How to make your workspace a plastic-free zone

It may sound daunting, but taking these simple steps can help save the planet—and even boost your company’s bottom line

Your local coffee shop may have recently banned the straw, but takeout practices will need to evolve way more radically if humanity intends to keep roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic pollution from entering the environment each year. According to anti-plastic advocacy group 5 Gyres, millions of tons of that junk are byproducts of quick meals we eat on the go: candy wrappers, bottle caps, soda bottles, and clear plastic bags.

The We Company is one of a growing number of companies around the world that are doing their part by eliminating single-use plastics from their daily operations. But making this transition takes time, planning, and a culture shift away from our ingrained, single-use ways.

To outline some best practices, we talked to Lindsay Baker, The We Company’s head of sustainability and wellbeing, who oversaw the company’s six-month transition to single-use-plastic-free workspaces, and Rachel Labbé-Bellas, science programs manager for 5 Gyres, a member at WeWork 5792 W Jefferson Blvd in Los Angeles.

Tackle low-hanging fruit first. Consider your workspace kitchen—and your colleagues’ and your own habits. Is coffee made with single-use plastic pods or in a communal pot? Is water served in a glass or a plastic bottle? Is there a compost receptacle? A recycling container? Do people use them? If your answers err on the plasticky side, start by tackling those problems first by eliminating coffee pod systems or improving recycling options (and coworker compliance). “If you’re in an office where you do nothing else to be thoughtful about waste and your impact on the world, [eliminating single-use plastic] probably would be tough [to start with],” advises Baker.

Demonstrating to co-workers how much waste is saved by replacing plastic water bottles with a water cooler and reusable glasses could help plant the seeds for a bigger commitment to office sustainability.

Don’t swap one problem for another one. When The We Company tackled the plastics in its kitchens, “we really tried to prioritize not replacing single-use plastics with single-use other crap,” says Baker. Ceramic mugs and metal cups replaced disposable cups in the company kitchen, metal cutlery took the place of plastic silverware, and glass jars of honey landed on pantry shelves. “We’ve always had the choice of paper cups for water and coffee, but ultimately, reusability was the bigger message here,” says Baker.

That’s because “recyclable” plastic alternatives might not necessarily make it to the proper processing facility once they’re discarded. “Many cities around the world don’t process compostable waste outside the landfill,” says Baker. Your “eco-friendly” paper cup might end up at the garbage dump, and trash in landfills does not break down—it just sits there forever.

Products made of biodegradable plastics won’t break down in the landfill or ocean, either. “They biodegrade in industrial facilities at 4,000 degrees,” says 5 Gyres’ Labbé-Bellas. “It takes that much heat to actually break down that item.”

Finally, 25 percent of properly recycled goods in the U.S. will be exported to another country, increasingly in Southeast Asia, where there’s a lucrative market for waste plastic. Once abroad, it could be reused—or it might be incinerated or end up in a landfill.

Baker recommends using alternative disposable materials only if there’s no reusable option. The We Company is transitioning away from the use of wood stirrers, for example, with messaging that encourages coffee stirring with metal spoons.

Break it down to dollars and cents. Financial incentives can encourage buy-in from employers. “For us at The We Company, a reusable cup typically pays for itself after about 30 uses,” estimates Baker, which is why it could be in your company’s best interest to buy reusable cups for everybody in the office. And if your office pays for its waste disposal by volume, there could be an additional savings when all those single-use plastics are no longer filling up the trash cans.

Struggling to get the whole staff on board? Labbé-Bellas says that turning green initiatives into a competition—like who can waste the least or recycle the most—with prizes like gift cards or cash bonuses for the winner, can go a long way in changing people’s habits.

Get the messaging right. This involves more than just putting signs up around the trash area. 5 Gyres recommends office-wide screenings (or just share the link) of The Story of Stuff’s 5-to-10 minute animated videos that show what happens to everyday items like disposable water bottles once you get rid of them. They may convince even the office skeptic.

When you do start making those signs, suggests Baker, “picking accurate terms like ‘zero single-use plastic’ as opposed to ‘zero-plastic’ will make sure people aren’t confused when they still see plastic around the office.” And one more tip: Labbé-Bellas says that newly-reformed coworkers may end up with stacks of plates and cups in their offices at first, and might need a reminder to return them to the kitchen.  

Work with green-friendly vendors. Your office may have rid itself of single-use plastics, but what about your caterers and food-delivery services? For most restaurants, it’s the default move to load up a bag of to-go food with single-use plastic forks and paper napkins. Offices that depend on catered meals should figure out which restaurants are most amenable to reducing waste in their packaging and encourage employees to order their food from those places. Restaurants might cut back on plastic wrap, use bigger trays to decrease the number of cartons, and eliminate plastic to-go boxes. “There are lots of things caterers can do just to reduce [plastic waste] if you ask them to,” says Baker.

Eager to reduce single-use plastic ASAP? Make sure your next coffee or lunch break is free of plastic straws, utensils, containers, and bags. It’s one small way to do your part—and it will only grow from there.

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