The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

August 29, 2007

Reducing Plastic Waste In The Workplace

In addition to blogging about plastic, knitting animals from grocery bags, and training for a half marathon (okay, that one is kind of a fib), I have an actual job in an office. I run the accounting department of a small home care agency in the Bay Area. (What, you couldn’t guess I’m an accountant from the graphs and itemized lists?) And one of the things that I noticed when I returned to the office after starting this project is that we had been tossing out an awful lot of plastic.

We have a little kitchen and make our own lunches. But the “tableware” we use is mainly paper or plastic. Numerous plastic knives, forks, spoons, and cups are thrown away every weekday, so I decided to provide an alternative. First, I went to a thrift store and purchased a bunch of cheap, stainless steel cutlery. I also bought a (plastic) basket to hold it. Since the basket came from Goodwill, I felt fine about reusing it for this purpose.

My main concern was how to present the new silverware to the group in a way that would not seem preachy and that would encourage them to use it. I decided on a low-key approach. I simply let them know it was there for anyone who wanted to save plastic and set it on the table without any fuss. The first question I got was, “Who’s going to wash it?” and my response was, “If you use it, you wash it. It’s up to you.” Several days later, I was gratified to see a few pieces in the dish drainer, evidence that someone besides me had decided to use them.

My next step was to bring my own plate, bowl, and glass to work so I wouldn’t have to use paper plates or plastic cups. I didn’t provide these things for the rest of the group. It would have been personally expensive, and I figure that they could each bring their own if they wanted to, and I’d serve as an example. We do already have quite a few mugs in the cupboard, so anyone who wants to switch from plastic cups can do it at any time.

I have to say that I get a bit of ribbing for using my own tableware at lunch. I’m not sure what that’s about. Perhaps some folks feel defensive or think that I’m judging them. I try not to comment about what they choose to use, but if someone asks me to get them a cup or spoon, I don’t bring them the expected plastic. And sometimes that can cause a bit of eye-rolling. So I’m trying to figure out how to navigate these interpersonal waters, being diplomatic while at the same time letting my co-workers know there are options besides plastic.

After attempting to reduce our waste by replacing plastic kitchenware, I thought about ways to at least recycle some of the things that do get tossed in the garbage. I looked up the Daly City recycling department online and found out that they have a program specifically for businesses. So I made an appointment for a representative to come to our office, do an evaluation, and set us up with the appropriate boxes and bins. Now, in addition to a large box in the kitchen, each of us has our own small box under our desks.

I have to say that monitoring the office recycling program has been kind of a headache for me. I have been met with resistance. “It’s too hard.” I’ve tried bribery: If you guys can go for six weeks putting your waste in the correct containers, I’ll buy lunch for the entire office, whatever you want.” Still, I continue to find wadded up kleenex and paper towels in the recycling box and bottles and plastic containers in the garbage. At this rate, we’ll never succeed for one week, let alone six.

Any suggestions for how I can encourage my co-workers to use the correct receptacles without pissing them all off? I need help on this one!

Once I’d made some changes in the kitchen, I took a look at my desk. Specifically my desk drawer. Recently, I read an article on about how much metal could be saved if people stopped hoarding coins. Well, I don’t save coins. But I did realize that I am a big fat pen hoarder! I must steal them secretly in my sleep because I don’t remember taking all of these pens. So how did I end up with a mountain of them in my drawer?

The photo is actually just a small sample of all the pens I had in my drawer. These are the ones no one wanted after I brought the stash upstairs to the lunch room to spread the wealth. I wonder how much plastic could be saved if people stopped unconsciously walking off with pens wherever they go. Our receptionist was thrilled that she wouldn’t have to order more for a while.

And then I went a step further. In addition to releasing the stash of plastic pens in my drawer, I purchased an old-fashioned refillable fountain pen so that I never have to throw away another plastic pen again. At least, not at the office.

Fountain pens are expensive, and this one is new, so I only purchased one. The next time I have a chance to go antique shopping, I’ll see if I can find a used one to keep at home and maybe one to keep in my backpack.

This particular pen is a Lamy AL-star graphit. It has an aluminum body. There is some plastic inside: the refillable converter. But it’s a one-time purchase. Instead of buying disposable cartridges, which is what most people use with fountain pens nowadays, I am able to refill the converter from an ink bottle and reuse it many times.

