presented a pilot composting program. Our plan accounted for the cost of smaller compost receptacles to collect waste, and an estimated cost to enact a school-wide (I work at a school) program. During the pilot program, we collected data and reported these numbers to our principal.

Keeping your boss in the loop allows you to demonstrate the program’s success and makes it easier to request future funding for zero waste office initiatives.

Read more: How to offset the environmental guilt of your commute

The 5-step guide to creating a zero waste office - Green Indy Blog

#3: Audit Your Waste

You have an interested group of people, the support of your employer, and you’re ready to take on your first sustainable project(s). I suggest first completing an audit of your workplace to understand what areas you can best impact. Three areas you may want to assess are food waste, paper waste, and energy efficiency.

Read more:  What is greenwashing? How do I spot it?

Food Waste Audit

You can audit food waste by weighing the food thrown out (feasible for small or mid-size businesses) or working with your kitchen to estimate how much goes uneaten.

Within our school, our kitchen staff created a simple checklist for classes to complete and each day teachers assessed if they their classrooms were served too much food, the perfect amount, or too little.

Paper Waste Audit

For paper waste, if your office utilizes a communal printer, collect the papers that are not picked up by end of day and count or weigh them. If you work for a larger company or have more individual printers in your workplace, consider sending out a survey regarding paper use. You can also do a recycling walk and assess which departments/areas are in need of recycling bins and so on.

Questions to consider: Do you print on both sides of the paper? Do you keep paper scraps to reuse? Do you recycle paper?

Energy Waste Audit

If you work for a large or mid-size company, this audit may be more difficult without the assistance of your IT, custodial department, or even upper management. They can help you understand if you are using LED or CFL bulbs, where you source your energy from (wind, coal, etc), and how your company is currently reducing heating and cooling costs.

#4: Implementing zero waste office changes

Food Waste

According to ReFED, we currently waste 40% of our food globally, and in the U.S. this translates to 400 pounds of food annually for every American. To further compound the matter, ReFED also estimates that the U.S. spends $218 billion on food that is never eaten!

  • ReFED it an excellent resource that may help you gain more support for programs costing money, such as office-wide composting. ReFED provides a toolkit that allows you to quantify the estimated financial benefits, the waste diversion rates, and reduced emissions based on initiatives like composting, donation tax incentives, donating unwanted food from cafeterias, tray-less dining, etc.
  • The Rockefeller Foundation provides an Office Waste Toolkit full of ideas like a Food Waste Awareness Week, posters, and sample emails to send to staff.
  • Find a composting option to fit your business needs here.

Protecting the Bottom line

Composting can save your company money by reducing waste disposal costs. Additionally, some cities and municipalities have grants and programs available to large and small businesses focused on diverting waste from landfill. With regard to food waste, initiatives such as trayless dining, which encourages smaller portions, ReFED estimates it can save for large businesses with dining facilities $10-25,000 annually.

The 5-step guide to creating a zero waste office - Green Indy Blog

Paper Waste

According to the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance, the average office worker uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper each year. Road Runner, an office waste and recycling management company, notes that 30% of print jobs are never picked up and 45% of printed paper ends up in the trash by the end of the day. Additionally, businesses also get their fair share of junk mail. It’s estimated that 100 million trees get used for junk mail every year, and 5.6 tons end up in landfills.

  • Google Docs, DropBox, and other online tools allow for paperless editing and document sharing.
  • Assess your customer. Instead of mailing a promotional item, can you reach your audience digitally?
  • Make it automatic. Ask IT to set-up all computers for two-sided printing.
  • Look into a company like, Road Runner Waste Management that can manage your office’s paper waste.
  • Use apps like Paper Karma to reduce junk mail your business receives, or contact the Direct Mailing Association to have your business removed from their database.
  • The World Wildlife Foundation offers a free workplace toolkit to help you reduce paper waste.
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Protecting the Bottom line

According to the World Wildlife Foundation, “a company of 5,000 employees that uses double-sided printing for only 10% of its printing could save up to US$260,000.” Sending items to landfill is one of the most expensive ways a business can get rid of waste.

Instead, by recycling more, zero waste office initiatives can substantially decrease waste hauling fees. Of course, the best option is always refusing — refusing to print and seek out alternatives like Google Docs, DropBox, etc.

Energy Efficiency

According to the U.S. Energy Information and Administration, spending on electricity has risen 54% over the past two decades from $31 billion to $51 billion. Looking abroad, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that businesses send $20.2 billion dollars on electricity alone.

  • Switching from computers to laptops will save roughly 150 watts of electricity.
  • Avoid screensavers and instead put your computer in sleep mode. Screensavers still use energy.
  • Plug multiple machines into a power strip to make turning electronics off at night simple.
  • If you have a desktop computer, avoid turning it on and off. According to Energy Star this is one of the biggest energy draws for a desktop.
  • Direct Energy Business has a free poster kit to increase workplace energy efficiency.

Protecting the Bottom line

Energy Star estimates that simply setting your computer to “sleep mode” saves $35 per computer annually. Additionally, switching from traditional incandescent bulbs to energy-saving alternatives can result in energy savings of 75-80%. Not to mention that energy savings alternatives have a longer bulb life and are typically mercury free.

The 5-step guide to creating a zero waste office - Green Indy Blog

#5: The Award Goes To…

Companies like to hang their hat on awards and accolades. Large corporations, small businesses, and local governments alike can join the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) WasteWise program. The program encourages and recognizes governments, non-profits, and large corporations’ efforts to promote and expand sustainable practices in the workplace. Participating companies are eligible to enter their WasteWise Awards.

If you work in a school, set your sights on a Green Ribbon. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes schools that reduce environmental impact and costs can improve the health and wellness of students, and staff.

To be considered and see past honorees, download an application form here. For more information on green schools and help getting started, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) provides additional information that can be used in concert when applying for the Green Ribbon Awards.

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As you embark on this journey to create a zero waste office, make sure you’re documenting your hard work. In addition to gathering and tracking the data on your workplace sustainability initiatives, track the amount of work you are putting into the project.

Be sure you are vocal and aware of how much money you are saving your company, and as mentioned previously, speak to this during annual reviews. Companies want invested employees that enhance the workplace culture and effectively reduce spending costs.

At first impacting change at your office will require you to roll up your sleeves and do most of the work. It can be hard, but the positives far outweigh any of the negatives. As we know, we need to be good stewards of the earth. That can no longer start and stop within our homes.

Christa is a green educator and activist in the Show Me State (that’s Missouri, for the uninitiated). In 2018 she spearheaded a waste reduction initiative at her school, which is now diverting 90% of its food waste from landfill and starting new initiatives this year.

Follow along with her practical tips and day-to-day zero waste experiences on Instagram at @showme_zerowaste.

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