Reducing waste at work

Filed in Blog by on March 29, 2012 8 Comments
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Organising a zero waste office

Organising a zero waste office

I know you’re all brilliant at reducing waste at home; you’re a bunch of pro zero wasters if ever I saw them!

But how many of you are tearing your hair out at work?

It’s easy at home when you’re the CEO of the kitchen, but when you’re in a work situation it’s not always up to you to make the decisions.

I’ve worked in very different offices in my time; in one I had no say at all about anything as it was a large corporation and I was just a data clerk. But in another job I RAN the office so could gradually implement small changes. 😉

Fortunately, I (like to) think businesses are becoming more eco friendly, especially when they realise that treating the environment well is good for the bottom line.

I’ve put together some ideas on reducing waste at work and I’d love to hear some of the suggestions you’ve successfully implemented:

All aboard!

To begin with, you need to get everybody on board and that’s not always easy, especially when you’re already seen as the office weirdo who recycles drinks cans and carries a reusable bag.

Awareness of environmental issues is key though, so if you’re in a position to organise environmental awareness workshops or a carbon footprint audit through an external company you might gradually win people around. There are plenty of companies out there who will help you drive behaviour changes among your colleagues and encourage them to appreciate the positive impact they can have as individuals. Once they’re on board you can start working on some simple ideas.


Many companies are encouraging staff to ‘think before printing’ and are becoming paperless offices. This is a fantastic way to reduce paper, toner and ink usage but only if you actually implement the instruction. I know I’m sometimes guilty of printing unnecessarily so look at areas you could be less trigger happy on the print key.

When sending internal documents could you use paper clips, treasury tags or a stapleless stapler? I know a staple is tiny and might seem insignificant, but this is about collective actions. There are around ten million office workers in the UK and if we stopped using staples we’d save an estimated 120 tonnes of metal each year!

Hold a ‘bag amnesty’! In one of my offices it seemed every colleague went into town at lunchtime and came back with a carrier bag of food. You could pool the bags in one area and encourage people to reuse them, thus reducing waste. Better still, ask people to donate one reusable bag each and cut the plastic altogether.


How about reusing envelopes for internal mail? The number of times I saw brand new envelopes sent between staff in one company I worked for drove me crazy. Save the new sparkly envelopes for external mail and keep the scrappy ones amongst yourselves.

Have you printed something you no longer need? Turn the paper over and use the back of it to write your ‘to do’ list for the day or use it to take notes in a meeting. Unless it’s confidential information you could keep a stack of scrap paper like this on your desk for taking telephone messages.

Ink drums and toners can be refilled instead of buying new. Most brands can be refilled around four times before needing to be thrown away. This can be a huge saving for your company and the print quality, in my experience, is just as good.


oner and ink cartridges, along with mobile phones, can be donated to charity for them to recycle and raise money. This is a great way to boost staff morale and perhaps you can elicit a staff vote on which charity you collect for.

Is it possible to set up a compost bin for fruit peelings, cores, coffee grounds and teabags? Even if there is nowhere to compost it at work, you could set up a rota for staff to take home and use.

What’s your experience – do you think it’s easier to implement change in small businesses or are larger corporations listening to staff?

About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (8)

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  1. sooz says:

    I’ve started taking a little compost bin to work , which I take home with me a couple of times a week, we’re currently moving at work to a new centre where we’ll be integrated with other services and have to share a staff room, ‘susies worm bin’ was number one on the agenda for my boss (not even my line-manager but her manager!) to bring up at the shared-building-users group…which caused much amusement I’m told…I work for the council, who are quite good on eco-issues, we recycle all card, paper, tin, glass, I’m allowed to take the peelings and teabags, we send our cartridges to be recycled and our new building has solar panels, temparature controlled heating/air con/window opening and all sorts of swishy eco-things!

  2. Jane says:

    Where I work, some things are recycled, but, sadly, most categories of waste go in the rubbish bin. I am not in a position to influence this. Therefore, I just do what I can by taking home all my own recyclable waste for recycling. I also have a plastic tub in which I collect up my own compostable waste to take home and put on our compost heap. To avoid using paper towels, I take a face flannel to work to use as a towel, and cloth table napkins to use at lunchtime. If I need to print papers for my own use, I print 2 pages to a page as well as printing double-sided, and I minimise the margin sizes to reduce the number of sheets of paper used. A lot of the rubbish in the bins at work consists of paper towels. Ignoring the issue of whether use of paper towels is desirable, I am not sure whether or not recycling or composting used paper towels commercially is permissible. However, almost all the remaining rubbish is either recyclable or compostable.

