Bored at work? Take a moment to look at the contents of the bin under your desk. Chances are there’s an empty sandwich packet, an apple core, and a fair amount of paper chucked away in there.
As a nation, we throw away a whopping amount of rubbish. And not just at home – UK industry and commerce produces about 75 million tonnes of waste a year, of which more than two thirds is likely to end up in a landfill.
While we are increasingly aware of what we throw away at home, environmental problems like this can be easier to ignore at work because they feel less like our own responsibility.
But whether you run your own business or work for a larger organisation, there are plenty of things you can do to help make your workplace greener and more ethical.
Try taking the initiative and persuading your employer to make a few relatively simple changes. Many companies and organisations are open to fresh ideas – and often it is a small number of committed and enthusiastic employees that make all the difference.
Some changes take a bit of time and effort to put in place. But even small steps – such as switching off your computer when you leave work can have a big effect.
It is worth reminding employers that making your workplace greener and more ethical is not only about making people feel virtuous and allowing the company to be seen to be doing its bit for the environment. It can also be good for business by helping to save your company money.
So what can we do to make our workplaces more ethical?
Well, cutting the amount of rubbish generated in your workplace is a good place to start. Recycling more, as well as using less resources – and paper in particular – to start with are obvious practical steps.
An estimated 5 million tonnes of paper is thrown away every year, mostly ending up in landfill sites or incinerators. Try to reduce the amount of unnecessary paper use, and re-use paper and old files and folders if you can. Another paper-saving measure is to set the office printers to print out on both sides of the paper as their default.
Scrap paper is usually fine for jotting down notes. It is also worth keeping paper mailing lists up-to-date, as people who no longer have any interest in receiving circulars may be getting post that is then binned straight away. And they may not need ‘snail mail’ at all – send an email instead of a printed letter wherever possible.
Having a few mugs for tea and coffee around the office can dramatically reduce the amount of paper or plastic vending machine cups that are used once and then thrown away. Get colleagues to bring in a mug – and then offer to do the tea run, naturally.
As an added bonus, making your own tea and coffee using an office kettle takes up less energy – and is almost certainly nicer – than having it out of a vending machine, which is always ‘on’ and using up electricity. But if a lack of facilities means this is not an option, then buy in recycled paper cups for the vending machine.
Does your office or organisation have a workplace recycling scheme? If not, suggest one. Your employer can talk to the local authority recycling officer about setting up a recycling collection. Alternatively, whoever removes regular rubbish from your office may already be capable of handling recycling collections too.
Put some recycling bins around the office, for aluminium drinks cans, glass bottles, newspaper and other kinds of paper. If you set up a recycling scheme in your office, do remember to put up some flyers on office notice boards to let your colleagues know the bins are available and where they are.
And don’t just bin the more awkward-looking bits of rubbish. Many of these – printer cartridges for example – are now recyclable too. A number of companies have sprung up that specialise in recycling more difficult items such as old computers and electrical equipment.
Some charities or companies will – having wiped sensitive data from the hard disks first – help to send old computers to cash-strapped schools in the developing world, or to community groups here at home, where they can benefit people who would not otherwise have access to technology.
Another big area you could look at is energy saving. Ever driven through a city at night as lights blaze out from street after street of totally deserted office buildings? All that wasted energy has an impact on climate change – and saving energy could help to lower climate change-causing carbon emissions.
The Carbon Trust, which works with companies to reduce carbon emissions, reckons that British employees are an untapped resource when it comes to tackling climate change.
A recent survey found that more two thirds of workers were keen to help their employer to save energy and wanted more direction on how to go about it.
“Tapping into enthusiasm from employees can build significantly on a company’s efforts at little extra cost,” says Tom Delay, Chief Executive of the Carbon Trust. “The benefits to businesses in cutting carbon are clear.
Not only does it help an organisation’s bottom line and brand, it also has increasing value among customers, shareholders and now employees. These reputation gains become all the more valuable when you consider that 60 percent of UK employees now say it’s important to work for a company that has an active policy to reduce its carbon emissions.”
Helping to save energy in the workplace can be as simple as switching off lights and electrical equipment such as computers when you leave the office for the day. Or at least making sure electrical equipment is left in power-saving mode.
Replacing normal light bulbs with their energy-saving equivalents is also a good move, and all this could save your employer a considerable amount of money over the course of a year.
A more radical move would be to switch the office’s energy supplier to a ‘green’ provider. For instance, the electricity company Ecotricity invests money from its customers in cleaner forms of renewable energy such as wind power.
Another important area to look at is purchasing. Try persuading your employer to buy in green and ethical products, the most obvious being recycled paper. There are a number of suppliers who specialise in green and ethical products for the workplace, and your regular office supplies company may also have recycled product lines on offer.
The list of everyday office products that can be bought recycled is increasing all the time, and includes items ranging from printer cartridges to pens and pencils to mouse mats.
You could also ensure that vending machines and office kitchens are stocked up with fair trade or organic products – again, the range available is increasing by the day. See one-stop shops such as greenyouroffice.co.uk, where you can pick up anything from packets of fair trade tea, coffee and hot chocolate, to recycled toilet roll or an eco-friendly printer.
When buying in office supplies and services, it is also worth thinking about helping to support local businesses. This may save goods being shipped long distances and contributes to the local economy, as well as generating good relationships for your organisation.
Water is an area where more careful use is good for the environment as well as reducing bills for the employer. Look into whether your office has water saving measures in place, and find out how much water it uses each year.
Envirowise, an organisation that advises businesses on reducing their environmental impact, says companies can cut their bills and reduce their water consumption by up to 50 per cent using even very simple and cheap water-saving measures.
Those could include simple water saving devices that go into toilet cisterns, or getting leaking taps or pipes fixed.
And last but not least, transport. Some companies have made themselves more cycling-friendly through incentive schemes that help employees to buy bikes or provide facilities for them to store bikes while at work.
Others have started to examine ways to reduce the number of unnecessary journeys or using more environmentally friendly means of travel, such as the train. And, of course, you could try walking to work if it is an option. It is good for your health too!
The editor of Ethical Living, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.