Every time I go in to work, I cringe at the large amount of stuff piled by the door waiting to go out to the dumpster: piles of desks, tables, chairs, bookshelves, file cabinets, all kinds of furniture. Some of it is really badly damaged, some needs only small repairs, and some is just being trashed because it’s not needed. I’m a teacher, and try as we might to get kids involved in wasting less, there’s still a steady stream of junk from the grown-ups. The worst of it happens at the very beginning of the year before the kids come, and the very end of the year as we all clean out the stuff we don’t need anymore or didn’t use during the year. It’s almost a comic picture of “do as I say, not as I do,” except it’s true, at least in every school I’ve ever worked in. And I’ve worked in a lot of schools. I think I’m up to 6 now. In one of the schools I used to work at, kids collected the recycle bins from all around the school, sorted the loot, and made sure it all was gathered into the correct large bins for the weekly city pickup. They routinely said the worst bins of all were the ones in the teachers lounge. We’re getting better at changing our collective habits at home, but something happens at work to make us less conscious. I always try my best, but somehow, it’s harder for me to maintain my “use less, waste less” habits at work than at home. Is it influence from others around me? Am I just too busy at work to stay as diligent about it there as I am at home? Is it that I’m more invested in what happens in my home than at work? Or that I don’t buy the materials in the first place? Or I don’t have control over what my employer buys and who they buy from? Who knows. But what I do know is that, at least in my experience, it’s a big problem. If your workplace is anything like mine, any little things you can do will help. Here are some ideas to get started:
- Pack a lunch, and use reusable containers, silverware, and a reusable bag. Try to avoid disposable tableware as much as possible. Keep a set of backup plate, cup, bowl, etc. for days when snacks or lunch is provided so you don’t need to use the paper or plastic stuff.
- Use the backs of paper. Often times, what ends up in the recycle bin only has printing on one side. Start saving that paper so you can use the back of it. Cut it up for scrap paper if you like small tablets. I cut it in quarters, and have found it to be the perfect size to replace post-its and other smaller tablets I used to buy. I also keep a stack of it by my printer so I can use that when I need to print something. I haven’t bought paper in years, and I’m still drowning in extra paper.
- Print only what you need. Can you get by with referring to only the digital copy? If you must print, here are some suggestions for getting the most out of the toner, paper, and energy used. Basically, think about getting as much print on a page as possible. Think thinner fonts that use less ink and take up less space, smaller margins, and smaller font size. Again, print on the back of something else, if possible.
- Care about the extra pens/pencils lying around. You’ll never need to buy one again. Trust me on this one. So much of what ends up in the trash (especially in schools) are pencils with absolutely nothing wrong with them except it was easier to sweep it into the trash than rescue it from the pile.
- Empty your own trash, and don’t use a trash bag if you dont really need one. If you do use a trash bag, when you empty the trash, dump your trash out into a bigger bag that will already be going out, so you don’t need to replace your bag every day. Don’t replace the bag unless it absolutely needs it. I make a habit of dumping my own trash into one of the large trash bins in the cafeteria. This will also make your custodian very happy to not have to worry about your workspace. And having the custodian on your side comes in very handy: it’s a major perk to know that the person who does the cleaning has your back. And whenever there’s an emergency cleaning situation, I’m one of the first priorities 🙂
- Turn out the lights and shut down your computer when you leave. It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t do this. Unfortunately, it’s not even possible to shut down the computers at where I work now. We can only log off. I need to ask about this one….
- Make art out of all those promotional CDs/DVDs/software discs that come in the mail. They make great sun catchers and leave pretty rainbows everywhere which might make it just a bit less awful to be at work. I teach music, so I’ve always got tons of old scratched CDs and promotional junk to work with. Ideally, you should try to get off of the mailing lists that send this junk, but they always manage to find me, and I still get lots of unsolicited stuff. In the meantime though, I have something to hang up that makes me smile.
- Start an eco-group at work to raise awareness. It’s pretty likely that even though you might feel like the only one who cares, there are probably other coworkers who want to do better but don’t think they can or don’t know where to start.
- Ask about all that discarded furniture. Can it be listed it on freecycle or craigslist? This one is on my own to-do list…
- Ask about converting to recycled paper for the copy machines. I know that paper can only be recycled a finite number of times before it can’t be used anymore, but I feel like using recycled is better than nothing. Again, also on my to-do list.
And of course, this is only a short list to get started. There is always more we can do at work. If it seems overwhelming, start small, and find someone else who thinks like you do so you don’t feel like you’re in it alone. Remember, it all makes a difference.
What else do you do at work to lessen your eco-impact?