The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported in 2019 that residential and commercial buildings contributed 13% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States with transportation being responsible for another 29%. Fossil fuels, including gas, coal, and oil, are used to heat these businesses and homes. They’re also used by power plants to create the electricity for lighting, refrigeration, and air conditioning — the main sources of the emissions that commercial businesses and homes generate.
Fortunately, a widespread transition to remote and hybrid work has reduced or eliminated the commute for some. It has also mitigated the need for expansive commercial real estate that has to be temperature-regulated on a daily basis as well as much of the paper and plastic products required to run an office.
Here, we’ll explore these work-from-home sustainability benefits in greater detail so you and your team feel empowered to reduce the environmental impacts of your company — however and wherever you work.
What Is a Carbon Footprint and How Can It Be Reduced?
Before getting into specifics, it’s important to first understand what is meant by “carbon footprint” and “carbon emissions,” and how these hurt the environment. Your carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gas emissions (primarily carbon dioxide, or CO2) you contribute to the environment by:
- Driving your car
- Heating and cooling your home or office
- Purchasing certain products
- Generating waste
- Consuming food and water
While you don’t always have the power to prevent these emissions, there are many actions you can take to dramatically reduce your impact. When you hear people talking about reducing their carbon footprints, they’re referring to their efforts to consume less energy and reduce the amount of carbon they are personally responsible for. If you’re curious about what contributes to your carbon emissions and how you can take action, check out this informative, easy-to-use calculator tool from Cool Climate Network.
How Global Warming Occurs
As carbon is released and greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, they trap heat and raise global temperatures, thereby causing drought, wildfires, floods, extreme weather events, and other disasters. So far, temperatures have risen by 1.2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial times.
If you’re interested in reducing your carbon footprint, you can take simple actions such as the following:
- Reducing energy use
- Walking or biking to places you’d usually drive to
- Investing in energy-efficient appliances
- Working remotely
Environmental Benefits of Working From Home
Many companies are making goals surrounding their corporate social responsibility and striving to reduce their carbon footprint by allowing employees to work at home. Working from home gives employees flexibility, autonomy, and a better work-life balance and is now shown to help benefit the environment as well. We’ve listed some of those ways below.
Reduce greenhouse emissions from transportation
EPA data shows that transportation is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases, and in 2019, the US Census Bureau revealed the average American’s commute time to work had reached an all-time high — about half an hour one way. This means that, before the pandemic, members of the workforce were spending an hour on the road each day traveling between work and home.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, this amount of driving required 392 million gallons of gasoline per day in 2018. The gasoline combustion that occurs within a car in order to make it go produces CO2 into the atmosphere as a byproduct, so it’s no wonder the daily commute has taken a major toll on the environment. The continuing trend toward remote work could significantly diminish this problem.
According to a research article from the University of San Francisco, “Assuming 24.7 million Americans work from home (Bureau Labor Statistics, 2018), remote workers could potentially save up to 30 million gallons of gas per workday. That’s 744 million miles, or enough to go around the sun almost 25 times (Pasini, 2018).” This translates to about 1.2 gallons saved per person per day. Imagine the savings in carbon emissions! The advantage of reduced transportation, greenhouse emissions, and fossil fuel consumption cannot be overstated when it comes to remote work sustainability.
Less pollution in the air
Reducing greenhouse emissions simultaneously reduces traffic-related air pollutants, which are hazardous airborne particles produced by vehicle exhaust, evaporative vehicle emissions, non-combustion emissions like tire wear and road dust, and secondary pollutants. The EPA has said that, “Most air toxics originate from human-made sources, including mobile sources (e.g., cars, trucks, buses).” This is especially true in urban areas where traffic tends to be more dense.
These air pollutants can cause major problems for the environment and for human health in the short and long term. Some of the risks of exposure that have been identified by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection include:
- Haze and smog
- Acid rain
- Ozone depletion
- Climate change
- Disease among wildlife
- Tree and crop degradation
- Nose, eye, and throat irritation
- Difficulty breathing and shortness of breath
- Coughing, wheezing, and asthma
- Chest tightness
- Increased risk of heart attack
- Cancer risk
- Reproductive issues
- Neurological disorders
- Immune problems
When COVID-19 lockdown restrictions were imposed in the spring of 2020, nitrogen oxide emissions dropped drastically due to the decrease in traffic. Even though pandemic restrictions have eased, emissions have remained lower with the adoption of remote work — about 20% lower than pre-COVID averages, according to the scientific journal JGR Atmospheres. When there are fewer commuters on the road on a daily basis, whether for short drives or long hauls, air quality improves significantly and diminishes many of the aforementioned risks.
Fewer greenhouse emissions from heating and cooling large offices
The US Department of Energy has found that businesses and governments together own 93 billion square feet of property and spend $190 billion on annual energy expenses. They represent 18% of the country’s total consumption each year and produce 16% of all US carbon emissions. As of 2020, commercial real estate generates 826 million metric tons of CO2, indicating a critical need to reduce energy usage in the commercial sector for the sake of the environment, energy security, and the long-term growth of US businesses.
When office managers allow more people to work from home, either part-time or full-time, they’ll have fewer in-office workers to house and less square footage to heat and cool — and the inevitable consequence is reduced greenhouse emissions. This doesn’t mean you have to completely eliminate your office space, but it would be an environmentally smart strategy to downsize to a smaller building if you have adopted a hybrid workstyle with fewer company employees in the office on any given day.
Reuced paper and plastic consumption
The EPA reports that 90% of office waste is paper and that the average office employee wastes two pounds of paper products per day in the form of overprinting, mistakes at the photocopier, and so forth. You don’t have to work from home to digitize your processes, but the elimination of paper waste is a natural consequence of remote work. The digitization of presentations, memos, HR documents, and other such materials naturally help curb workplace paper waste.
Paper isn’t the only waste product of the workplace, though. In order to make long work hours more convenient for employees, many commercial buildings are stocked with complimentary water bottles, plastic utensils, napkins, paper coffee cups, styrofoam bowls, and more. Assuming every employee uses at least one of these single-use items per day, the effects on the environment add up.
When the workforce is at home part-time or full-time, however, they’re much more likely to reach for the reusable kitchen options, which are just a few steps away from their home workspaces. They are also more likely to cook at home instead of opting for fast food, which prevents plastic and paper packaging waste.
Seize the Opportunity to Improve Your Workplace Sustainability
It’s important to remember that although remote work is generally the more sustainable practice, it isn’t entirely carbon neutral — but there are plenty of ways to make the office a greener working environment. As an office manager, you have the power to change not only your sustainable practices but also your office culture and employee attitudes toward sustainability at work. No matter how your workplace looks, there’s never been a better time than the present to implement new work sustainability methods:
- Opt for energy-efficient LED light bulbs and/or motion-sensor occupancy switches, relying on natural light whenever possible
- Set up recycling receptacles for plastic bottles and paper products
- Keep the thermostat at a moderate temperature
- Have staff members come in on alternating days to reduce cars on the road
- Purchase sustainable office products
- Take advantage of Staples’ free recycling program for electronics, ink cartridges, and batteries
- Bring a reusable water bottle on the go instead of purchasing bottled water
- Invest in solar energy
Visit the Staples Sustainability Center to Learn More
No matter which methods you’ve chosen to improve sustainability at work, Staples is here to help make the transition easier and more satisfying. Learn more about our environmental initiatives and green events by visiting our Sustainability Center today!