As the well-known environmental adage advises, "think globally, act locally." This local action starts right in the office and can have ripple effects expanding to clients, customers and employees' personal lives.
Taking action to save energy, reduce waste and lower the company's carbon footprint may also help to create a healthier and more positive workplace, save money and boost a company's reputation. If everyone pitches in to green the office and commits to adopting some simple changes to their daily work routine, the overall impact can be major.
In addition to long-recommended actions such as recycling and switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, these seven ideas can help improve the environmental impact of offices.
1. Cut paper waste
While many people put forth the idea that "going paperless and digital is automatically greener," the truth is far more complicated.
Data storage, and emails and other forms of digital communication all require energy and create carbon emissions in other ways. For example, the manufacture and distribution of technological devices, and their energy use and the e-waste they produce are all growing environmental problems.
Still, companies would do well to explore where it makes sense to go paperless and do more to cut paper waste.
Paper does have the highest rate of recycling out of all municipal solid waste, according to the EPA. Approximately 46 million tons of paper and paperboard were recycled in 2018 for a recycling rate of 68.2 percent.
However, the pulp and paper industry is among the most resource-intensive industries, according to the Environmental Paper Network. It's also a source of air, water and soil pollution, in part due to toxic chlorine-based bleaches released during production.
Moreover, about 90% of all office waste is paper, with a typical office worker producing about 2 pounds of paper waste each day, according to the EPA.
Office workers can create a culture of smarter paper use by ensuring they take actions such as finalizing documents before printing, reusing paper where possible, printing double-sided and recycling paper that is no longer usable.
2. Switch to eco-friendly cleaning supplies
Many common cleaners contain harmful chemicals that are dangerous to both human health and the environment. Some may contain ingredients that cause eye, skin or respiratory irritation, among other health issues.
By following the Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines on greener cleaning products, office leaders can help ensure the health and safety of employees and office cleaning staff and minimize environmental harm.
Those in charge of office cleaner purchasing can look for ecolabels, such as the EPA's Safer Choice, which certifies safer ingredients. Leaders can also choose to use disinfectants and sanitizers with the Design for the Environment label. These meet the health and safety standards of the pesticide registration process the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act requires.
3. Get smarter about thermostat use
Companies can save energy and cut costs by getting smarter about heating and cooling the office.
Using a programmable thermostat that can automatically adjust the temperature throughout the day is one energy-saving method to explore.
Adjusting a thermostat 2 degrees higher in the warmer months and 2 degrees lower in the colder months can save up to 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Turning the thermostat back 7 to 10 degrees from its normal setting for 8 hours a day can save up to 10% a year on heating and cooling, according to the Department of Energy.
Companies may also find that smart thermostats can help them save on energy use.
4. Decorate the office with plants
Indoor air quality can be a health and environmental concern in office buildings due to contaminants from electronics, furniture, paint, cleaning products and outdoor pollution. Not only do plants improve the aesthetics of an office, but they can also help to purify the air.
Through photosynthesis, plants filter the air and can reduce carbon dioxide, indoor ozone, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter, according to the journal article "Psychological and physiological benefits of plants in the indoor environment," published in a 2021 issue of the International Journal of Built Environment and Sustainability.
The right plants can remove up to 87% of air toxins within just 24 hours, according to research from NASA. This helps prevent sick building syndrome, which can trigger various health issues and reduce productivity. The best purifying plants are snake plant, dracaena, spider plant, English ivy, date palm, bamboo palm, flamingo lily, Chinese evergreen and pathos.
5. Enjoy more sustainable coffee
Seventy percent of Americans drink coffee on a weekly basis and 62% drink it daily, according to the National Coffee Association. And those who drink coffee tend to enjoy about three cups per day. What's more, more than half of coffee drinkers prefer to purchase coffee that is certified as good for the environment and the farmers who grow it.
Unfortunately, most coffee production contributes to deforestation, climate change, erosion, water pollution and waste, and exploits farmers, according to nonprofit group Conservation International.
With so much coffee consumed at work, companies can make a big impact by purchasing coffee brands that are Fairtrade, Alliance, 4C and Smithsonian Bird Friendly.
In addition, coffee drinkers can learn about the complex issues surrounding coffee and its supply chain as appetite for the beverage increases worldwide.
6. Reduce single-use packaging and plastics
The kitchen or break room is likely the most popular spot in any office, but also one where workers generate a lot of waste. By making a few changes, staff can minimize the trash that can end up in landfills for hundreds of years (or longer), or in rivers and oceans.
Disposable cups are one of the main areas to target since billions end up in landfills each year.
For example, 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away in the U.K. every year, according to "Disposable Packaging: Coffee Cups," published by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, Dec. 19, 2017. That amount is enough to wrap around the earth about five and a half times. Less than 1% -- about .25% -- are recycled. That's in part because these cups also contain plastic and other materials.
Food packaging and plastics are also major environmental issues.
To help, companies can do things such as provide reusable cups and water bottles. They can install water filters and ask employees to drink from reusable water bottles. Companies can also encourage staff to bring their own reusable kitchen supplies to work or procure more sustainable products like bamboo utensils, compostable plant-based cups and recycled napkins.
7. Reduce office food waste
Food waste is a global sustainability problem, but office workers can do their part.
In the United States, more than one-third of produced food is wasted, according to "From Farm to Kitchen: The environmental impacts of U.S. food waste," published by the EPA in November 2021. Excluding the amount of methane emissions from what ends up in landfills, that amount is the equivalent of more than 42 coal-burning power plants. The water and energy it wastes would supply more than 50 million homes. And it is equal to an area of agricultural land the size of California and New York.
To combat food waste in the office, businesses can partner with a composting service. They can also look for any opportunities they can use as new technology develops to help cut food waste.
In addition, business leaders can look for guidance from partners or from free materials such as the toolkit from the Rockefeller Foundation, which advocates taking a multifaceted approach such as raising awareness and designating a food waste champion.