The pandemic instantly made remote workers out of many of us — and made the home office one of the most important zones in the house. Some people have fielded multiple Zoom meetings per day from their couch; others are lucky enough to have a room devoted to working. But no matter what type of workplace situation you’ve carved out, now’s the time to incorporate sustainable practices for a zero-waste home office. Because for many, the WFH trend isn’t ending anytime soon.
Read on for ideas about reducing your paper usage, conserving energy, and shopping for the most sustainable home office products.
Unplug your electronics
We’re all well-trained by now to turn off the lights when we leave a room. But you can go one step further and unplug electronics, like your computer, to cut back on your energy use.
The number of watts — units of energy — your computer uses while it is working will vary. A desktop generally uses more energy than a laptop, and usage varies based on where you live and the specific components of your computer setup, according to PCmag. But all computers are using energy as long as they are on, even when they’re not in use. So get in the habit of shutting down your computer when you clock out.
If you do keep your computer on overnight or over the weekend, configure it to go into a low-power “sleep mode” when it’s not being used. Sleep mode uses less energy and the memory (called RAM) is still accessible. You can find instructions from EnergyStar.gov on how to enable sleep mode for your monitor and your computer, respectively, here and here.
You might be thinking that having a screensaver on your computer means it is not using as much energy. Alas, screensavers don’t save much energy, and can even prevent your computer from going into sleep mode.
Reduce paper use
Just think about all the ways you use paper in your office. Your business cards. Your wall calendar. Post-Its. Printer. Note pads. Stationery. Paper packaging such as cardboard and envelopes. Yup, paper is everywhere.
Over 40 percent of wood pulp is used for paper production, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The pulp and paper industries are global; your paper could originate from forests located in Canada, South America, Africa, China, or many other places.
The specific impact of the paper industry is unique to the people and the environment of each locale. But, a 2018 report from the Environmental Paper Network explains that the industries are linked to deforestation and water pollution. Deforestation can decimate the ecosystems for animals and people who live there. Meanwhile, pesticides and bleaching chemicals used in the pulping process can harm water supplies and sicken local people.
Despite our awareness of the impact of these industries, we still use a lot of paper. “Paper consumption is at unsustainable levels and globally it is steadily increasing,” notes the Environmental Paper Network, which is an alliance of environmental organizations globally. Paper use increases every year, and it has quadrupled over the past 50 years. In fact, the EPA conjectures that the average American office worker uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper each year.
Fortunately, small but significant behavioral changes can reduce the use of paper. First, use the printer in your zero-waste home office only when absolutely necessary. Don’t print out an email when jotting down a note would suffice. Consider emailing documents to attendees before a meeting instead of printing them out. Release reports as digital-only.
Second, send documents over email instead of faxing them. You can download a scanner app on your smartphone, such as Scannable, and there are a variety of apps that can sign contracts and other paperwork. Going paperless in the workplace is easier than ever before. Here are just a few services that we’ve found helpful to cut back on our paper usage:
- Evernote: Digitally take notes (and add images, audio, and other media).
- eFax: Virtually send and receive faxes.
- Dropbox: Store documents, projects. and images in digital “folders” and share those “folders” with colleagues.
- DocuSign: A paperless way to sign documents and contracts.
- FreshBooks: Digitally invoice and bill clients.
Lastly, set your printer options to print double-sided.
Recycle your paper
Even someone completely new to a zero-waste lifestyle will know that paper can be recycled. Recycling capability depends on your local recycling services.
You can recycle paper so long as it’s clean and doesn’t contain foils, glosses, waxes, or glitter. Notebook paper, copy paper, envelopes, file folders, paper-based packaging (such as cardboard), magazines, and stationery are all recyclable. Newspapers and paperboard (which is thinner than cardboard) are recyclable as well.
Despite their recyclability, paper products still comprise 23 percent of the municipal solid waste generated each year, according to the EPA. When paper ends its life in a landfill, it is contributing to the production of methane, which traps heat in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. Landfills represented 15 percent of methane emissions in 2018. That may not sound like a lot, but to put that figure in perspective, the amount of methane was comparable to the greenhouse gas emissions from 20.6 million passenger vehicles.
Recycled paper, on the other hand, can be used for everything from egg cartons to kitty litter to toilet paper and paper towels. Paper fibers are broken down during the recycling process, and are then reconstituted to make these new products. This entire process emits 40 percent fewer greenhouse gases. And it uses 26 percent less energy than harvesting trees to create new paper.
