When it comes to thinking about making environmentally friendly, money saving choices at work, almost everyone starts with the commute. Biking, walking, using public transit, telecommuting, and moving closer to work all save money and are better for the environment, but what happens once you start your work day?

We live just six miles from work, and I bus or run to work on days that I can, but there are plenty of other things I do during my work day to be more sustainably minded. While some of what I do in my day is perhaps a little more “hardcore” than everyone wants to do, here are ten simple steps that will green your work life (and save you a bit of money in the process).

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1. Bring your own dishes and silverware to work.

This one is pretty straightforward. Instead of using the paper plates and cups and plastic utensils at the office, bring one real version of each and keep them at work for coffee/tea, lunches and snacks.

If you have a sink or dishwasher to clean your dishes, this is pretty straightforward. If not, have two sets and rotate one of the sets home to wash there. I picked my dishes and silverware from ones we already had at home (decluttering at the same time, hooray!), but if you don’t have any extras, a thrift store is a good place to find good quality kitchenware for cheap and where you can buy just one of each item instead of having to buy a set. Not only does the thrift store save money over buying new, it also reduces the amount of new material that is needed to produce a new set of something already in abundance.

I actually keep both a regular coffee mug at work as well as a to go mug for the times when I have to leave for a meeting or event and want to bring my drink with me. The goal here is to make it really easy to avoid disposable cups and dishes by having a reusable version at your fingertips at all times.

2. Pack your lunch.

Packing your lunch is obviously a common tip when it comes to saving money, but this is also a choice that is generally environmentally superior as well. Bring your lunch in Pyrex containers or a reusable sandwich bag inside of a lunch bag (for me this is usually just a cloth grocery bag because we have a ton of them at home and they are easy to throw in the wash for cleaning from time to time).

Bacon wrapped chicken and spinach

With a homemade meal, be it made specifically for lunch or packaged up leftovers, the trash created is almost nonexistent in compared to a take out meal that comes with the food container, plastic utensils, napkin, and plastic bag to hold it all. Start packing your lunch in reusable containers and it’s amazing how much less trash you produce at work. This is one I hadn’t even noticed until I went more than six months without buying take out lunch, and it was staggering how much trash came with just one meal. Beyond the fact that packing a lunch saves a good $10 or meal a day, it saves a whole lot of resources in the process as well.

Another part of this is to keep some food on hand as backup for a snack or as your whole lunch in a pinch. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve forgotten my lunch at home, been too busy to think about packing one the night before, or simply just don’t feel like putting something together. Having good food on hand keeps me from picking up lunch on those days. For me, my work food stash usually consists of apples and peanut butter, bananas and oatmeal, Luna bars, and even a couple of cans of soup. Know what you like and what you’ll be willing to eat in a pinch because it needs to be enticing enough to steer you away from picking up food regardless.

3. Bring a reusable water bottle.

This can be just a regular water glass, or a reusable water bottle, but it’s key to have an option at hand to drink water from without grabbing a single use water bottle. Again, like the travel mug for coffee, I like to have a portable water bottle on hand for grab and go situations, but this obviously depends on how often you are somewhere other than at your desk during work hours.

There is currently an island of trash in the Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas, much of it filled with plastic water bottles and other disposable items related to food and drink, and it is continuing to grow. That alone should be enough of a reason to ditch the disposable water bottle.

The way the Pacific Ocean should look – with no trash

4. Use a reusable hand towel in the bathroom.

I have to admit, this is a pretty new one for me, and now that I’m in the habit of drying my hands with a reusable hand towel at work and not just at home, I’m aware of how much trash I’ve produced in the past just by washing and drying my hands in the bathroom.

While you can go the Japanese route of pretty hand towels, I chose to use what we had on hand at home already, which were flat fold cloth diapers. Just like with unpaper towels in the kitchen, a reusable hand towel for the bathroom at work can be as fancy or simple as you choose it to be. If you’re more likely to use it if you chose a cute print, then go and do that. Whatever gets you to change your habits over the long run is worth more than a single purchase during the conversion phase.

5. Keep a stack of scratch paper for notes.

I really, really wish there was a way for our office to be mostly paper free, but for now, we still seem to produce a ridiculous amount of paper on a regular basis. In order to combat this a little, I make sure to collect any paper that ends up not being used after being printed on (old meeting agendas, the extra page spit out that just has a single extra line on it, etc). Those papers go in a stack and are used for note taking and reminders instead of a separate note pad.