  3. CarSue says:

    I work at a RECYCLING CENTER with a small staff of 5 full time and 3 part time employees, and I’m constantly saddened by how little most of my coworkers actually care about the environment. We have recycling containers for every category, from paper to drink containers to dry cell batteries, and yet I am still forced to remove recyclable items from the trash all the time. Worse, our super wasteful secretary never prints double-sided, and never “print previews” her printouts, so she’ll frequently throw a sheet of paper in the recycling bin because it got printed with a single line from an email signature, etc. She also buys paper napkins for each and every conceivable holiday, and then throws totally unused napkins in the trash after a party/season because, of course, she bought a pack of 80 for an office of 8. I think the problem is that, in such a small office when everyone knows each other so well, it can be touchy to approach people about these things. At least in a larger office, someone would probably be appointed “in charge” of the green efforts, and could be more effective at implementing change.

    P.S. On a happy note, our secretary is retirning in May, and I will be setting up a WHOLE new way of doing things around our office!

  4. Carrie says:

    I would recommend everyone to be brave and put ‘being greener’ on the agenda at team/company meetings. I did this at my old work, even organising a screening of an eco-movie. Everyone really got behind it and we managed to change a lot!

  5. In my old job, once the under 30 bunch found out my boyfriend composted, they would stop by my desk and drop off their fruit peels, tea bags, you name it. I kept a container just for this on the edge of my desk with a top on it. I’d email him (as we worked in the same building) to pick it up once it was full.
    But the printing. People printed and printed—and printed everything. The new generation flushing in just saved everything on their computers in folders, but the older generation just wasn’t down with that. Not yet. But, hey, most of them were getting ready to retire and I think the newbies coming in would implement the non-printing fad quite quickly. There is hope yet.

  6. Mrs Green says:

    @sooz: that’s fantastic sooz; I love that your compost bin is number 1!

    @Jane: I think you’re leading by example Jane – when we’re not in a position to instigate change we just have to do whatever we can on a personal level.

    @CarSue: Ack! Roll on May; it must be so frustrating for you. Wouldn’t it be nice if people worked in recycling centres because they were passionate about it, rather than it just being a job.

    @Carrie: Oh good for you Carrie – be the change 🙂

    @Jennifer Ward-Pelar: Ah yes, old habits die hard right – but at least you got them all composting – good for you!

  7. Jane says:

    BAGS: We had a reusable one hooked up in the kitchen with a notice asking that it should be Used and Returned.

    Also an Ikea holey collection thingy for the supermarket plastic carriers to be pushed into… and pulled out of for re-use. Neat, modern and visible.

    PLASTIC BOTTLES & CANS: I’d set up a bin in the kitchen where the plastic milk bottles could be collected together with cans. It was still very difficult to get people to bring their plastic bottles and cans back downstairs to this.

    I’d intended to put up a can squasher on the wall. This has a certain therapeutic quality. I’d put a squashed can on a poster on the wall. It is surprising the complete lack of appreciation of volume and the little effort it takes to create more space.

    CARDBOARD & PAPER: Can’t believe people’s laziness at not flattening cardboard boxes. We only had a bag collection so large coardboard boxes on the occasions we got it were a problem. I have still to find a good stacking system for this. Some Councils I believe will let you just put a special tape around it. The stationery company obviously used us as a good way to get rid of some of the boxes that manufacturers or distributors sent to them.

    We had masses of paper and made quite an effort (though not enough) to get people to print off less and to keep info on the ocmputer. Used scrap for notes. Registering the fax machine with the relevant people to stop unwanted faxes was a big breakthrough.

    GLASS: Only very occasional – the odd bottle of wine or juice and so we took that home.

    FOOD WASTE: With no garden at all to put a compost bin we didn’t do this. I was hoping that the Council would start this for businesses or allow us to use the residential service. I went to a workshop once where the Waste Minimisation Officers at the Council had a Green Joanna in the Council Offices grounds. With more exphasis now on small business recycling and some areas where companies have joined together to share facilities I look forward to more sharing eg as done in Camden.

    INK TONERS ETC: We found Xerox were not taking back the type we used any more (or not in small quantities and we are only little) and think big companies like this should probably do more.

    ELECTRICAL: As part of a bigger organisation it was logical to use them for this.

    JIFFY BAG/AMAZON type book packaging: We always had more of these than we could re-use and I never managed to use Freecycle although I had intended to. I would now trying using Streetbank.

    One of the most important things that fails to be done is to point out the difference between Business Waste (not included for in Business Rates) and Residential Waste (included for in Council Tax.) Also that different Councils have different waste and recycling schemes to each other and that with Business Waste you are free to use whatever registered contractor you choose ie you don’t have to use the one doing the domestic collection. You need to do a Waste Audit to find out what your waste is made up of.

    Most of our unrecyclable waste was made up of paper towels and I would have liked to have had a fabric towels and a laundry collection together with Dyson or similar of the quieter quick air hand dryers. This also helps to keep the wrong sort of paper out of the drainage system! (Check out Thames Water’s Bin It Don’t Flush It campaign.)

  8. Mrs Green says:

    @Jane: Fantastic – thank you for sharing all of this valuable information Jane – it’s so inspiring and thanks for the tip about differentiating between business and residential waste too.

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