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Sustain this: Making small sustainability strides as we return to office life

By September 11, 2021No Comments

Elaine Butler’s tips on how to be more sustainable as we return to offices and college…

While not everyone has been working or studying from home for the last 18 months, a lot of us who have are now facing a transition to more and more in-person activities. This inevitably is going to impact our carbon footprint, both negatively and positively


We’re all mindful of the carbon we’re saving from not having to commute and some of us got the chance to develop good habits, like hanging clothes out to dry, cooking from scratch, planning meals, buying fruit and veg more regularly, and minimising food waste. 

There are a lot of environmental benefits from working at home but let’s not forget the emissions caused by heating and lighting hundreds of thousands of individual homes rather than a shared college or office block. There are also all of the collective initiatives available to us in a communal setting that we can’t access individually, like carpooling or swap shops. 

To get your college or office return off on the right foot, here are some tips to consider.

  • There’s likely to be a lot more eating out at lunchtime when we return to work or study. Plan for this by either bringing reusable cutlery and cups with you or choosing cafes that use reusable plates, cups and cutlery. 
  • Opting for plant-based meals when eating out is a simple and easy way to reduce your carbon footprint for no extra effort. It might also help to save you money as plant-based meals typically cost less than meals with meat. 
  • If you’re reading this article and you’re still using single-use coffee cups / glasses / bottles then you can start having a positive impact straightaway by just avoiding them. It really is a no brainer.
  • Join or start a Green Committee in your office. People are more likely to adopt new habits during a time of change, such as this one, so you might be able to drive through some impactful initiatives. 
  • If you’re not having to travel in to work every day then consider active forms of transport for the days you do, and by active I mean walking or cycling. The idea of walking or cycling five days a week can be overwhelming but once a week, even for part of the journey, is do-able for many. You don’t even have to buy a bike to do it, what with bike rental schemes being more readily available in cities. 
  • If active or public transport isn’t an option see if there’s a colleague you can carpool with. 
  • On days when you are commuting take 10mins to drop into any charity shops you pass. Little and often is my mantra for buying second hand. If you’ve none around you then take 20 mins out of your bus journey to check out resale websites or platforms. 
  • As I mentioned there’s a lot we can do collectively that is impossible to do individually. It could be as simple as an unmanned shelf of free-to-take-books, or a themed swap of Hallowe’en costumes or Christmas jumpers. If you’re in college, setting up a book donation/sale scheme for final year students would really help them re-home their old text books and help current students with costs. If you’re in an art college you could consider setting up a small materials library that people can donate/take from.
  • Clear out your emails regularly to keep your carbon footprint down. Each email has a carbon footprint of between 4- 50g. It might not seem like much but it adds up, and being in the office you can avoid them completely by just walking over and talking to someone in person. How novel.
  • Although online meetings can cut down on carbon emissions from travel it’s not the most sustainable form of communication. Aim to use the landline first, then mobile and only online as the last option for remote one-to-one meetings. Also turning your camera off when you don’t need it for lectures can be a good way to save carbon.
  • Think before you print is a long standing tip for sustainability. Some people like to print out documents to read, which I understand as reading online can be tiring at times. If you are printing, aim to print double-sided and maybe leave out pages with large photos that require a lot of ink. If you’re more of an aural learner you may find the ‘read it aloud’ function on Adobe. 
  • When creating your own documents consider using a low-ink font like Calibri or Century Gothic, which are said to use 30% less ink than Arial. Bear in mind though, that this should be balanced with legibility, particularly for people with impaired vision.
  • Workplaces and colleges can be a great place to gather donations for charities and social enterprises, and if they’re second-hand it’s a win, win. You could start small with used stamps for charities like Barnardos, ISPCC, NCBI, or Irish Peatland Conservation Council.
  • When washing cups, plates etc in the canteen or at the tea station, try not to run the water, or reduce the flow of the tap if you must. If there’s a dishwasher that gets filled everyday, aim to use that instead. I’m unconvinced about the carbon savings of washing out packaging for recycling. We wash ours at the end of the day with all of our normal washing-up and so don’t use any additional water or energy, but this isn’t viable in most offices or colleges. One more reason to avoid packaging wherever possible. 
  • If you’re a cold creature wear an extra layer instead of turning on / up the heating. And if you sit by the window consider swapping with someone with a higher body temp.
  • Research indicates that food waste is rising as things open up post-Covid. Try to keep a lid on this by planning for schedule changes and busy days by using frozen or canned food and not over-buying fresh fruit and veg once a week. Also make the freezer your friend and freeze any ageing veg, fruit and meat to use when things quieten down.
  • It’s likely that flying to meetings will happen less and less now that we’re used to online interactions. If however you’re being pushed back into regular business flights then perhaps negotiate to work part of the days you would have traveled in return for meeting online. 
  • Inspire through action. Humans are social creatures and so are heavily influenced by the actions of others. Just seeing someone with a reusable cup or perusing the little library will have a positive ripple effect. Use your time in the office to lead the way on sustainability. Before long others will join you.