Remember where paper comes from 😉

6. Buy pens than allow for refills.

While it seems the majority of pens these days are made for single use only and are thrown out after they run out of ink, there are quite a few options out there with refillable ink cartridges. My favorites are the medium ink Uniball pens (pink because construction guys won’t keep them by accident and I always get them back).

7. Plug your computer and other electronics into a power strip.

I mentioned this one for home use as well, but sometimes it’s easy to forget to do the same things at work as we do so naturally at home because there’s not energy bill to remind us. Just because we don’t see the energy bill doesn’t mean our office equipment isn’t draining energy for no good reason though, and vampire energy is sucking power all evening and night long if your equipment isn’t fully shut off at the end of the day. Install a power strip and cut off your power use when you leave work for the day.

8. Set up battery / ink recycling.

For whatever reason, battery and ink recycling seems to be something that gets overlooked again and again. While batteries aren’t something you can get cash back for, they are really terrible to throw away and leach horrible chemicals when they aren’t disposed of properly. Most cities and quite a few libraries have battery recycling, so if you set up a drop at work there should be a convenient place to take them once a month, or whenever the bin gets full.

Ink recycling is even better though, because places like Staples and Office Max will give you a portion of the cost back toward future purchases. If your company doesn’t have a set up (and doesn’t want one), ask if you can dispose of them yourself, and you can get a small financial perk out of the deal as well.

I know there are also ink refill options, but from what I’ve learned they don’t do as well / aren’t as affordable as they should be. If you have experience otherwise, please let me know because I would love to be wrong!

9. If your office has a Keurig, bring reusable pod with coffee grounds instead.

My office unfortunately has a Keurig instead of a regular coffee maker, and it is always well supplied with K cups. I still like drinking coffee at work though, and as I’ve mostly given up paying for coffee shop drinks except for special occasions, I want to be able to make my own coffee at work.

Special occasion coffee

I have a reusable K cup now and bring my own ground coffee to the office and make it in the Keurig that way. I’m then still able to use the office coffee maker (and creamer) but I’m not contributing to the sheer amount of extra garbage that’s produced every year thanks to the debut of the Keurig. Some day I’d like to have the ability to make a pour over at the office (or maybe just a small French press), but I find that for now the reusable K cup is the cheapest and easiest option for work coffee, and while not free compared to the K cups supplied, still a very cheap cup of coffee.

10. Carpool/walk/bike/teleconference for meetings whenever possible.

I have quite a few meetings every given work week, but I’m lucky that many of them these days are at the City Hall just a few blocks away from my office. I walk to those meetings, and it really doesn’t take me much – if any – more time than going into the garage, getting in my car, driving to the other building’s parking lot, finding a spot, and parking, plus I get to have a few minutes outside on a walk during the work day.

For meetings that are a bit further away, I try and carpool or take transit/bike (if reasonable). Another trick is to lump meetings back to back so I only have to drive to a certain area once instead of multiple times in a week.

Another option is to suggest to have some meetings via phone or online through a program like WebEx or similar. While some meetings simply have to happen face to face, I find that quite a few of them can be just as productive remote. It never hurts to suggest the option, and it saves everyone money and time beyond the factor of saving natural resources.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, just like the steps you can take to live a more sustainable life at home, there are a plethora of opportunities to do better while at work. This list may seem overwhelming to begin with if you’ve never considered most of them, but even baby steps in the right direction make a significant difference over time. If everyone made just a few of these changes, we’d be looking at a significantly different world.

What’s your favorite sustainable work hack? Is there anything big I’m missing here?

52 thoughts on “10 Simple Steps To A More Sustainable Workplace

  1. I do some of them. Like bringing my lunch, using my cups and water bottles that can be reused. But disposable pens? Isnt that a vit extreme? They last a while, it is not like I get a new pen every day. BTW, I use fountain pens (love them!) and fill ink from a bottle. I am just arguing for the sake of arguing 🙂

    1. I don’t feel like it’s extreme at all, but more an example of how a little extra effort can reduce your waste 🙂 I’ve never used fountain pens but now I’m curious!

      1. Where I grew up, they wouldn’t let us write with ball pens until you were older – say eighth grade or so. Supposedly, your handwriting would turn out better with fountain pens. I moved back to fountain pens later. I use the cheaper ones – I tend to lose stuff occasionally.

