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How to Reduce Paper Waste in the Office?

Paper and paper waste are both present in the workspace. With the introduction of virtual & digital document processing, we expected paper waste to become less of a problem. And although we use less paper now, the numbers are still significant enough to pose a problem.

The UN Environmental Program report shows that paper waste is already responsible for up to 18% of total waste generated in some ASEAN1 (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries. According to the EPA, that figure is closer to 25% in the US. These numbers are only going up unless there is an intervention.

Pollution due to improper disposal of paper typically affects the land, air, and water bodies. Not to mention, our forests are facing devastation as trees are often felled (and not replanted) to make even more paper.

Of course, this is only partial as certified paper providers source from forests where trees are, in fact, replanted. These forests provide oxygen and sequester CO2, an important process in mitigating climate change.

Though varied methods of minimizing workplace paper waste are in place and even enforced, they have some drawbacks. For example, you may ask staff to repurpose paper, but most of their documents containing sensitive information must be destroyed after use. In this case, repurposing would be the wrong approach to take. So here are a few strategies to reduce paper wastage in the office.

Reduce Paper Waste in the Office

Reducing Paper Waste in the Office
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.

Enforce a paperless rule

This is the strictest approach a company can take to reduce paper consumption. It may not be feasible for every office, but many companies can export all their paper use to virtual data processors such as Microsoft Office and Google Suite.

Programs like Google Docs and Sheets enable you to write, edit, calculate, and collaborate free of charge online. Dropbox, a free service, enables easy filing and sharing; it's easier than ever to eliminate paper from the office. These tools allow you to create a paperless office environment, minimizing or avoiding paper consumption entirely.

Reduce the amount of paper used in the office

Not every business can choose to go paperless. If this is the case in your office, then set measures around paper use. Create a workflow system that requires as little printing as possible.

Introduce your team to online collaboration tools and conduct onboarding sessions to teach them how to use them. Several free and paid materials online will show you how to navigate these tools.

Corporate email signatures could also show "Think before you print" messages at the end of emails as a friendly reminder to co-workers. You can also set the copier or printer to automatically print two-sided copies. This should cut consumption in half.

Extend the margin settings to make the printer use less paper. Encourage employees to dispose of paper securely in the paper recycle bin. Additionally, if in the home or office environment, reducing your print volume will help reduce the amount of ink and toner cartridges you use and reduce plastic waste.

Reuse and recycle office paper

We can recycle the basic types of printing paper. Of course, there are other paper needs apart from printing, such as paper for packaging. Not all paper waste will be reusable or recyclable. But, as much as possible, ensure that your purchasing department chooses the most environment-friendly choices within the budget.

There are some larger corporations with enough capital to take a position in a small-scale recycling plant. They create an employment center while ensuring their paper waste doesn't go to landfills and water bodies. This helps relieve the corporation of seeking out an environmentally safe technique for disposing of their waste.

If your company cannot undergo a large-scale project like this on its own, you can choose to collaborate with a few other companies to develop recycling programs.

Encourage paperless note-taking

The average office worker attends about 62 meetings per month. In such meetings, note-taking is essential to keep track of everything discussed.

By simply looking around in your next meeting, you can get a good idea of how much paper is being used up per meeting. Some people come in with their hardbound notebooks. Others grab printing paper from the printer on their way in.

Regardless of their choice, that paper will eventually become useless to the writer and then be disposed of. To avoid this unnecessary waste, encourage paperless note-taking to save paper. There are several note apps, such as Microsoft OneNote, Google Keep, and Evernote. People can digitally scribble, type, sketch, or use whatever notetaking approach works best for them. Even better, digitalizing workflows is likely to increase office productivity.

Similarly, document scanners can turn documents into digital formats that you can share with your team to prevent printing a paper copy for everyone who needs one.

Related: When paperless won't do, select your writing materials with the environment in mind. Check out: Best Eco-Friendly Pens and Sustainable Writing Equipment.

Facilitate the proper disposal of paper waste

Companies should make sure that paper bins are within reach of employees. One of the reasons why people do not recycle is because of the extended process of refuse sorting. People recycle more once it's convenient. Make it easier for workers to recycle office waste by meeting them wherever they happen to be (e.g., at their desks) with a bin.

Read more: Can you recycle notebooks?

Use the hot-desk approach

In a traditional corporate office, employees often have their unofficially assigned seats. They often lay claim to these spaces using personal items, work documents, or work computers. These designated seats may give them room to grow clutter, as they don't have to clean up for the next person. This may encourage the build-up of paper waste or general disregard for how they manage paper.

Co-working helps reduce paper waste in the office

One approach to solving this problem is to mirror co-working spaces. In many co-working spaces, there are seating areas that host hot desks. This means paying members can come in and sit at any available desk. There's no designated or assigned seat.

At the end of the day, each person must clear out their desk. In such an environment, people are more conscious of what they use and how much waste they generate daily. This approach could prevent paper clutter and reduce paper consumption in the workplace.

Improve your office culture around waste

With the many other aspects of building a company, waste culture is often an afterthought. To encourage better management and disposal of paper, consider creating expectations and guidelines for your members to follow. Because if your company does not create a deliberate culture around waste in the office, then one will be created through personal habits.

Encourage people to consider the importance of reducing and recycling. With set expectations, both new and current staff should find it easier to scale back (or completely end) their paper waste.

Stop creating hard copies of reports

Many companies create reports in their different departments between two to 12 times a year. Whether these are financial or sales reports, they often contain a lot of text, images, visual data representations, etc. This amount of information takes up a lot of page space, and, eventually, paper space when they are printed.

While hardbound reports used to be the norm, they are entirely unnecessary now. All information included can be shared digitally with hundreds of people without wasting paper. If you have meetings where the content of a report will be discussed, a projector can be used to blow up each page and have everyone follow along easily.

By printing paper documents and reports, you will be generating waste that often can't be reused in the office due to the sensitive data on the pages.

Enforce paper waste policies

It's one thing to create policies, and it's another thing to enforce them. Ensure that, regarding paper waste, you're doing both. For example, ask your purchasing department to buy only paper products with post-consumer recycled content and products with Forest Stewardship Council Certification (FSC). Ask that giant print jobs are first tested in little batches; an outsized unskilled print job may be very wasteful.

Ask workers to check a print of one copy before printing ten copies at a time. Encourage them to use digital copies instead of physical copies whenever possible and consider their personal printing footprint. Keeping a tally of how many print copies people use every month can enlighten your people as to how much they can save.

And it's not just office documents that add up to loads of paper waste. Encourage people to bring their lunch in reusable containers.

These requirements should not just be shared by word of mouth. Include them in the office policies along with the repercussions of deliberate paper waste by any employee. Simply encouraging people to ask, "do I really need to print this?" can go a long way.


Whether your team consists of five or 200 employees, changing a group's attitude toward reducing paper waste in the office can be challenging. But it can be done.

While the act of tossing a piece of paper into the trash seems harmless, there are a lot of underlying factors that outline your contribution to environmental damage. Provide paper waste education to your team, and encourage positive improvements in how everyone uses paper.

1WASTE MANAGEMENT IN ASEAN COUNTRIES. United Nations Environment Programme, 2017
By Jennifer Okafor, BSc.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

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