So much effort goes into promoting recycling that we’re apt to forget that recycling should be a measure of last resort.
Recycling is an energy intensive process and itself produces waste byproducts. Better to reduce consumption and reuse instead.
Here are our top picks of office consumables you can either do without completely, or at least cut back on heavily in the case of the last choice. Using each of them has negative impacts on the environment.
1) Incandescent and flourescent lights
When you switch to LED lights your light bulbs last so long they stop being consumables. Better still they’re more efficient than any other form of artificial lighting by an order of magnitude. What’s more, LED lights don’t contain mercury.
Incandescent light bulbs include the old fashioned tungsten filament globes and halogen lights. Both are extremely energy inefficient by today’s standards because they produce so much heat.
Tungsten filament lights are increasingly rare now because they have such a short lifetime and are expensive to run. By contrast, halogen lights are still popular because of their superior bright white light (colour temperature) and suitability for ambient lighting applications.
A common misconception about halogen lights is that a low voltage rating (e.g. 12 Volt or 24 Volt) means that they consume less power than a 240 Volt bulb. In fact they consume just as much power as the old fashioned tungsten filament globes.
What’s more halogen light bulb power consumption figures don’t tell the full energy story. A much overlooked side effect of using halogen light bulbs is that they produce so much heat that air conditioning is often needed to compensate for their use in summer.
Fluorescent strips and compact fluorescent bulbs are more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs. But fluorescents have another problem. Namely, mercury in sufficient quantities to make them a serious hazard in landfill.
In practice, with less than 10 fluorescent recyclers in each state in Australia, most fluorescents tubes and bulbs end up going to landfill despite the hazards.
A common objection when it comes to switching from incandescent bulbs is that alternative light bulb types produce an inferior quality light (colour temperature).
While this is true for fluorescent lights, LED lights offer a range of very pleasant colour temperatures. Indeed some manufacturers such as Philips are now producing LED light bulbs with infinitely variable colours that can be changed at will remotely through a mobile phone app.
If you currently have fluorescent tubes or compact fluorescents, you’ll love the improvement in light quality from switching to LEDs.
2) Disposable Cups
Why use disposable cups when you can use real cups and glasses? It’s hard to make a positive argument for the disposable kind.
Most disposable cups end up in landfill. Plastic and polystyrene cups are both made from crude oil, a non-renewable resource, while paper cups are made from felled trees.
If you’re using a drink dispenser that won’t work with BYO cups or glasses, the chances are it produces low quality drinks. Upgrading your dispenser will put a smile on everyone’s face and eliminate needless waste at the same time.
3) Disposable Plastic Water Bottles
If you don’t already have an under sink water filter, or water cooler, consider getting one. If you have a vending machine that dispenses bottles, consider alternatives such as the Freshie Refill Station that dispenses drinks into BYO bottles.
You might also consider making your workplace a disposable water bottle free zone. Arguments in favour of bottled water are utter baloney. Numerous studies show that most bottled water is just glorified tap water and comes from the same sources.
By now, most of us know about the harmful effects of plastics that find their way into landfills and the oceans. They take hundreds of years to degrade. Along the way, they break down into small toxic fragments, which are ingested by birds, fish and land animals and poison the food chain.
What would you think of someone who insists on throwing away bottles glasses of water for every bottle he drinks? When you drink bottled water, that’s exactly what you’re doing. It takes three times as much water to make a plastic bottle as the bottle itself contains. In Australia, where water is constantly in short supply, or anywhere else for that matter, this is a shameful waste of resources.
And while water bottle plastic is 100% recyclable, less than 30% of plastic bottles ever make it to the recycling plant. The rest find their way to landfills and the oceans. 10% of all plastics produced globally end up in the oceans.
Only car batteries are recycled on a large scale in Australia. Almost all the rest still end up in landfill. This despite the fact that in Western Australia, batteries of all kinds are classified as hazardous waste.
Some argue that standard disposable alkaline batteries, such as the AA or AAA alkaline are not harmful to the environment. Such arguments are based on their common ingredients, iron, zinc and manganese, not posing serious health risks.
However, this is only partially true. Some manufacturers have voluntarily excluded mercury from their batteries, but others continue to use it. Mercury is extremely toxic.
Underpinning any argument in favour of using disposable batteries is the notion that landfills are acceptable. Mercury free or not, the fact remains that Iron, Zinc and Manganese production are all energy intensive and these materials could be recycled.
Rechargeable batteries are a very different story to alkaline disposables and not in a good way.
Rechargeable batteries include rechargeable AA, AAA and D type ‘handhelds’, along with the batteries that power the growing number of cordless appliances and tools on the market.
Rechargeable batteries are jam packed with hazardous substances. Once interred they cause serious environmental issues. Rechargeable batteries have a limited lifetime and when we put these in the ground, make no mistake, we’re poisoning the planet.
Two key ingredients in particular, nickel and cadmium are both toxic to higher lifeforms. They also the destroy microorganisms in soil that naturally recycle organic matter.
Until such time that manufacturers and retailers take responsibility for recycling spent products, we should aim to use as few batteries as possible, especially the rechargeable type. That means choosing appliances powered by any means other than batteries, i.e. mains, solar or manual.