      2. How interesting. I wonder what the reasoning behind that is? The question is, do you have good handwriting then? 😉

    2. I love my fountain pens! And my kids like them too. They aren’t exactly practical now that I am not in an office, but I did occasionally take them to my last job. I should get them out again and use them for blog drafts or something around the house. 🙂

      1. You two have me totally intrigued about fountain pens now.

  2. i’ve had the same travel mug for about 12 years. not having a dishwasher at home keeps it from falling apart from all that heat. i always wondered why so many people purchase a refillable water bottle ( maybe it looks good with a matching yoga mat). you can just put tap water into an empty disposable one.

    1. Well you still have to buy the initial disposable water bottle. Like your travel mug, your water bottle can last a long long time if you take care of it. Though I do have to admit I will refill disposable water bottles more times than is probably advisable to try and make up a little for drinking out of one in the first place 😉

  3. Well done, keep doing your part to make our world a better place. Some may say you will not make a difference but I say ignore them because we can truly be the tide of change. Thank-you for leading a great example.

    1. That’s the goal 🙂 Lots of little changes add up to big impact – much like finances.

  4. Ha, I love the pink pen idea! Pen thieving is a problem at work and I’m known for chasing my pens down all over the unit. I’ve been meaning to bring my own utensils to work, I never think about it and use plastic every day. That just became my goal for this week!

    1. Buying pink pens was the game changer to not have to keep replacing them 😉 And a good goal for the week! I actually hate the feel of eating with plastic utensils, so that helps me remember.

    2. The reusable utensils was the takeaway for me here, too! I’ve been thinking about doing it for a long time, now just need to get in line and make it happen.

      They actually took away the disposable cups at work a couple years ago. I have a mug at work for coffee (also have a refillable k-cup holder that I use). I pretty much always have a Nalgene bottle with me when I leave the house, so I use that at work too.

      1. Glad I could be the catalyst for an easy and important change! I feel like food tastes so much better with real utensils, but maybe that’s just me 🙂

  5. I am trying so hard to live a more waste-free life. IT IS SO HARD. Your articles have really helped me implement some easy to follow swaps! Thanks for the good info!
    I hope one day my default is using hand towels, no plastic, and re-usable grocery bags (I always seem to forget them, ugh!)

    1. It is SO hard. Once you get into the habit of using disposable things it is so hard to make the change. Glad these posts are helping you! 🙂 I’m finally there with hand towels, unpaper towels, and grocery bags (95% of the time anyway), but it has taken a lot of effort and focus to finally get there.

  6. Laziness is the root for why I could improve for some things and why I do some. I’m lazy and hate wasting time, so I stack meetings in a common location, or dial in for those I can’l. I’ve also ‘fell off the wagon’ with bringing my lunch in. I’m always in a different location and don’t always have a lunch hour, so it takes some effort to bring lunch. Especially when we mostly create reheatables. Not really a valid excuse but it’s the truth.

    Never thought of using re-usable towels…. But it would be another thing I have to carry around location to location. I’ve simply started letting my hands air dry.

    1. I hear you on falling off the packed lunch wagon. The biggest reason why I’ve been such a stickler myself is because I know as soon as I allowed myself to slide on that point I’d probably stop packing my lunch altogether 🙂

  7. I am a big fan of the scratch paper for notes. I do it both at the work office and the home office. When I used to run the budget process for my company, I would print out out hundreds of pages of draft reports or presentations. I’d keep most of those discarded papers and at one point I think I had a stack almost a foot high!

    I bring my lunch to work but keep forgetting to bring my own silverware….thanks for the reminder!


    1. That’s the same sort of thing for me – way too many draft presentations / reports that would otherwise just get dumped in the recycling.

  8. I’m surprised to find I’m doing fairly well on this front. I’ve always preferred real utensils and am a devotee of those pyrex containers, especially now that it’s easy to buy individual replacement lids. (One can feel like a beast of burden lugging all those containers and foodstuffs!) Reusable towels would be quite avant-garde, however. I need to work on that one at home. My workplace is very paper-heavy, but I try to print double-sided whenever possible.

    1. You can buy individual replacement lids??? I had no idea!! Thank you for sharing that!

  9. This is a great list. In every day life, my wife and I try to minimize our waste at home. But at work, I’m much more cavalier with waste. I could do a much better job. There’s just so much waste in the medical profession due to sterility issues… :/

    1. Definitely harder to do in a medical setting I’m sure! But I wonder how much is just assumed waste but could be better if it was paid attention to?

