Sunday, September 7, 2008

Workplace green-living challenges

I recently had an interesting experience at work that I wanted to share. In my own pursuit of decreasing my waste footprint, I decided rather than throwing away paper towels after washing my hands in the bathroom, I would bring a cotton terry towel to work and use that. This reduces my contribution to the garbage bulk coming from my company, which gets buried in a big hole in the ground, and I purchased the hand towel at a local charity thrift shop, a lovely lilac color with many good years of use left in it.

So while I was cheering myself for my choice and feeling self-righteous, I visited a colleague with some questions on a project. Interestingly, she was clearing out her drawer of old food. Glass jars, cardboard boxes and other items filled up the garbage can to the brim, an item that stands about 18 inches tall, likely a standard rectangular office garbage can. I was stunned not only by the wastefulness of food, which she claimed she was frightened to touch, but the sheer bulk of the items being thrown out. The glass, cardboard and other items could have been recycled. The raisins could have been used in cooking or baking even if past the expiration date. Dry cocoa mix, packets of Pop Tarts, items that have lots of plastic packaging and preservatives are not likely to be bad, just stale.

I just stood there looking at all the waste and just felt overwhelmed. How do I fight against this? Is it just so easy to throw things away that we do not even think about what we are doing? I had wondered how the statistic that each person throws away an average of 4.5 pounds of garbage a day was achieved and now I understand why. For me, the decision to bring a reusable towel to work to dry my hands was a step forward in my more sustainable life, but my stomach dropped looking at my colleague's garbage can. I did not say a word about the waste and walked back to my own cube with its two pieces of garbage, an empty box from my microwave lunch and a facial tissue.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not left the consumer life behind. I just finished two plastic bags of cereal. After ferrying cat poop from the basement, the bags will be thrown away. My 13-gallon kitchen garbage can is nearly full of stuff, much of it plastic, even if it has not been emptied for a month. I do try to think of alternative uses before discarding an item, but many times, the packaging or item is a one-time use only. With curbside garbage and recycling pickup, I can see what my neighbors discard and some of it could be reused (e.g., furniture) or discarded correctly (e.g., computer monitors). I feel like we have let our life become a mindless throw-away one.

If you had been standing at my colleague's desk looking at all the food in containers she was throwing away, what would you have said?


  1. I don't think I would have been able to say anything to a coworker in that situation, either. My self-preservation instinct is too high, I guess.

    I've been working to make our workplace more green, too... I had a set of old silverware I wasn't using that I brought in for us to use at work instead of plastic forks and spoons. Many people thanked me, but there's still a small contingent who refuses to it, because washing their dishes in the common sink with the common sponge is "gross."

    I've thought about bringing in my own towel, too, but worried I might get the same "gross" response... how do you deal with that? Do you leave your towel in the bathroom/kitchen, or just bring it with you when you go?

  2. Lise,

    Thanks for your response. It is a challenge walking a greener path at work. While I also have my reusable silverware and plates, I have not gotten a "gross" response to washing them with a common scrub brush. Many people wash dishes so I may have a more open culture at my workplace compared to yours.

    Since I am only three work days into using my towel, I do not know how others view it. I do carry the towel back and forth to the bathroom. I just put it by the sink before I use the facilities and use it after washing my hands, hanging it up at my desk. One colleague did notice, but she has been open to my green changes. (She donates to my compost pile.) However, I am not sure how other individuals will respond. Regardless, I am determined to keep this change and hope others will either accept or ignore my strangeness.