This article was originally published June 2019 and has been updated.
The concept of working a 9-to-5 office job often evokes memories of spending more waking hours at your place of business than in your own home. Inevitably, in being more active at work, the average American office worker generated a substantial amount of waste—from 10,000 sheets of office paper to 500 “disposable” coffee cups.
When the COVID-19 pandemic sent many workers home, all of our wasteful behaviors followed us to the kitchen, couch, and bedroom. But now, as the economy reopens and companies like Google and Goldman Sachs act as bellwethers leading the nation back to their second homes, the time has arrived to reset how offices think about waste and recycling.
With sustainability, efficiency, and employee well-being top of mind, we discuss five materials responsible for the disproportionate waste generation in the office setting, as well as ongoing considerations for a zero-waste future.
Let's dive deeper into just how much waste is created in the office...
MIXED PAPER PRODUCTS
Even with the business world becoming more digitized, the average office worker generates about two pounds worth of paper and paperboard products every day and uses roughly 10,000 sheets of copy paper per year! Worse, a study from Xerox found that nearly half of all printed documents are thrown away within 24 hours, and 30% are never picked up from the printer at all.
Between print mistakes, junk mail, handouts, billing reports, presentations, and packaging, mixed paper products make up an estimated 70% of the total waste in offices. It should go without saying that the average office can make a huge impact by reducing, reusing, and recycling its mixed paper products.
THE SOLUTION: Paper and cardboard—devoid of any coffee spills—can be recycled around five to seven times before it degrades in quality, and there are many ways to reduce your usage of these materials. Provide a recycling container designated for just paper recycling in copy rooms and a designated receptacle beside each person's desk (or at the end of a row of desks). Printing double sided and only making copies and prints when necessary will also drastically reduce your output.
Americans, in all settings, waste about a pound of food per day, whether through scraps or spoilage. Habitually, we over-buy on the amount of food we actually need, and according to a University of Vermont study, eating healthier—diets consisting of organic and more-perishable foods—can create even more waste. Collectively, around 40% of all food in the U.S. goes uneaten and accounts for the second-largest proportion of national landfill space (right after paper products).
THE SOLUTION: Set up an office composting plan to recycle your food scraps. Compostable items include: vegetable trimmings, coffee grounds, food scraps, fruit peels, flowers, plants, and non-treated cardboard.
Thinking proactively, be realistic during your trip to the grocery store, and embrace eating the scraps and leftovers. For inspiration, check out IKEA’s free cookbook designed to help you cut down on food waste.
Between bottles, bags, and packaging, an office can accumulate a lot of plastic materials. For reference, the average person uses 156 plastic bottles per year, with Americans collectively throwing away 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour. These bottles, constructed with PET and HDPE plastics, have overall recycling rates of 29.1% and 29.3%, respectively.
The EPA’s latest figures suggest U.S. citizens create 35.7 million tons of plastic waste per year, and the portability and convenience-factor that plastic offers to an office environment ultimately makes it a primary driver.
THE SOLUTION: Learn which plastics are accepted and designate a commingled recycling bin for all of the business's containers, bottles, cans, and jars made of metal, plastic, or glass. Whenever possible, choose to use durable items instead, like personal aluminum or glass water bottles, rigid and washable food containers, and reusable bags.
According to the EPA, the average person creates 4.4 pounds of solid waste each day. Coffee cups, Styrofoam plates, and thin, film-like plastics are among the commonly used items that are often found in offices and also cannot be recycled.
Each year, the average office worker uses 500 coffee cups, all of which are sent to landfills. Whether Styrofoam or paperboard affixed with a leak-proof plastic liner—recycling the cups is incredibly difficult to be profitable for the industry. Over the course of the work day, miscellaneous materials like these often find their way into the trash over the recyclables.
THE SOLUTION: The good news... it’s estimated that 70% of a business's landfill waste can be recycled! Understand the types of waste your business is creating through a waste audit and try to reduce it. On a smaller scale, simple changes like using a ceramic or aluminum coffee mug instead of paperboard/plastic or Styrofoam cups can go a long way in making an impact in your business's waste diversion.
Go a step further by asking your shipping providers to cut down on unnecessary packaging that's hard for your business to recycle, and talk to your building manager about a collection program for anything your waste service doesn’t accept.
Although absent on our infographic, and representing less than one percent of all MSW generation, e-waste is actually the fastest-growing domestic waste stream in the U.S.—Americans generated 2.7 million tons of consumer electronics goods in 2018. And on a global scale, only about a fifth of all electronic waste is recycled.
As offices are rife with technology and electronic equipment like computers, monitors, printers, and even company smartphones, the toll of trashing outdated, broken, and obsolete equipment looms large. Not only can discarded electronics harm the environment and spark fires at recycling facilities, but the materials used to create these items are recyclable—and increasingly valuable. Relative to our waste volumes, estimates suggest we’re tossing away billions of dollars of copper, aluminum, and much-needed semiconductor chips.
THE SOLUTION: Manufacturers of electronics, from Apple to IBM, organize mail-in collections, store drop-offs, and e-waste event recycling. Additionally, with half of all states mandating ongoing collection, there’s a strong chance your municipality or local government has a program your business can seek out.
Sustainable Office Considerations for 2021 & Beyond
While much remains speculative, all signs point to a resurgence of the in-person office environment. Following the lead of Goldman Sachs and Google, who have vowed to return to their brick-and-mortar workspaces by summer 2021, the nation’s executives say the time has come. In a survey from staffing firm LaSalle Network, more than 350 CEOs, human resource managers, and finance leaders, 70% say they plan to have their employees back to the office by fall 2021 or sooner.
What the “new normal” will look like for your company when it goes back will vary widely. Some companies have employed architects to overhaul how employees move, interact, and work in the building, with experts predicting a demise to the “open-office” layout.
Example of RoadRunner Recycling centralized collection receptacles in an open office.
Other sought-out alterations include a touch-less office space, with smart locks, app-enabled elevators and food dispensers, and room-booking software. HEPA air filters, UV-sanitization, and even Zoom rooms have been discussed for a workforce uncomfortable with how things once were.
Given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a step back and examine operations from top to bottom, landlords, tenants, and company decision-makers are beginning to recognize that sustainability is worth pursuing as much as productivity.
The workforce as a whole—not just millennials—expect their employers to take action over rhetoric in progressing environment-forward practices. And as the volumes of solid waste gradually shift from the home to a commercial setting once again, businesses need to be prepared to manage it responsibly.
The open-office format may be discouraged for 2021 and beyond, but the importance of centralized collection points for waste and recyclables bolsters employee participation and reduces your company’s disposal and custodial costs.
Need help navigating what a new normal could look like? RoadRunner’s unparalleled industry knowledge and custom algorithms enable flexible service for an uneven migration back to the office setting. In line with our mission, we make it easy to recycle more, and as a strategic partner to more than 7,000 businesses, RoadRunner recycles an average of 8.6 tons more per location each year we serve.
As all the nation’s businesses stare down uncertainty for what’s next, when it comes time to suit up again, let RoadRunner help realize a sustainable office built for the future.