  10. We all have to unplug our laptops and lock them in our lockers, so I guess we have that down 🙂

    I try to avoid eating fruit at my desk otherwise it’s just too far to walk to the kitchen to the compost bin when the rubbish bin is right there!

    1. Awesome that you have a compost at your work! Something I definitely need to push to get set up one of these days.

  11. In the last 20 years at my job I have probably forgotten to bring lunch maybe only 10 times. And those 10 I’m pretty sure it was in the fridge and ready and I just forgot to grab it. It’s a low barrier to entry to be frugal and healthy.

    1. Okay that is impressively good. I’m just a terribly forgetful person, so even once I was back on track and bringing my lunch every day I’ve forgotten it that many times 😉

  12. Awesome list! I volunteered to do Styrofoam recycling at a pastry job and set up a collection bin. Every two weeks I’d drop it off. The city accepted all other recycling, so it was the missing gap.

    1. Awesome! Sometimes all it takes for a company to say yes is to say that you’ll dispose of it yourself.

  13. We have a kitchen at work with all kinds of non-disposable silverware and plates, and I never understand why people reach for the drawer with the plastic silverware instead. We’re running a load in the dishwasher every day anyway so it might as well be full! I’m very happy having a supply here means I don’t have to remember to bring my own fork with my lunch every day haha.

    I should definitely be better about using scrap paper for notes instead of notepads. And the reuseable towel is an intriguing idea even though I think it would be difficult logistically. At least I do that at barre where if I wash my hands I’ll use the towel I’ve already grabbed to use during class instead of using one of the disposable towels they have set out in the bathroom.

    1. Wait – you have both at work and people STILL choose the disposable ones?? Mind boggling.

  14. Since I work at an office desk, I do most of these especially when I pack my lunch to work. We have complimentary breakfast and lunch at work but when I don’t feel like eating their food I get food from home and pack it in a Pyrex container. Those are so convenient to have.
    We use toners at work from HP and luckily they provide a packing slip so we can put the slip on the toner box when it gets empty and send it out UPS. More companies should do that to encourage recycling your ink/toner.

    1. I’m always so jealous of places that provide breakfast and lunch! I’m pretty sure I would never pack my own food in that case haha.

  15. People still take notes on paper? 😉

    I have a company laptop that I take with me to all my meetings and will take any notes via that instead of paper. I always try to present via a projector screen when running meetings instead of printing out paper (unless there are directors present who always need them). When I do print I go double sided to save on the paper. That’s my little way of helping to use less paper.

    Also +1 on the bring your lunch everyday!

    1. I switch between electronic and paper notes depending on the situation. I’d love to go 100% paper free but some things still just seem to work better physically written down.

  16. Okay, I am doing 5 of these so there is definitely some room for improvement. To be honest, I had not considered some of these (hand towel for the office bathroom, reusable k-cup, refillable pens). I love the pink pen idea – I had a colleague who used purple & pink pens so our boss didn’t steel her pens!

    Um, beautiful reminder of where our paper comes from.

    1. Hey, 5 is still excellent! When you know better, you do better 🙂

  17. Hi Angela, I found out about your blog from your interview on FireDrill w/ J & Gwen.

    I love the sustainability angle from which you approach life and FI. Reading your list, I already do a lot of the habits like bring lunch to work, scratch paper, reusable bottle because they are good frugal habits. I never thought of them as being sustainable too, which is awesome!

    Another idea that I believe is in sharing documents electronically. My workplace does a great job of this and I’m grateful for not having to file lots of paperwork for all kinds of things. Signing electronically is also way easier and ensures I get my paperwork submitted on time. Saves the trees too!

    1. Yeah, there are a lot of situations where the frugal choice is the sustainable one! We do have a server at work as well as Dropbox for sharing documents, which *helps* with the amount of paper printed, but it’s amazing how many hard copies we still need.

  18. Great list! I must admit I’ll probably never do the refillable ink, but the rest of them are totally doable.

    1. That was the goal here – low hanging fruit that are pretty easy to implement as long as you’re mindful about it 🙂

  19. My work changed the printer to default print double-sided. It is still possible to change to single-side where needed. I still have scraps though.

    1. That seems like a step in the right direction! MOST of what I print at work can be double sided.

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