This pen feels really good in my hand and writes well. Fountain pen ink flows smoother than ballpoint ink. It does take a little getting used to. But I’m enjoying it. And to prevent other hoarders from walking off with my expensive pen, I’m keeping it in its cardboard box when not in use, and I stuck my name on it for good measure.

So, these are the measures I’ve taken in my office so far. Next up on the agenda: having the company purchase a water filter for the kitchen sink so we can cancel our Arrowhead water delivered in #7 plastic containers, checking to see whether we buy recycled toner cartridges, researching the best ways to recycle e-waste, and looking for any other plastic alternatives I can find.


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sheila freeman
5 years ago

contact paper Round Recycling
They recycle just about everything. they will help with special bins and much advice and even workshops on recycling in the workplace.

sheila freeman
5 years ago

Try Paper Round Recycling.
they can collect just about everything for recycling. Provide bins, have courses and advice on how to do it. Give a monthly report on how your office is doing.
They also take non-recycling – but shouldn’t be much of it.

5 years ago

If you are interested in a minimally plastic ball-point, check out the Zebra F-701. It’s my current choice (in the absence of a fountain pen). It is the only viable pen option I can find in normal office-supply stores.

10 years ago

ink’d pen using biobon, but they don’t specify construction material or if it uses GMO based corn or not.

11 years ago

the official word on what is biodegrable or not in the lecce pen:

“Thanks for your interest in our biodegradable pens. If you ink has run out, you can keep using the biodegradable pen by inserting an ink refill into it. Unfortunately, our supplier is no longer carrying these ink refills but you can purchase them at most stationary supply stores (e.g. Staples, Grand & Toy, etc.).

The pen itself can be placed directly into your home compost bin. Depending on the conditions in your compost (e.g. temperature), the corn plastic will take approx. a year to decompose. Please note that only the coloured plastic pen is biodegradable. The ink refill is neither biodegradable nor recyclable. We would love to carry biodegradable ink refills, especially one that uses soy-based ink, however, there is no such product available on the market at this time. “

11 years ago

probably going to give up and go refillable fountain pen or pencil, was trying to avoid, so i did risk chance of losing costly pen.

i tried the paper-pen – pretty good, only a tiny metal barrel inside, a tiny piece of rubber, minimal packaging, and aesthetically pleasing. but i found the pen actually didn’t write very well, probalby more due to the company that made the barrel rather than the actual pen. biggest drawback is it is shipped from eastern europe

i am using the lecce green pen – which grassroots store has a branded version of for retail sale. they use a good type of bioplastic, and i’m unsure if the plastic barrel is compostable. it writes well. it needs its bioplastic materials shipped from italian farms. i found this great document with facts on the pens compostability. i am uncertain, will soon find out, if it actually composts in backyard conditions:

i still think, if someone figures out soy-based ink in pens, that would be another improvement. from what i saw the 98% potato pen was the coolest one to be created yet, but that company (dba-co) is out of business.

12 years ago

I know this is an old thread, but I’m just starting the plastic challenge, so I’m reading through everything to figure what does or doesn’t actually have plastic in it.

As a young-en of 26, it truly would never have even occurred to me to buy a re-fillable fountain pen. I’ll be looking into that!

13 years ago

I knew I could come to you for recommendations on a fountain pen! Thank you for continuing to help wean me away from plastic.

14 years ago

I found the Lamy Al-Star aluminum fountain pens in a nice variety of colors at [penboutique dot com]. They also carry the converter to switch from cartridges to ink refill, as well as the ink. I have the Raspberry-colored pen at the #1 item on my Christmas wish list :).

(I know amazon carries the pens too, but I like using a place that specializes in pens. And the sale price they have going on right now is comparable to amazon’s.)

Thanks for mentioning fountain pens! At the ripe young age of 44, I just cannot write with a ballpoint pen for terribly long anymore (and I’m not a fan of rollerballs). I was happy to read fountain pens are not so hard on the hand, and I love that this brand comes in such “now” colors and aren’t totally masculine.

14 years ago

Oops, argh, posted follow-up comment to the wrong thread, sorry!

14 years ago

Err, the Lamy Safari with an ink converter, obviously! (I just sat down to refill mine, and remembered I hadn't specified the converter in my last comment.)

They cost about $5, and let you refill your Safari from an ink bottle, rather than wasting all those cartridges.

