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).
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.
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.
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.
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?