Working Light

Shortcuts to the Greener Office

The most environmentally-unfriendly place you step into all day may be the one in which you spend most of your waking hours. What’s that hostile environment? It’s your office. Think about it. The workplace welter of electronics gobbles watts, the office copier fairly inhales paper, and the air is tainted with the toxic perfume wafting from furniture, carpeting and rubber cement. But work doesn’t have to be hazardous to your health. There are a number of ways to make our offices more user-friendly.

Taming The Watt Gobblers

Watt for watt, computers, fax machines, copiers and other electronic workhorses that outfit our office spaces aren’t in the same league as the real energy gobblers back home. Burning on average 150 kilowatt hours (Kwh) of energy a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the office computer is a fuel miser compared to, say, a clothes dryer (1,060 Kwh). Fax machines and printers can use even less.

But what these lean machines may lack in pure power pull unit by unit, they make up for in sheer numbers. The nationwide fleet of high-tech office devices consumes some five percent of total commercial electricity in the U.S., at a cost to the business community of over $2 billion annually. The loss to the environment is just as dramatic: In the process of fueling the country’s fleet of office machines, power plants emit as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as nearly 14 million automobiles.

In the early 1990s, the EPA began issuing efficiency standards for a range of office electronics and encouraging manufacturers to meet them. The EnergyStar program is a hit, resulting in a raft of machines that tug lightly on the plug. How lightly? For computers, it’s no more than 30 watts per hour during periods of inactivity, when the computer has powered down to sleep mode. That’s roughly 80 percent less than a standard computer, which runs full tilt when operating.

More than 450 computer models from both large and small manufacturers have met the EPA standards. You can get the full list of compliant brands from the EPA, or check out the nearest computer warehouse store. Certified computers are stickered with the EnergyStar logo, a star under a half moon.

Under EnergyStar, the EPA has also set energy-efficiency standards for fax machines, printers and copiers (which are particularly hard on the environment). The energy draw of high-end copiers can equal that of 20 desktop computers, and certain kinds of copiers can emit a form of ground-level ozone, a respiratory pollutant.

EnergyStar standards for copiers, classified according to copying speed, include provisions for low-power modes, off-modes (since some copiers continue to run when “off”), and double-sided printing (duplexing). Similar green standards for copiers have been established by Green Seal, a nonprofit certifying group in Washington, D.C. The group has certified nine copiers, all of which are also EnergyStar compliant.

The best copiers earned approval for quick-time duplexing and for systems that recover toner dust, capture ozone emissions, use organic photoconductor drums (which don’t employ toxic chemicals), or have parts made from recyclable plastic.

Greener Paper

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Even with duplexing, office copiers are about as friendly to the forest as a clear cut, consuming over 700 billion pages annually, roughly five reams for every American. So, in addition to adopting proven strategies for reducing paper waste—duplexing, reducing copier image size, e-mailing inter-office memos or recycling—it makes sense to switch to paper that creates the smallest environmental impact.

The copy papers recommended mostly highly by Green Seal both exceed the federal government’s minimum requirement for the amount of recycled fiber in office paper (20 percent), and are free of the chlorine-type bleach that produces dioxin, a carcinogen.

Half of the fibers in Arbokem’s Downtown Paper #3, for example, are post-consumer waste; Eureka 100 Premium Recycled Paper, manufactured by the Fort James Corporation, contains 100 percent recycled content. Fibers in both papers have not been rebleached in the recycling process.

Eco Furniture

The furniture outfitting your office may also tax the environment. The solid wood in some furniture comes from tropical rainforests. Furniture manufactured from fiberboard is better for the forests, but it may come at some cost to your health, as pressed board may waft noxious formaldehyde into your office space, along with volatile organic compounds; paints and finishes may sully the air even more.

Buying used or refurbished furniture will keep more timber standing and save money, since refurbished furniture can cost up to 70 percent less than its bought-new cousin. You can find refurbishers in the Yellow Pages or from the Office Furniture Recycler’s Forum.

If you do go shopping for new office furniture, look for green options. The wood in furniture certified by the Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood Program, for example, has been culled from operations that seek to minimize their environmental impact and incorporate sustained-yield planning.

There are also a small but growing number of manufacturers that produce minimal impact office furniture. Among them is Studio eg., which produces a line of formaldehyde-free modular office pieces. Surfaces are made of wheatboard (from pressed wheat), desk and table legs from recycled cardboard, and cubicle dividers from 100 percent recycled newsprint.

Clean Carpets

An even bigger drag on indoor air quality is carpeting. Newly-laid synthetic carpeting—as well as its backing, padding and adhesives—can “outgas” into office air a slew of chemicals (including formaldehyde) which are believed to play a role in “sick building syndrome,” a condition in which chemical contamination and poor ventilation cause workers to become ill. Bentley Mills is one of a handful of manufacturers that offer “low emission” synthetic carpets. Even easier on your lungs are carpets made from natural fibers, like cotton or wool. The wool carpets manufactured by Naturlich are woven from all-natural fibers and offgas no formaldehyde. Its Nature’s Carpet line also contains no mothproofing or dyes.

The green office is also one where lights are clicked off when they’re not needed. But don’t worry if you forget: occupancy sensors can remember for you. Installed in a small office, an occupancy sensor, like the Sensor Switch, can reduce energy pull for lighting by over 20 percent. And you can save even more energy by installing compact fluorescent bulbs, which not only use less electricity but last longer, and pay for themselves with a year’s use.

Two resources that can help you create the ultimate green work space are The Smart Office, a comprehensive guide by A.K. Townsend; and the GreenLine paper catalog, a source for everything from eco-friendly copy paper to message pads. And to keep track of it all, there’s the Daily Plan-it, a day planner with a soda bottle fabric cover, printed on recycled paper with soy-based inks.

MARK HARRIS is a Pennsy

lvania-based freelance writer.