By Angela Young 17 October 2017

We’ve come a long way when it comes to putting into practice our concern for the environment. But there are always more challenges to overcome. 

Not so long ago, every desk in the office had a so-called wastepaper basket sitting under it. From takeaway food containers and apple cores through to used printouts: everything and anything was tossed into this little bin.

We’ve come a long way in a short time. We’re aware of environmental issues, and most people are keen to reduce their use of natural resources.

It’s the modern three-bin system – general waste, paper waste and co-mingled recyclables – with clear labelling and a central location (the kitchen, maybe, or the photocopier room) that has really brought offices up to date with recycling.

In Australia, paper remains one of the number-one workplace recyclables. Although twenty years ago many people expected the digital economy to lead to the paperless office, we still seem to end up with reams of the stuff.

Paper can be pulped and made into more (although lower grade) paper about seven times before its fibres become too short, and virgin materials need to be added into the process.

Making new paper from scratch uses more energy than recycling paper into a new paper material. So recycling is definitely worthwhile. And the fact that it’s cheaper to have recyclables collected than to have general waste disposed of means there’s a win for everyone.

Another form of office recycling that is becoming more common is e-waste. Keyboards and monitors that no longer work, even defunct batteries – most are at least partly recyclable. Not only is e-waste environmentally destructive in landfill, but the specialist companies that pick it up make money from selling some of the recyclable materials. Just as with paper, that reduces collection costs.

One office alone – a Sydney law firm – left more than 4,200 coffee cups in the bins after four weeks, which worked out at 1.4 cups per staff member every week.

Coffee culture’s naughty little secret

Paper and electricals are manageable, then. 

But here’s something you may not have considered: that innocent coffee you can’t start the day without raises a particular problem. 

Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore commented to Hospitality Magazine that coffee cups were presenting the state with a “major environmental dilemma”. 

Because of the waterproofing on the inside, most of the cups can’t be recycled through the co-mingled recycling stream – although plenty of office workers mistakenly throw them into the bins. 

At the end of 2016 a company called Closed Loop Environmental Solutions embarked on a trial to see whether dedicated takeaway coffee cup recycling was viable. 

Bins were placed in buildings in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Workers happily complied. One office alone – a Sydney law firm – left more than 4,200 cups in the bins after four weeks, which worked out at 1.4 cups per staff member every week. 

The three-bin system helps establish and maintain good recycling practices in the office

Closed Loop managing director Robert Pascoe said the trial had demonstrated that coffee drinkers would use an alternative bin for takeaway cups. 

“If a dedicated facility was set up, tens of millions of cups could be diverted from landfill every year,” he concluded.

In the current absence of specialist takeaway coffee cup recycling facilities, one way of reducing the environmental impact of our love for coffee is “pre-cycling”.  In other words, encouraging people to use washable cups rather than disposable ones. 

This involves forethought on the part of the company, but providing reusable items for food and drink will help the environment by allowing your staff to decline the disposable items they’re offered at food and drink outlets.

Crockery cups and plates, glasses, and stainless steel utensils (not plastic!) are simple in-office solutions. 

Establishing and maintaining good recycling practices in the office is beneficial. But there’s always more to do if you’re up for it. 

One place you can go for ideas is the NSW Environment Protection Authority, which provides a scheme called Bin Trim to help organisations with their waste management. 

Free audits are undertaken, and the results provided alongside educational materials for the company on how to minimise its waste, as well as potential rebates or financial assistance on certain waste collecting equipment. It’s well worth a look.

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