By Mark Jeantheau, GrinningPlanet.com
At home, most of us recycle, and many of us are committed to minimizing waste, buying organic and other activities that contribute to good health and a clean environment. But at the office, it’s usually a different story. Trash cans can be seen full of recyclable items, overhead lights blaze away in empty offices and office kitchens are stocked full of Styrofoam cups, plastic forks and non-organic everything. This article addresses how you can make progress on the last of these issues and convert your workplace mess hall into a green office kitchen.
From Office Kitchen to Green Kitchen
Perhaps the most common feature of any office kitchen is a stack or two of Styrofoam cups. Styrofoam, which is generically known as polystyrene, is bad news for the environment and for your health.
In the environment, polystyrene is extremely non-biodegradable and breaks down very slowly. But as it does break down, it can leach styrene – the single-molecule form of polystyrene – into groundwater. If your trashed Styrofoam cup somehow finds its way into a nearby body of water, it can eventually break up into small pieces, with the pieces being ingested by marine animals.
None of the above environmental effects are good, but the health effects of drinking from polystyrene cups are even worse. The styrene in the cup migrates into the liquid and gets into your body as you sip your beverage. Hot, fatty, acidic or alcoholic beverages increase the rate of styrene migration.
Even if you purchase polystyrene cups that are not made with ozone-depleting CFCs, the polystyrene itself is still a problem. So, even if your box of cups proudly says No CFCs, sorry, but they still need to go!
So, what is the solution to providing office beverage cups for you and your visitors? We offer two suggestions:
Employees: Bring in a mug, and quit using Styrofoam cups, period. This is an easy one!
Visitors: For visitors, it’s a little more complicated. Perhaps your company will spring for a few dozen mugs that bear the company logo, or if the budget is limited, maybe just plain white mugs. If an order of any type of new mugs is simply unaffordable, ask each employee to bring in an old mug or two to start a pool of mugs for visitors to use. Ask people only to bring in mugs that are not embarrassingly stained or chipped. It’s also a good idea to get employees to agree among themselves on a system for ensuring that the mugs get washed and put away after meetings.
If all that is just too much trouble – or you find you’ve got a few office prima donnas that won’t get with the washing-up program – a last resort that lets you use disposable cups in a relatively environmentally friendly manner is to get biodegradable cups, like those available at Treecycle.
Make a Green Kitchen of Your Office Kitchen
Coffee, Tea, Cocoa and Soda
So, what goes in your new fleet of reusable office mugs or your trendy new biodegradable cups? Will it be coffee from a chopped-down section of rainforest, heavily treated with pesticides and grown by some poor sap who ends up selling his coffee beans for less than it cost to grow them? Or will it be hot chocolate from some of the cocoa plantations in Africa that use forced child labor? Or perhaps it will be some of the delicious, stomach-rotting products from the soda aisle at the supermarket?
Most offices have employer-supplied coffee messes, and some provide tea, hot chocolate and sodas, too. But most of the beverage brands are standard industrial-food fare. We can do better! Here are some suggestions.
Coffee in the Office Kitchen
Our recommendations for healthier, environmentally friendly coffee are threefold:
- Buy organic so it’s pesticide free.
- Buy fair trade so farmers get a fair price.
- Buy shade-grown (under original rainforest canopy) to protect the rainforest and optimize the growing conditions for the plants that produce the beans that make your coffee.
The good news is that lots of coffee is available today with these characteristics, and the taste is almost always superior to the run-of-the-mill big-name coffee you may be drinking now.
Tea in the Office Kitchen
We have two suggestions for tea lovers:
- As with all foods, organic is a good thing when it comes to tea.
- Fair labor practices are a good thing too, and you can support such ideals by buying tea from a fair-trade-based company.
A good place to start looking is at Equal Exchange. There are other ostensibly fair-trade tea brands, such as those purveyed by the Ethical Tea Partnership, though the standards there are not as strong as with Equal Exchange and other true fair-trade organizations.
Cocoa in the Office Kitchen
The recommendations for cocoa, or hot chocolate, are the same as those for coffee: organic, fair-trade and shade-grown.
Sodas in the Office Kitchen
There really is no soda that is good for you. These negatively nutritional beverages have generically been linked to osteoporosis, obesity, tooth decay and heart disease. You basically get two choices in the supermarket soda aisle: Drink sodas with high levels of sugar or corn syrup, or drink diet sodas and get a nice dosing of unnatural chemical sweeteners. But what about natural sodas and organic sodas, both of which may feature alternative and ostensibly healthier sweeteners?
We agree that natural and organic sodas are a better choice than the mainstream alternatives, but even these supposedly healthy sodas are chock-full of sugar or other concentrated sweeteners. In moderation, this is okay, but we know that free stuff at the office is not usually a good characteristic for encouraging moderation, so we recommend dumping the sodas from the office kitchen altogether.
But, if you just can’t live without sodas of some kind, it’s better to buy organic sodas, which usually have a dram or two of fruit juice. You’ll also avoid the pesticides associated with non-organic products. As for natural sodas, well, let’s just say that they’re not as good as organic sodas.
We’re not totally down on sodas—we do keep some organic sodas around the GP office. But whereas black coffee and unsweetened cocoa or tea can all claim positive health benefits, no form of soda can say the same. (Note too, please, that we said black organic coffee and unsweetened organic cocoa or tea.) In any event, as for sodas, it’s a matter of making the least-bad choice. If you must have them, look for organic sodas sweetened with fruit juice, cane juice or sugar.
Your Office Kitchen Can Be a Green Kitchen
Plates, Bowls and Utensils
As with coffee cups, polystyrene (foam) plates and bowls will send a shot of styrene into your food, especially if you’re going to be using the bowls and plates for hot, somewhat fatty foods like lasagna or creamy soup. Use paper plates and bowls instead. Or, even better, bring in a regular kitchen plate and a soup/cereal bowl to keep at work for your morning cereal and noon Feasts of Leftovers.
Assuming you will still need some disposable plates and bowls, what’s best? From an environmental standpoint, try some of the new “paper” products that are made with natural materials. For instance, check out tree-free plates and bowls made from a sugar-refining waste product.
When it comes to plastic utensils, why not stop buying them and invest in a cheap set of graphic of biodegradable cutlery silverware for the office? Again, it would be good to get agreement from everyone in the office about what the protocol will be for making sure the silverware gets washed and put away after events or meetings. If you must buy plastic utensils, get one of the brands that’s made with recycled plastic or, even better, from biodegradable wheat or corn. (No, that’s not a joke! They really make them.)
The Microwave and Your Bowl
Do you ever microwave your lunch in a plastic container? That’s a pretty bad idea, even if the container says microwave safe.
Paper Towels and Napkins
Believe it or not, many paper towels, napkins and other ultra-disposable paper products are still being made today by cutting down trees from virgin tracts of forest – in some cases, old-growth forests. This is insanity.
Getting everyone in the office to agree that all of these things should be done may be tough. Start by talking to the office manager, the boss or the person who orders supplies. If they want to know why any of this matters and have an attitude such as, “This is a place of business, not some hippy commune,” ask them if you can forward this article to them so they can bone up on the facts. You can also point out that moving to reusable items instead of disposables will save money in the long run.
Don’t feel you have to accomplish everything at once, either. Taking on a few things and making a success of it will be better than going for the whole enchilada and ending up with an empty taco shell.
©2016 Mark Jeantheau/Grinning Planet. More great articles at www.grinningplanet.com