What does your office supply list look like? Below is just a small sampling of the items which will inevitably decorate both home and corporate offices. Stashed throughout any such location, one can find seemingly endless reams of paper, piled high in cardboard boxes; shelving stuffed with leaky cleaning sanitizers and bottles; and dark, cavernous drawers which house plenty of sharp, tiny objects just waiting to attack. Furthermore, many of these items are delivered, banded heavily by bubble wrap, paper filling, plastic sheeting, or cardboard enclosures.

Computer Printing Paper 30
Graphing Paper 10
Fax Paper 25
Files 10
File Labels 10
Paper Clips 50
Rubber Bands 40
Erasers 20
Pencils 10
Pens 45
Tape 10
Hand Sanitizer 5
Coffee Filters 20
Envelopes 40



After being unwrapped and used for its expected life, what happens with all these now waste materials? Most likely, such goods are eventually thrown in a trashcan, later to be taken to a landfill. And while your office, if only for a moment, feels more spacious, the tossed material will linger on. (Plastics will stay in that landfill for hundreds of years!) Therefore, the next stage of life for bundled plastic wrap, papers, and boxing, is largely up to you.

A non-profit environmental organization called “Recycle Across America” shares on their website that, “a recent Yale University and EPA study found that the United States recycles less than 22% of its discarded materials;” and furthermore, “[d]espite only representing 5% of the world population, the U.S. generates more waste than any other country in the world.” An even more shocking fact states that “in less than 15 years, worldwide waste is expected to double.” In response to this alarming data, their call to action claims: “Without exception, recycling is the top action society can do to simultaneously improve: the environment, the economy, sustainable manufacturing and to prevent waste from going into oceans.” This organization (among numerous others) also list a series of impressive results of the recycling industry, if it were to be better utilized by the population, demonstrating the powerful impact both one and the many can have.

So next time, what are you going to do with that bundle of office trash? In an office setting specifically, multiple reports state that on average, 80 to 90% of the materials consumed can later be recycled. Anyone who chooses to recycle, from an individual working out of their home office, to a large corporation with skyscrapers sweeping across the country, can truly make a difference.

Recycling is actually the third step in a greater three-part system: reduce, reuse, recycle. To reduce is to “make smaller or less in amount, degree, or size,” and this definition absolutely fits for this three-step waste management model. Reduction urges us to use products that create less waste, has minimal packaging, and contains materials more easily recycled. To reuse is to use again, or more than once. By this suggestion, it is important to share materials rather than just throw them away. And to recycle is to convert waste into reusable material. Recycling a product may change its purpose, appearance, and even structure into essentially a new product.

This 3-R slogan, branded by three thick, curved, and clockwise flowing arrows, has debatable origins but is often traced to the first national Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, amidst the Vietnam War. This same year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed. Both events were in response to a growing need for awareness and action to enact better waste management. Especially after the industrial boom, which occurred during and continued after World War II, waste production has increased in sensational numbers. However, the supply and demand concepts behind this slogan extends hundreds of years back, traceable throughout multiple cultural, religious, and national identities..

So if we return to how a modern office can affect the 3-R model, the argument boils down to one of sustainability. We should ask ourselves: how can we continue to consume large amounts of goods at a rate faster than the original sources can grow? How can we continue to pour trash into a landfill quicker than it can decompose; and what about the common products that do not decompose at all? Reducing, reusing and recycling in an office not only becomes a responsible choice but a necessary one.

The switch to recycling products seems difficult because there are a series of standards and regulations about what and how trash can be recycled. While regulated by the EPA, each city and state often have access to different amounts of recycling programs, and also may enact different legal standards. However, the process can actually be made quite simple, whether for a one-person operation, to a team of thousands. First, it may be a best practice to implement a recycling team leader. This is somebody who understands recycling guidelines for their location, has leadership abilities, and is willing to take on a task managerial role. This person should be able to communicate with local recycling agencies, as well as be informed of city or state standards. They can then begin the process of helping an office to “go green.” And while not every waste management system will work for a certain company or location, below is a wide array of best practices to consider when converting an office to “green” standards.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle



The aforementioned team leader would do well to measure input versus output of office supplies. They can ensure there is not an abundance of waste through dedicated standards of supply ordering, supply closets, and management of whom supplies are ordered from. The idea is to avoid the creation of waste initially.

  • Avoid companies that individually wrap items. (Besides more trash, you’ll end up paying more for the product!)
  • Purchase in bulk. Wrapping is often 50% of the trash created when buying supplies. Be aware of “double-packaging” which is simply individually wrapped items sold as a bulk item, and therefore requiring a secondary wrap.
  • Remove your company from unwanted mailing lists.
  • Purchase materials in their concentrate forms.
  • Provide dishcloths rather than paper towels or invest in more sustainable materials such as multiple use bamboo sheets.
  • Invest in a printing system that does not print automatically, but after a certain code has been inputted to prompt the device. (In some offices, 30% of printed materials are never claimed after being printed!)
  • Make two-sided copies whenever possible; even set your machines to print two-sided by default.
  • Use a backed-up data storage system rather than paper documentation.
  • Purchase products that are easily repairable, or invest in training for those that are more difficult.
  • Use biodegradable cleaning products.
  • Offer online subscriptions to magazines and newspapers for employees. (On this day alone, 62 million newspapers are being printed in the United States, 44 million of which will be thrown away. These numbers equate to 500,000 trees being thrown into a landfill this week. However, if every American were to recycle just one-tenth of their newspapers, 25,000,000 trees would be saved each year! Numbers reported by Boston College.)
  • If filing is required, use thicker, accordion style folders, that will last longer and expand as needed.



