By V.R. Sena Peiris
People point fingers at manufacturing industries for environmental and social degradation as well as health problems caused by high environmental pollution.
The common belief is that industries discharge much waste and pollutants to the surroundings and therefore they should be made responsible for associated environmental and health issues.
Nobody looks at the activities of commercial organisations and other office environments to assess the negative contribution by these business houses to the already aggravated environmental degradation problem. A closer look reveals that offices do pollute the environment much more intensely than the industries.
All over the world, businessmen have initiated new programmes to be environmentally and socially responsible and today Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is considered necessary by most of the businesses for image building. Any business that wants to be identified as a CSR entity should first look at the internal operations of their business concern and see how effectively they can reduce the environmental burden caused by their activities.
What is an eco office?
What is an eco office? In very simple terms, an eco office can be described as an office which incorporates modern environmental principles into its design through energy-efficient lighting, material selection, office furnishing, recycling, and reducing energy consumption. This creates a healthier, more productive workplace while minimising the impact on the environment.
Conventional offices are now turning to become ‘Green Offices’ or ‘Eco Offices’ in which the negative environmental impacts are reduced to the minimum. However, there will never be an ideal ‘Eco Office’ with zero emissions, but the approach will always open up opportunities for the businesses to conduct their activities better and make their work environments more conducive to enhanced productivity.
Environmental pollution from an office
Before going into details of an eco office, let us see the negative environmental impacts caused by a conventional office. An office is a place where a few or many people provide a direct or an auxiliary service consuming natural resources such as energy, paper, different raw materials and other utilities.
Every office uses energy for cooling and heating. Some buildings are air-conditioned. Some offices have ventilating fans and some others have exhaust fans. All these equipment consume electrical energy. Fossil fuels are used today to generate electricity and burning of fossil fuels lead to carbon dioxide emissions leading to global warming. Excessive use of electricity by an office can contribute heavily to global warming.
The electrically operated office appliances such as photocopiers, fax machines, computers and printers as well as refrigerators, microwave ovens, water coolers, etc., also contribute to global warming.
Most of the old air conditioners and refrigerators have Chloro Floro Carbon (CFC) compounds: the main contributor to Ozone Layer Depletion. Halon fire extinguishers as well as aerosols too discharge CFCs and other Ozone Depleting Substances (ODSs) to atmosphere.
The two above examples amply demonstrate that even a small local office contributes to global level pollution problems. That is not all. The offices contribute largely to local environmental pollution problems too.
Every office uses a significant amount of paper. After use they end up as solid waste. The newspapers, magazines and old telephone directories and company reports one day end up as solid waste. Food residue, packaging, empty containers, disposed appliances and their components, ink and toner cartridges and many other items used in offices finally end up in the solid waste dumps.
The washrooms and toilets in offices use water. The wastewater is the polluted form of water, which is the liquid waste. To make matters worse, the wastewater is contaminated with toxic and hazardous chemicals such as cleaning compounds.
Usually the indoor air quality of most of the offices is deplorable. Through air conditioning, the same air is trapped within a limited space and that accumulates more and more harmful molecules. The photocopiers discharge ozone but fortunately ozone is fast disintegrated into oxygen. The people in the immediate vicinity of photocopiers for a long time can experience the ozone emission from the machines. The air fresheners and volatile cleaning compounds and solvents used for machine cleaning add to already polluted air inside an office. Another unknown but a big contributor to office air pollution is the volatile emissions from walls, partitions and carpets. Most of the carpets emit volatile compounds, including formaldehyde. Even the paints emit noxious gases to the atmosphere.
It is clear from the above that an office can be a big contributor to environmental pollution in every possible way. Generally all the offices will not have all the above pollutants, but all the offices have some of these streams while some offices have all the streams. If proper care is not taken to recognise and address these issues, the pollutants can cause serious long term safety and health problems for employees.
Changing to an eco office – Prerequisites
Effecting changes to a conventional office to become an eco office is not difficult. However it should be remembered that no office could change into an eco office overnight. The process is time consuming.
