Rubbish Business? Here’s how to reduce plastic waste in your workplace.
Sustainability and reducing plastic waste go hand in hand. Plastic waste is a by-product of our overconsumption problem, closely linked with convenience culture- both of which continue to grow rapidly. Across almost every industry, plastic has quickly replaced previously used materials due to its versatility and cheap cost. Why repair an old office kettle when you can buy a new one for £5?
Unfortunately, the consequences of this cheap overproduction have been detrimental to planetary and human health, both of which are deeply interconnected. We must prioritise planetary health so that future generations have a good quality of life and businesses hold the key to enabling this.
What’s the problem with plastic?
Undeniably, plastic is a great, versatile material. However, one great pacific garbage patch later (which is now the area three times the size of France), it’s very clear that our species hasn’t solved the waste problem, and plastic waste is posing one of the greatest challenges. Why? Because, plastics pose issues throughout their entire lifetime. Macroplastics can affect nature in terms of wildlife becoming entangled or entrapped or being ingested. Plus, unlike other materials, plastic can take hundreds of years to degrade. With time, plastics degrade into smaller particles known as microplastics which are now ubiquitous in our planets air, water and soil. Plastics can leach toxic chemicals into our skin or lungs and they aren’t functional once thrown ‘away’. So, even after we recycle plastic multiple times the ultimate fate of most discarded and waste plastic is to end up in landfill or our natural environment as a pollutant.
By reducing plastic waste, your business can do its part to improve the future landscape of environmental and social wellbeing.
Here are some manageable steps to help you reduce your plastic waste:
STEP 1: Plastic Audit
You can’t manage what you don’t measure.
What products are you using that are made from plastic? Collect a list of items in the office that are made of plastic or with plastic components. You can use the iiE Waste Audit Guide to do this. Single-use plastics might be the first that come to mind, but plastic sneaks into the workplace everywhere.
- Are there elements of plastic manufacture or packaging that you can reduce or replace? Consider the environmental impacts of switching to paper/ aluminium?
- Pay attention to less commonly measured items including furniture, toiletries, and clothing (such as uniform).
Did you know that washing laundry is one of the major source of release of fibrous microplastics? The easiest way to reduce these being released is to reduce washing, but you can also purchase water filters to catch these within a wash.
Your own product or service
Other businesses who are working to reduce their plastic waste are more likely to choose your product or service if it is plastic-free. So, what aspects of your product or service use plastic? Can these be replaced with better alternatives? Be careful, as some alternative hybrid materials marketed as ‘eco-friendly’ often can’t be separated for recycling or reuse – and some, like oxo-plastics, are actually designed to simply break down into non-biodegradable microplastics.
Are you fully aware of what the different types of plastics are and which can and cant be recycled?
Check out the guide below created by PECT to understand examples of each.
Be sure to consider your manufacturing processes and supply chain too – do deliveries need to be packaged in multiple layers of plastic wrap? Are there steps within your production where space can be optimised so more products can fit into the same container?
‘We can pack 5 to 7 times more products in the same volume and therefore minimise CO2 emissions during transportation.’ Cross Chair Tube is produced using FSC certified wood from sustainable forests, and the full supply chain is eco-certified. It is constructed for disassembly, meaning that all components are replaceable,’ – TAKT.
STEP 2: Set realistic targets
Show that your business is working to make meaningful change.
Once you’ve conducted a plastic audit, identify where you are using the most plastic waste and set realistic targets to reduce this plastic usage. iiE members can use the iiE Action Plan Template to make SMART targets. Early targets may focus on resource efficiency, working towards recycling at least 50% of waste and diverting 100% of waste from landfill, to having a full strategy where total waste targets focus on cutting waste significantly per employee and eliminating single-use plastic from the workplace altogether. Consider setting bold long-term targets, but plan small steps to help get you there.
STEP 3: Monitor
Work with your team
Provide your team with the right resources and get everyone on board by sharing your goals to reduce plastic waste. Appoint a green group to keep track and report on progress, ensuring that everything is monitored. You could set some time aside each month to learn more about sustainable business practice and innovative ways to reduce plastic waste. You could also set challenges or make pledges as a team. Make sure to set up regular catch-ups to share ideas, discuss achievements and identify areas of improvement for the future of the business.
Work with your suppliers
Ensure that your suppliers source plastic-free, or lower plastic and recycled options to reduce your reliance on virgin materials. Find suppliers that work with less packaging and harmful materials or work with them to ensure they are setting their own targets. This will also better prepare your business for increased further regulations such as future plastic bans or plastic packaging taxes, if relevant.
Step 4: Consider future usage
Plastic usage changes throughout the year. As your business develops, ensure that you plan ahead to reduce plastic waste for the future. Do not go out of your way to replace items unless they need replacing. If something needs replacing, can you find a plastic-free or second-hand option?
Marketing materials such as banners, business cards and stickers are often coated in plastic. Can your marketing team work with the green team to find better alternatives? Remember to avoid single use plastic cups, plates or cutlery when serving food at events. You could always ask the group to bring their own cup.
You might need to buy more office equipment for some new starters. Maybe you could source some second-hand supplies first to divert from landfill. Facebook Marketplace and eBay are good places to start for one-off pieces. For larger quantities and less searching, websites such as LOF Office Furniture stock good quality, second-hand supplies too.
Is your company uniform made from polyester or other synthetic plastic materials? Could you source another material that does not produce microplastic fibres? Recycled organic cotton and hemp are kinder to our environment and human health.
Launching a new product?
Make sure to carefully plan what materials will be used and reduce plastic where possible. Think about what will happen to your product once it is no longer functional. Can its components be easily repaired, recycled and reused, or will it just end up as waste in landfill?
Step 5: Communicating changes
Transparency is key
Remember to be transparent and honest about your journey to reducing plastic waste. It sets up a positive relationship and builds trust between you and your customer. It is not only vital for corporate social responsibility, but can attract investors and customers alike.
Run an awareness campaign
Existing campaigns to get you started:
- Join the UK network of refill stations and provide places for people to fill up their water bottles.
- An annual global campaign that highlights the challenges and solutions of plastic and how everyone can get involved.
- Set up your own plastic free community with help from Surfers Against Sewage and help make the UK plastic free.
- One of the most well known, global campaigns tackling waste. Join forces with businesses across the globe to share the importance of reducing our consumption and waste.
Disclaimer: All products or services mentioned within this article are examples and not endorsed nor recommended by Investors in the Environment (iiE).
 Laurent C. M. Lebreton, et al., “Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic,” Scientific Reports 8, no. 4666 (March 2018), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-22939-w ↩
 Geyer, R. (2020). Production, use, and fate of synthetic polymers. Plastic Waste and Recycling, pp.13–32. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-817880-5.00002-5.
 Anglia Ruskin University. (2019, September 11). Microplastics stunt growth of worms: Commonly used plastics can affect earthworms, plant growth and pH of soil. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 4, 2022 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/09/190911193303.htm