    ReuseThe team leader can also impact how goods and materials are distributed amongst an office or later, donation programs.

  • Purchase products that can be returned for refurbishment, or are refillable. Avoid single-use items when safe and appropriate.
  • Revise order quantities have a central supply order system and budget.
  • Have a community pool of office supplies rather than having everyone order their own materials. (Share!)
  • Invest in reusable bags and containers.
  • Source materials from second hand locations.
  • Also consider donating older resources to charities or selling to thrift stores.
  • Offer reusable dishware for employees and avoid stocking the break room with Styrofoam and plastic cups, plates, and flatware.
  • Consolidate inventory.
  • Use envelopes (of all sizes) multiple times to send messages throughout the office.
  • Invest in rechargeable batteries.



    RecycleLastly, the team leader can work with city guidelines and the provisional companies that supply office materials to ensure sustainable practices are being upheld.

  • Buy goods that have already been recycled and can be again in the future.
  • Use recycled paper for inter-office notes and announcements.
  • Provide multiple recycling bins that are properly and very clearly labeled. Ensure these bins are a large enough size for broken down boxes and other bulky items. These recycling bins should be easy to access and regularly maintained as well. In turn, limit the number of personal trash bins.
  • Create an office compost for food scraps. (Did you know there is an office compost receptacle available, known as “worm bins,” which is actually home to worms that help compost? It’s called vermicomposting!)
  • There is a multitude of useful, as well as colorful goods that can be formed through recycling paper. Everything from bowls, to end tables, art work, and even planters for a garden can be created through tightly rolled newspaper.
  • Other crafts, artwork and storage units can be created through common wrapping materials, including hard plastics, wire, and cardboard.

    Now, of course, these best practices are essentially meaningless if the office staff does not participate. To be honest, reports often state it becomes more difficult to engage your team in 3-R behaviors than their implementation. Here are some helpful ways to create a recycling community:

  • Ensure that the purpose the 3-R movement is clear to everyone. Not only should they know what and how to recycle, but why. For some, an argument about creating a sustainable environment will be enough. For other employees, it may be useful to share data on money saved through proper office supply management. Regardless of your appeal, providing all information to the staff can be a motivating factor.
  • Make appropriate investments. If you expect everyone to recycle, purchase sturdy trash bins and take the time to appropriately label them. Also, ensure the trash is regularly taken out, and papers do not begin to pile. If you want to reduce plastic ware, provide easily cleaned, long-term use, and nice looking dishes and mugs. Join programs that allow you to send out old ink cartridges and toners for recycling, and then in turn purchase freshly refilled supplies.
  • Create a feeling of community around the recycling process. Employees should know that their individual contributions are empowering the health of the company and their planet. Some ideas for building this emotional connection to the recycling process could include a Recycling Awareness Day within the office; participating in Earth Day celebrations and activism; creating an award or recognition system for contributing members to your recycling program; ensure you are leading by example and holding yourself accountable to recycling standards.
  • Provide training for your staff. Set certain expectations and standards, and then give consistent and appropriate guidance so that everyone, including janitorial staff, is part of the recycling process.
  • Don’t overwhelm the office with change. This process may be more effective if you start with small changes, allowing people to adjust behaviors and patterns. Typically, a new recycling program suggests starting with paper waste management, before moving on to reuse and recycling of electronics.
  • Eventually, make your recycling program part of a larger community activity. Be involved with donation centers and charities. Understand the needs of your community, and determine how old office resources may be of benefit. Have employees with a green thumb? Let them create pots of old papers that can be planted and begin a company or community garden. Some of your office staffers love crafting? Give them the opportunity to create unique items for women’s shelters, children’s hospitals, or veteran’s facilities. Animal shelters typically welcome paper bags as a source of play for their adoptable felines. These are just a few ideas…become even more creative by having your office staff discover ways they would like to recycle! Recognize and if possible, implement those activities.

    The recycling process is just that: a process. It does take effort and time to implement but is very possible. There are already many business models available that participate in the 3-R system, but with a 22% recycle rate, there are many more people who could help. How your own company needs to adhere to recycling standards will be based on industry and location, but even small steps would have an impact on the overuse and mishandled environment. This process can be challenging yet exciting, opening pathways to build a sense of community in the office place, establish a larger-community role for your company, and helping to support the environment we need to continue our current living expectations.