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 reopened and companies like Google and Goldman Sachs acted as bellwethers leading the nation back to their second homes, the time 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 food, 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.
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 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.
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
What does the “new normal” look like for your company? Is everyone back in the office full time? Are most people on a hybrid schedule? Has your company downsized to a smaller office space for collaborative work when needed? 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.
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 importance of centralized collection points for waste and recyclables bolsters employee participation and reduces your company’s disposal and custodial costs regardless of how your company operates and where employees are working.
RoadRunner's customized waste solutions can handle whatever your business needs, creating greater affordability and efficiency with operational waste and recycling.