Dear EarthTalk: I own a small business and would like to do what I can to minimize its impact on the environment. Can you help me?
— Jacob Levinson, New York, NY
There are many ways to green up any business, large or small—and an added benefit might just be saving money. Just like individuals, businesses can measure their carbon footprints to get a sense of where they are starting from and to get some initial ideas of areas to focus on to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a free “Simplified GHG [greenhouse gas] Emissions Calculator” to help small businesses get started. Another option is to enroll in TerraPass’s “Carbon Balanced Business” program, which helps commercial entities measure and then offset the greenhouse gas emissions they are responsible for generating.
Beyond carbon footprints, there are many other things businesses can do to minimize their environmental impacts. The non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that, first and foremost, businesses should shift the paper paradigm—the average office tosses out about 350 pounds of paper per year per employee. “Reducing your waste and purchasing paper with post-consumer recycled content can help save trees and nudge the pulp and paper industry, one of the most environmentally destructive industries in the world, toward a less damaging path,” NRDC reports. Some easy ways to do this include: setting printers to use both sides of a page (or designating a “draft tray” filled with paper that’s blank on one side); buying copy paper with a 30 percent or more post-consumer recycled content; collecting used paper separately for recycling; and stocking bathrooms with post-consumer recycled tissue products.
Getting more energy efficient is another way to save the Earth while saving money too. NRDC recommends taking advantage of the fact that most utilities offer free or inexpensive energy audits, whereby an engineer examines operations and provides a report about how to save on energy costs. Turning off lights and electronics at the end of the work day can save bundles of energy. “Plug all your appliances into a power strip and you’ll only have to flip one switch at the end of the day,” suggests NRDC. Also, setting computers to “sleep” or “hibernate” when inactive will further reduce a business’s footprint. And NRDC says to lose the screensavers: “Flying toasters and slideshows can use up about $50 of electricity in a year.” Lastly, when shopping for new office appliances, look for the EnergyStar label which means that the federal government has rated the particular unit highly in terms of energy efficiency.
Cutting water waste will also make a business run greener. The group says to install faucet aerators and low-flow toilets, check for and fix leaks, landscape with water efficiency in mind and recycle gray water where applicable for nonpotable uses such as watering gardens.
Lastly, NRDC suggests creating a greener work environment, given that “employees are on the front lines of any sustainability initiatives” a business chooses to make—perhaps by creating a green team “with members from all divisions of the organization to help implement plans and bring new ideas to the table.” Those looking to take their businesses down a green path should consult any of the free “Greening Your Business” guides on NRDC’s website.