The initiation of change to an eco office needs a few basic prerequisites. The first prerequisite is the commitment of the top management. Unless the top manager or the managers are convinced and committed, the efforts of others in developing eco-office practices will be fruitless. The top management must provide leadership and visible support to motivate the others to do necessary changes.
The second prerequisite is the involvement of everybody. Usually when a programme like this is commenced, only a few will be ready to take part. That is natural, but what is meant by involvement of everybody is that nobody should be barred from taking part. As time goes on the group of employees who participate in the activities will become bigger. The team will always have a few champions. The top management should nurture them and motivate them. The top management should not try to make their favourites the champions. The evolving of champions in a programme like this is natural and it should not be hindered.
The third prerequisite is the open mindedness and flexibility to change. Many managers and employees in our offices are very rigid in their thinking and reluctant to change the status quo. The success of an eco-office programme will depend on the willingness to critically look at what you do to understand and accept the shortcomings. It is not a shame to accept that what you have been doing all this time was wrong. The shame is to continue doing so without accepting it. The critical look will help to come out with the right strategy or the action plan.
The fourth prerequisite is to be creative and innovative. Many managers in our organisations sit on an unused or underused goldmine. That is the latent innovative capabilities of their work staff. An initiative to eco-office practices will need the involvement of all employees because through brain-storming a group of employees can come up with unbelievably long list of strategies and activities to implement.
Time and again it is proved that ideas generated by employees are more practical and less costly to an organisation than what is recommended by an external consultant. So the eco-office initiative needs creative and innovative ideas from employees generated through brainstorming or continuing dialogue.
Changing to an eco office – The approach
The ad hoc application of a few principles and strategies cannot make an eco-office programme successful. The approach needs to be organised.
The principles behind the eco-office practices are similar to those of cleaner production, green productivity and eco efficiency. During the past, these concepts were applied in manufacturing and service industries to achieve tremendous results. The same principles can now be applied to changing an office to an eco friendly organisation. There are many other benefits an office can accrue through an eco-office programme. We shall discuss them later.
It is always beneficial to have an environmental policy for any organisation. This shows the top management commitment and provides direction to any environmental activity. Therefore any office starting an eco-office programme should start by developing an environmental policy.
Once a policy is ready, the top management should appoint a team of employees to steer the programme. The most important aspect of the team is that it should be voluntary, no special appointees by the top management, and should be correctly sized to cover all areas of activities. The team should have members across the entire hierarchy and should not only be selected from managerial or supervisory level.
The next step is the most important to the success of the eco-office programme. That is the carrying out of an ‘Eco-Office Audit’. An Eco-Office Audit will show exactly what you are doing, the resources used for each activity, the quantity and cost of each resource used, environmental impacts of the wasted resources discharged or disposed and possible solutions to overcome the resource wastage. It is like an environmental map with direction to follow to arrive at the desired designation.
The audit report will show you what to do and may be even the cost of doing it and potential economic and environmental savings to the office by doing it. You are not supposed to do everything at once. Select only the obvious low cost, easy to implement solutions because the success of the implementation of selected solutions will only provide the courage and confidence for others to follow.
Changing to an eco office – Some areas of concern
It is not possible to discuss all the possible solutions for an eco-office programme in an article like this. However, let us look at a few key areas where improvements are possible. In the process of changing to an eco-office one might initially select a few areas of focus from the following:
- Building construction and finishing
- Interior decoration
- Building cooling/heating/ventilation
- Selection and purchase of appliances
- Safety and health
- Food and meals
- Energy use
- Water use
- Stationery use/paper use
- Vehicle use and transport
- Waste management
One key area of concern for an eco office will be procurement. Most of the offices do not pay sufficient attention to procurement of most appropriate goods and services for an office. The person who is responsible for procurement is concerned about perceived quality, price and availability of his purchases. Only a handful of offices have prepared specifications for the items they want to purchase and request suppliers to meet these specifications.
There are times where offices also engage in emotional buying. If one spent sufficient time in looking at what they have in the office, one might find items purchased but unused for years and years. There are many appliances in offices bought (which represent wasted funds) but never used or hardly used. Leasing or borrowing such appliances would have been a better option, which could have saved money for the company.