Beth Terry
14 years ago

Mary Kay, I totally hear you. Sometimes it's overwhelming to feel you are the only one who cares, isn't it?

Mary K
14 years ago

Oh goodness, my office drives me nuts sometimes with the habits here. I kept picking on my boss for always using styrofoam cups for his coffee, and now he does (usually) use a mug, but the office as a whole has atrocious habits.

We have frequent luncheons just for fun, and its sickening how much plastic ware is used, cups, utensils, plates. Sometimes we do use real plates and silverware, but only occasionally.

We also have the typical water coolers with the big plastic jugs. While the jugs are refilled and reused, I try to avoid drinking out of plastic, so I have my own 40 oz stainless steel water bottle that I bring to work every day and have a real glass drinking glass on my desk.

Another thing I do– I keep all paper that I print on one side and isn't confidential in a stack to reuse in my printer when I am printing something that isn't super important.

I also take some of the sheets and cut them into quarter sheets on the office paper cutter, creating my own note paper instead of using post-it notes all the time. I really like doing this.

We do have paper recycling, but nothing else. We use a lot of bottled water for meetings, and I often find myself taking plastic home to recycle myself.

Beth Terry
14 years ago

Hi Bee. I don't know if you'll see this comment or not, but if you do, can you please let me know the name of the company that will change just the rubber part of the stamp? That is a great idea!

14 years ago

Beth,a while ago I went through a phase of ridding my office place of disposable plastic, bought myself a fountain pen, used pencils instead of ball-point pens, brought in one personal, refillable fountain pen made of metal. Then I started to look for highlighters that are like pencils, i.e. without the plastic outside. You have to sharpen them, and the older type came without a lacquered outside. Unfortunately, the company seem to have tried to vamp them up a bit.
At uni, we used to have similar "dry" highlighters that needn't sharpening. The outside was made of paper that you could roll off as you went along using the pen. Unfortunately, those highlighters are no longer made and the ones I still have are so used down that the brand is no longer legible.
The main print-outs we produce every day only cover half the page, so I have begun to cut the clean part off for jotting paper before I through out the printed part.
As we go through so many re-organisations every year, we also change the names of our departments a lot and hence a new, beautiful plastic stamp comes along. When we got a new boss, after yet another re-structuring, I wrote the man an e-mail, suggesting we re-use the stamp and only replace the little rubberized surface where the letters are. I sent him links for the company, their products, and let him know that this way, the company could even save some money. He did take me up on the saving part, decided the department name was no longer necessary and went for the smallest size of plastic. I could have cried, here came yet another beautiful plastic stamp, while I now had two bigger ones in my desk, still useful, while my colleagues flung theirs in the garbage…
Also, I found out that our cleaning lady replaces the plastic bags in each our individual bins EVERY DAY as soon as some small item is thrown out. So I started putting my garbage into someone else's bin, saving at least one plastic bag. I know it isn't much…
I also started bringing in a personal towel that I use to dry my hands in the bathroom instead of paper towels.
We do use mugs for tea. But coffee is mainly drunk from disposable plastic cups.
Preaching won't do any good, though. Setting a good example, only so much. But then I keep trying to do at least what I can do.
Oh, and I am a BIG fan of the diva cup! But I still have ways to go! Once I started reading your blog, I began to realize just HOW swamped with plastic we are! So, I try my best and recycle where I can't. Thank you so much for all your inspiration and keep up the good work! Bee

14 years ago

Hi Beth,

Kudos for your efforts! I too am the recycling queen at work and b/c of that, more and more people have come to me to ask about toner cartridges, yogurt cups, etc. But the breakroom is where we have the biggest problem. I recently had a yard sale and the plates that were going to go in the sale got brought to work instead for everyone's use. Also, I like to shop in thrift stores for extra spoons and forks for the breakroom. There are definitely peoople on my side but it's hard to get everyone on board. I also recycle dive and retrieve trash and nonrecyclables from the bins. Sigh!!!! Keep on truckin' and don't let it get you down. You'd be amazed at what a difference you're making!

Kathryn Montalvo
14 years ago

One thing I’ve noticed in my office? The number of cell phones we go through. We have a large sales staff and work in the tech sector where electronic labels are icebreakers at networking events. We found this site, and realized we could recoup some of our replacement expenses. I think you can even recycle on the site as well. Seriously – we were able to sell about 35 used cell phones in one month.

