Memo to self: recycle

We switch off the lights, return our wine bottles and try to save water at home. But why are we so wasteful at work? Meg Carter visits an office where profligacy is not the way to win promotion
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The Independent Online

Shades of green and images of plants, leaves and grass overwhelm as you enter the new offices of the market research company Research International, near London Bridge. But the company's green credentials go way beyond a stylish paint job. Many aspects of its new workplace have been dictated by its desire not just to look green, but to be green.

So, the offices are open-plan with desks close to but not obscuring windows to make the most of natural light. Meeting rooms have artificial lighting that is on only when the rooms are occupied. Most of the furniture is recycled from the company's old offices. Fewer printers mean less unnecessary printing, and storage space has been reduced to discourage hoarding of reports and files.

Recycling bins are prominently positioned throughout, with separate containers for paper, glass, plastics, toner, CDs, batteries, fluorescent bulbs and lamps. Wallpaper - a lower-toxin option - replaces traditional wall paint wherever possible, and the firm's environmental policy is prominently displayed. Floor coverings were sourced from a supplier that offsets its emissions by buying carbon credits.

Oh, and kettles are banned. "In our old offices, everyone was boiling kettles for cups of tea or coffee all the time. This wasted both energy and water. Now we use hot water points, which deliver water hot enough for a cup of tea - far more energy-efficient," says Research International marketing director Lucy Davison.

She insists that little of what Research International has done to green its offices is especially clever or complicated. But it believed that moving into a new building that already has several green features - the office is in the Norman Foster-designed More London development where, for example, windows have been coated with film to keep heat in during winter and out in summer - is not enough.

"Rather than simply calculate our carbon footprint and then buy carbon credits or plant some trees, we felt the best first step would be to rethink our overall approach. It's not just about altruism," Davison says. "Being greener is a highly motivating factor for the people who work here, as younger people are extremely environmentally aware and the average age of our staff is 28."

Until recently, the greenest offices were usually those run by ethical or environmental organisations. But now, pressure from ordinary staff members is forcing mainstreamemployers to turn their workplaces green.

Estimates suggest that buildings are responsible for 50 per cent of total energy use globally, and are the second-biggest emitters of carbon dioxide. In the UK, heating and powering buildings creates 300 million tonnes of C02 a year, a significant amount of which could be saved by "sustainable" thinking and measures such as insulation and better glazing, or using alternative fuels.

Legislation is making a difference. New buildings in the UK must meet far tougher building regulations relating to energy efficiency. Buildings constructed after April 2006 need to be 40 per cent more efficient than those built in 2002.

"It's a major challenge, because to a large extent buildings are built according to historical precedent rather than trying to look to see where things are changing and heading," says Chris Twinn, director and leader of the building engineering sustainability group at Arup London. " Existing buildings are not well set up for climate change, which suggests perhaps we should change the way new buildings are built."

He points to a number of precedents that should be challenged, starting with the prevalence of "US-style sealed offices". "As efforts get under way to humanise the public spaces around buildings - reducing congestion and pollution, and so on - there's less need to keep office buildings sealed from the environment outside, offering the potential to better exploit natural ventilation and natural free cooling," he explains.

"In the UK climate, we could use opening office windows most of the year. Yet few office windows are designed to open." Windows could be smaller to reduce heat loss in winter. Personally controlled lighting, rather than centrally controlled, could cut energy wastage as only those who need additional lighting would have their lights turned on.

One of Twinn's most intriguing suggestions is the cultivation of "green roofs". "Growing vegetation on your office's roof can provide a number of benefits. It absorbs and stores heat, so it can insulate a building and reduce the heat coming into a building in summer. And as global warming results in less British drizzle and more downpours and thunderstorms, low-maintenance grasses or sedums on the roof provide another benefit, too, diverting flash-flood water and preventing drains from overflowing."

It's a nice idea, and one that would provide a welcome boost to biodiversity in our cities. But most offices are owned by landlords, and few employers can afford brand-new ones, so the emphasis now is on reducing the environmental impact of existing buildings.

"A green building from scratch is one thing, but most people must work with what they've got," says Phil Hutchinson, joint managing director of BDGworkfutures, which designed the Research International office. He says: "We are seeing smaller-scale initiatives, from removal of personal waste bins to sourcing the office's fixtures and fittings from green suppliers. Invariably, however, success or failure will come down to one thing: people's behaviour."

Cultivating a greener corporate culture is the key to creating a more environmentally friendly workplace, says Robert King, founder and chief executive of Humanscale, a New York-based maker of eco-friendly office furniture. Much office furniture is made of plastic, yet the recycling value of plastic furniture is very low. "It's essential to build value into a product. Aluminium is a highly sustainable material for office furniture because it has a high recycling value, which is why we work with it," King says. "At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if something is recyclable or not; what counts is whether people will actually do it."

Paper cuts: five ways to green up the workplace

1. Most offices generate lots of waste paper. Locating photocopiers, printers and faxes centrally forces people to think twice about how necessary it is to print. Ensure that essential printing is double-sided. Removing personal waste bins and cutting the number of printers in an office also encourages people to rethink wasteful habits.

2. Recycling is an important habit to cultivate, but effective recycling depends on more than just plonking down green bins throughout your building. Position them prominently and ensure that everyone knows about the scheme, its importance and what it can achieve. Some companies have even introduced internal recycling league to motivate staff.

3. Open-plan offices allow for a more efficient use of space and reduce energy consumption. When deciding who goes where, try not to block windows with desks that reduce natural light for others farther away from the window, or prevent windows from being opened. Configuring a workplace to encourage employees to use the stairs instead of the lift will save energy and help to improve employee fitness.

4. You can "green" the drinks and food sold on the premises by opting for Fair Trade products and by banishing paper and plastic cups - why not bring in mugs from home? Many organisations sell bottled water or dispense water from large water-coolers - a system that involves large quantities of plastic cups and bottles. The environmental impact of sourcing drinking water in this way, and the associated packaging and transport costs, should also be considered. Why not just put tap water in the office fridge?

5. Put your office on a green electricity tariff, and if you have control of your own heating and air conditioning, turn it down. Choose fans rather than air conditioning to keep cool in summer. A window-mounted air-conditioning unit will continuously suck between 500 and 1,440 watts out of the grid, while a 2.5-ton central system can use up to 3,500 watts. A floor fan uses only 100 watts, and ceiling fans as little as 15 to 95 watts.