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The Eco-friendly Office

By George Harvey

Many office workers don’t think about the ecological effects of what goes on in their offices. Why? Maybe it is because they think of pollution as coming from diesel trucks, industrial plants, chemical companies, and coal-burning generating stations. They know what smoke is – and when they see it, they know it is pollution. They do not see it in their offices, so they naturally think the office is relatively non-polluting. “This is a clean environment! Nothing wrong here! No flies on my face!”

Wrong!

Just out of curiosity, where do you think all that paper comes from? What about the many components in the laptop computer? What about the chemicals in the copy machine, the plastic foam container for the take-out lunch, the mouse pad, or fluorescent tubes in the ceiling? Everything, absolutely everything, has an ecological price.

What about the leaky valve in the office toilet? That valve passes water at a rate so slow you barely notice. But it does it all the time, 24/7, year-round. It relentlessly takes water, which some chemical operation sanitized so it would be assuredly safe, and discharges it into the sewage treatment system, where it undergoes more treatment. If it drips away at half an ounce per minute, then it loses 1.875 pints per hour, 5.625 gallons per day, over 2000 gallons per year. At the cost you pay for water, replacing the valve is cheaper.

It might not seem like much has gone wrong when an employee using the copier makes ten copies for a meeting with nine people. But that extra sheet of paper being printed required that trees be cut down, logs transported, wood shredded, pulp chemically treated, wood fibers filtered out of waste water, and paper packaged and trucked to the store. Toner was manufactured, another chemical operation, the paper that was not used is hopefully recycled, which requires more transportation and more chemicals, rather than going into a landfill. Each sheet is just a tiny problem, but the extra sheet can be a habit many people have, as relentless as the dripping water.

Everything we do has environmental effects. We can do better by managing resources better. This means using less of some things like paper, pencils, paper clips, and pens. It means turning machines and lights off when they are not needed, especially at night and over weekends. It means using some equipment, such as computers, longer before they are replaced.

These are not hard things to do, but a consistent approach to doing them, one tiny step at a time, can produce big results. It is like stopping the drip. You can get information on waste and materials from the EPA at bit.ly/get-epa-wast-and-materials.

An important tip is to get everyone to agree to act wisely and together. One of the saddest and most foolish stories we have heard about waste has to do with a company in Wisconsin that went out of business because of it. The owner worked in an office he liked to keep warm. The employees liked the manufacturing areas to stay cool. The entire plant had only one thermostat for the heat, which the owner locked in place because the employees kept turning it down. But the air conditioning units were set independently and the employees slyly set them on their own. Finally, a bill came for a month when the heating thermostat was set five degrees higher than the AC thermostats. It was over $50,000 for the one month. And by the way – this is not fiction.

The story puts the huge environmental problems that can develop with heating and cooling into perspective. Of course, we should note that people perform best when they are comfortable. We should also note that heating can use a huge amount of energy, even in an office. If the owner of the business had thought about the problem he had for a few minutes, he could have realized that he could heat his office with an electric space heater and turned down the heat in the rest of the building. Better yet he could have discovered the remarkable concept of having multiple thermostats in different heat zones. Instead, he went broke.

Many offices, like many homes, can benefit from an energy audit. If insulation is needed, it should be installed. Possibly more importantly, if there is a need for air sealing, it should be done. Windows can potentially benefit from inserts, especially in older buildings. Shades should be added to keep the hot sun out in summer and the heat from radiating away in winter.

Lighting has consequences just as heating does. Replacing lights with LEDs can save a lot of money over the long term. LEDs also have a far lower environmental impact than older lights, such as the mercury vapor in fluorescent lights.

Fortunately for the office manager or owner, there are incentives for offices, just as there are for homes. We can recommend the following links as resources:
Efficiency Vermont’s business incentives web page: bit.ly/get-evt-business-incentives
New Hampshire incentives, including business incentives: bit.ly/get-nh-incentives
US Small Business Administration’s energy efficiency tax credits: bit.ly/get-sba-energy-tax-credits

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