14 years ago

Great ideas –
I must say that you have inspired me to give up my one 20oz diet pepsi per day habit… which won’t be easy.
I strive to cook foods from scratch to avoid unnatural additives and I also try my best to recycle – so I thought why am I drinking these chemicals and out of a brand new plastic bottle everyday???
Thanks Emily

15 years ago

Education is the key–I am the “nut” at work who posts information in big font on the inside of the bathroom door from time to time. I printed a pic. of the sea turtle with the plastic bag hanging out of it’s mouth. I included some pithy wisdom about the evils of plastic with about 3 suggestions to cut the use of plastic. I think it helped a bit. Over time, education will be the key to change. Never give up!

15 years ago

Hi there, why not try to get more people involved. Set up a group of people who are going to drive all these issues. Getting more people involved wil help your case and try to get the mgmt involved also. At the end of the day these and other measures will save them (mgmt) money. Finally get everyone involved with decision making so they feel part of the process, theyll be more aware and they are more likely to be help out.

Beth Terry
15 years ago

Hi Anonymous. Unfortunately, I have not made much more progress in my workplace than described in this post. Interest in using durable kitchenware rather than disposable is practically nill. It’s a problem from the top down. The owner is much more interested in convenience than saving a few pennies. I’ve pretty much given up except for requesting a nearly zero waste potluck for my birthday lunch, which they complied with to humor me. I’m just focusing on my own personal actions these days.

15 years ago

I just stumbled across this posting and it’s rather old – so you may have already made bigger changes at work. I’m not sure what the nature of your office is, and what your set up is, but I think i can make a few suggestions. This past summer I interned at the Center for a New American Dream – being an environmental organization, I was impressed at how they “walked the walk” in the office. My biggest suggestion is anything that would appeal to your companies bottom line is doable. It sounds like you have some sort of “kitchen” if there are cabinets with mugs. At New Dream, they used NO disposable plates, cups, etc. and had a kitchen stocked with anything you could need. This obviously had an initial cost to the organization, but they never had to buy plastic cups, plates, etc. which probably saves them money in the long run. If you can get whoever is in charge of purchasing on your side, maybe they can give you a little money to get supplies. New dream even would use real mugs, etc. for meetings (both staff only meetings and with outside visitors). They happened to have a dishwasher which made it easier, but hand washing was done as well. Also, making changes like getting them to have fair trade/organic coffee is a good switch — a bit more expensive but also higher quality. Your co-workers may even be willing to chip in a little more for better coffee. Eliminating bottled water is HUGE so I hope you have success. New Dream has an institutional purchasing program called the “Responsible Purchasing Network” – google it for their website. They write purchasing guides for things companies would use like cleaners, paint, office equipment, water, etc. You might get some ideas there on further greening your office. Good luck! Sounds like you’re making baby steps and that’s what it takes.

15 years ago

Hi, Beth –

A little late for this, perhaps (I just found your blog), but I used to run a coffee club at work. I grew weary of “other groups” taking our disposable cups, then walking off to their own coffee club on the other side of the building. I went to a thrift store and purchased a number of coffee mugs that were non-advertisement oriented, and appealed to a variety of tastes. Additionally, I bought a bunch of spoons. Then, I posted a “free mug” notice, along with the intent to discontinue disposable cups, in favor of dish soap, free mugs, and wash rags to be replenished daily. Worked like a charm – no more thefts, and a good number of “takers”. My (very minimal) personal expense was well worth the response.

If you want to take your dishes to the next level, I’d suggest looking for single-serving dish sets at yard sales and thrift stores. You’d be surprised how many folks would take you up on the offer to sell ’em a set for $1 donation. :)

I love your efforts, and the information you’re sharing. Thank you~

Beth C.

15 years ago

When you decide to look for another pen, I recommend the Parker 51. It’s a vintage pen, but known for its amazing durability and quality. the barrels are generally made from Bakelite plastic, but the pens are over 50 years old now, and their tips and reservoirs remain reliable and very smooth. The reservoirs are usually rubber bladders that you squeeze to refill; they work better than the glass barrels in the Waterman pens.
Good luck. You should be able to get one for less than $40 if ou are not fussy about the colour of the pen. Special colours can fetch upwards of $400 but are not superior writers to their $30-$40 peers.

16 years ago

Recently i bought my recycled office products from OfficeDepot and OfficeMax stores at and got good discount on every product..