Get yourself a recycling bin for your zero-waste home office that will handle the quantity of these items that you use. Note on your work and personal calendars when recycling pickup takes place, or schedule a regular date to drop off recycling yourself.
If shredding the documents that contain sensitive information will inspire you to recycle more paper, buy yourself a personal paper shredder. Depending on capacity and shredding abilities, they can run anywhere from around $40 to $100 at stores like Staples. You can recycle shredded paper the same way that you would whole paper.
There’s one more possibility to reuse your paper products: in the garden! Paper is both biodegradable and compostable because it is derived from wood. You can add most shredded paper (once again, not the waxy/glossy kind) to your compost pile. Just make sure you’re using soy-based or vegetable-based printer ink — aka nontoxic ink — if you plant on composting used printer paper.
Use recycled printer paper
Even with your best attempts at a paperless office, you’ll need to print sometimes. You can buy recycled printer paper for your zero-waste home office. Other sustainable materials for printer paper include more fiber waste products like sawmill waste chips and sugarcane waste fiber.
Lastly, consider not only the source of your paper products, but the chemicals used on them. Bleaching chemicals, such as elemental chlorine, have been historically added to brighten the virgin fiber pulp. However, the EPA told paper mills to stop adding elemental chlorine out of concern that the chemicals were leaking through wastewater into bodies of water.
Some paper is bleached with chlorine dioxide, a compound that “significantly reduces dioxins but does not eliminate them,” according to a 2012 report from Conservatree. Buy chlorine-free printer paper, which may be labeled “processed chlorine-free” or PCF. (The EPA also recommends purchasing paper with a “brightness” of 85, warning that anything higher could mean it was bleached.)
Choose ‘better’ ink cartridges
Every once in a while, you’ll need to add a new ink cartridge or a toner cartridge to your printer. These cartridges are plastic and can take 400 years or more to biodegrade. But did you know that these cartridges can be recycled? Stores like Office Depot and Staples have cartridge recycling programs, and businesses may even give you discounts or rewards for bringing them in.
Buying remanufactured ink or toner cartridges (which are filled with new ink or toner) is a smarter choice. You can find them at office supply companies like Quill.
Now, let’s talk about inks. When buying ink, look for confirmation on the packaging that it is low in volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. VOCs are emitted as gases, and the sharp smell is typically what we call “fumes.”
VOCs become pollutants when they evaporate, which operate as greenhouse gases. For example, inks derived from fossil fuels can release VOCs like methane or formaldehyde into the air.
VOCs can also affect the air quality in your zero-waste home office. “VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects,” according to the EPA. Using inks and toners that are low in VOCs, or have no VOCs, is the best choice for both you and the environment.
Recycle your e-waste
Getting a new computer (or phone or printer) is undeniably exciting. But what should you do with that big hunk of glass, metal and plastic, aka electronics waste or e-waste? Here’s one place not to send it: the landfill. Find an organization through a service like the Recycle Locator through the Consumer Technology Association.
The end-of-life management of your electronics will vary based on the item’s usability. One possibility is repair or refurbishment of the item and then reselling it. A refurbished smartphone or laptop, for example, will be cleaned and reset before it is sold to a new owner.
Another possibility is breaking the electronics down for parts and then reusing them elsewhere. According to the BBC, an iPhone contains aluminum and copper, as well as small amounts of platinum, palladium, gold and silver. If headed to a landfill, these precious metals go to waste. But, they can be safely extracted and diverted elsewhere when they are recycled. For example, the EPA says that 35,000 lbs of copper is recovered for every 1 million recycled cell phones. This “scrap copper” can be melted down and made into new items like pots and pans, pipes, and electrical wire.
The EPA lists a variety of companies and vendors, such as Staples, which offer in-store, event, or haul-away recycling options. You can also check the solid waste and/or recycling section of your county or state government website for how to dispose of e-waste. It should explain which items can be recycled, on what dates, and whether there are fees for the service.
You can also donate used electronics closer to home. Groups like The Freecycle Network or The Buy Nothing Project, which organizes regional groups on Facebook, are a great way to unload electronics you no longer need.
Folks may just want to use the word processor or access the Internet and won’t mind that your computer is slower. (In fact, during my freshman year of college, my computer was “e-waste” from my father’s office. Instead of throwing out its older computers, his company let employees take them home.)
Your old electronics have one last task in your zero-waste home office before they head forth to their new life, though: Make sure you back up everything you need from your computer or your phone, and delete any personal information (including photos and videos). While it is unlikely you should have any security issues from recycling old electronics, we’re going to dredge up the old cliché: better to be safe than sorry.
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