It is very important to pay lot of attention in the procurement of capital goods for an office. The environmental concerns, requirement of consumables during use phase and ease of their disposability and end of life fate of the equipment are a few other aspects to be reviewed before purchasing.
Final disposal of electronic waste such as used computers, printers and so on have become a huge global problem. Therefore special care should be made in selecting electronic appliances for an office.
Many offices do not properly evaluate quality and quantity of the products before purchasing. Sanitary and cleaning materials and stationery are two key areas which cause heavy wastages in an office. Unwise buying of these products can lead to huge waste management problems too.
The other area of unwise procurement in an office is the services. Printing, cleaning and maintenance are a few areas to pay special attention by an office. We think that once the contract for services is offered to a third party our responsibility ends, but it is a fact that the companies are ultimately burdened with final disposal of remnants and consequent environmental and social impacts of the wastes generated by the contractors too.
There are many more areas a company can look into for intelligent procurement. Paying more attention to procurement will ensure that company saves funds, reduces the cluttering up of the office and finally reduce environmental and social impacts.
Another very important area of concern for an office is the purchase and consumption of stationery. We have already mentioned that intelligent procurement of stationery can save wasted money. Paying attention to consumption of stationery also opens up opportunities to greening your office.
One area for definite savings is the paper use in an office. We cannot think of an office without paper. The paperless office is further away than we can imagine. Therefore attention should be paid to the purchase as well as use of the paper and paper products.
The modern trend when choosing paper is to look for recycled. Unfortunately in Sri Lanka recycled paper market is in a very primitive stage. While locally made recycled paper is not of adequate quality for office use, the imported ones are very expensive. Wherever possible buy recycled paper.
We do not need bleached white paper for all our uses. We can buy chlorine free (TCF), non-bleached, off white paper for many of our rough uses. They are cheap and environmentally friendly. Always remember that for every ton of paper we save, we prevent cutting of 17-20 fully grown trees, use of 42,000 kwh of electricity and 26,000 litres of water and about 27 kgs of air pollutants (source: Fuji Xerox).
The wise buying of paper is not helpful if we are not careful about paper use. Do we keep an account of our paper use? If you do you will find the average paper use efficiency of an office is about 55%-60%. In other words we waste 40% of paper we buy. Some simple measures in efficient paper use are using both sides, editing documents on the computer monitor, reducing number of copies printed or photocopied, reducing postal correspondence and resorting to email.
We can apply the same practices for the use of letterheads, envelopes, visiting cards, etc. The envelopes can be reused many times using reuse stickers for address labels. Ensure that all waste paper accumulated in the office is safely disposed to a recycler. Old newsprint, magazines and telephone directories too can be similarly disposed.
The purchase of other stationery too should be given sufficient attention. Paper clips, safety pins, pens, pencils and all other stationery items represent opportunities to save wasteful money and reduce negative environmental impacts.
Transformation brings many benefits
The above examples amply illustrate that a conventional office can implement many simple options to save their money while improving the environmental performance of the office through reduction of impacts. The transformation of a conventional office to an eco office is not difficult but it needs commitment. A transformation of a conventional office to an eco-office brings many benefits. Reduced procurement of resources, energy and utilities will save money. The less waste helps to improve housekeeping making the office more orderly with reduced clutter.
The office will have less negative environmental impacts and better indoor air quality, leading to safe and clean working environment. The employees will be motivated and will have lesser conflicts. An eco-office will also have a better corporate image and an edge over others in its business dealings.
If all the offices and commercial establishments strive to become eco offices, the accrued benefits to the company, the nation and the world will be numerous. That is the simplest way offices can contribute to achieve sustainable development.
(The writer is Director, National Cleaner Production Centre of Sri Lanka. Further information on Eco Office Practices can be obtained from the writer at National Cleaner Production Center, Sri Lanka, No 251/30, Kirula Road, Narahenpita, Colombo 5, Sri Lanka; Tel 0094 11 2369601, Fax 0094 11 2369603, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, web:www.ncpcsrilanka.org.)