16 years ago

I just found your blog and I love your plastic graph! I work at a school where the older children are in charge of recycling, and some of the teachers in the building still don’t get it! I’m forever garbage picking and reminding them which numbers to recycle (it’s only #1 and #2! it’s not that hard to remember).

we do have a set of dishes in the kitchen (along with a dishwasher), so we do have that under control.

I love your idea about the fountain pen though–I’m a pen-hoarder too!

Looking forward to reading more!

Crafty Green Poet
16 years ago

Well done for your efforts in your work place – it sounds as though yours was a less generally environmentally aware office than ours. We work in a very small organisation in a building shared with lots of small organisations that is run on ‘environmentally friendly lines’ though that just means recycling boxes for paper, pastic, cans and carboard and en environmentally friendly heating system. Most crockery and cutlery is metal/pottery rather than plastic. Most people who work here can accept all that, but getting many of them to go further (like reusing envelopes or not running the tap for twenty minutes to wash one cup) is difficult. I also find it difficult to spread the message, though in our organisation I’m working on environmental guidelines so that we have something to work to and its not just crazy green in the corner trying to lecture everyone…

Gift of Green
16 years ago

Every week we attend a meeting where there are usually bananas. I have collected the post-meeting banana peels and have taken them home to our compost pile. My co-workers think I’m a total nut job, but I don’t care! :)

16 years ago

haha i bet that last comment was JoAnne. you could offer the other office cupcakes. i’ll make them for you to take to them even!! i made cupcakes and brought them in on Monday. there is only one left. but i think the girls over here may be getting sick of them. :(

16 years ago

Ok, so I’m one of your co-workers and your biggest supporter. While I have made the mistake of not recycling a flimsy to go container (can’t remember what exactly what was in it)I do my best. I often felt like the bad cop because I would give them a bad time about what was or wasn’t in the right bins and correct the problem. I’ve had to stop myself from doing that. Now I don’t pull things out of the recycling anymore (I leave it for you to see) but I do pull out garbage items (if they’re on top, ewww if they weren’t) and put them in the recycling bins. Ok, I feel like I’m justifying my actions and being defensive, shame on me. Anyway, I was just thinking when someone mentioned smaller incentives…… what if we put smaller bins in the kitchen with peoples names on it. See who can see their own goals for the week????? See who really should get a treat…. maybe if some got rewarded and some didn’t. But honestly, I think it may not matter. Hmmmmm TEAM WORK…..I’m not into this for the prize so whatever I can do to help as a team. = )

16 years ago

oh you would be so sad to see us over here!! plastic everywhere and i am at fault too!! (although..i do have my own mug and plastic cup that i brought from home) but still. you’d be upset. i think you need to make a visit to our office too!! i think you’d find it less of a headache here since most of us are pretty open to environmental change! (although…we have some real dishes and a few things of silverware but no one EVER washes dishes and for WEEKS the sink was full of disgusting rotten food/water/mold/muck with tons of dishes floating in it and it stayed that way until i finally broke down, got some gloves and cleaned the thing myself. i threw away a lot of the stuff though since it had gotten to the point of disgusting and most things were growing mold. to this day no one will fess up to whose dishes and mess it was) plus, if you come over and plastic preach here…i’ll make you some cupcakes!
and you can come eat lunch with me and we can talk about social change and i wont look at you like you’re a weirdo for wanting to better the world!

just ducky
16 years ago

What about a shorter incentive period of time? If everyone can recycle appropriately for one day, then you would bring treats? Who doesn’t go for treats? Or even—if everyone can get all of the plastic bottles in the correct bin for a week, then you could bring treats? I’ve found that if the goal is too high—lower it (and the cost of the prize…) and people can often attain it. You may be asking for something that is a giant step to others when it is really a baby step for yourself. If you make it a baby step for them, you may be able to create real and lasting change!

16 years ago

I know how difficult it can be to try and implement a recycling system in an office environment. I used to work for a large non-profit wellness organization and we put in a system and it only lasted a couple of months. It seems it was too expensive to do because people used the containers as gargage cans or didn’t separate their items, papers, cans, bottles appropriately. I just ended up doing what you do by bringing in my own non-plastic dishes, glassware, etc. and anything else I brought home to my own recycling bins. That was the only way to recycle rather than have everything end up in the trash. But don’t be discouraged, you are making a difference and I read your blog daily to keep being inspired.