A little over a year ago, I decided to create a more sustainable, zero waste lifestyle. As a writer, time at the desk is a huge part of my life, so figuring out how to create a zero waste home office was a top priority from the beginning—and, honestly, one of the easiest parts of my life to hack.
Although for quite some time I have been slowly sliding into a more responsible awareness, I didn’t fully understand the importance of my shopping choices and waste contributions until I started trying to find more routine household products that could be reused instead of tossed (e.g., handkerchiefs instead of tissues). About a year ago, I made a personal commitment to produce as little trash as possible—especially plastic trash (which basically sticks around forever and forever). Since then, I’ve eliminated as much of my trash as possible (via some of the tips I’ll talk about in a minute) and tried to be as responsible as possible in disposing of unavoidable waste (via composting and recycling).
When I made these commitments, I expected to feel good about myself, maybe live a healthier life, and hopefully “make the world a better place” (as my sister is always telling her kids). What I didn’t expect was that I would love the zero waste lifestyle. Seriously, I am a total addict.
I love the simplicity and the beauty that have come to the forefront of my life as I’ve become more mindful of my lifestyle choices. I love that I’ve eliminated ugly plastic “essentials” (like shampoo bottles and dish brushes) from my life. I love that I have an easy metric that helps me decide not to buy junk I don’t need. It’s weird, but I even love washing out bottles and cans before putting them in the recycling bins.
There are still challenges I’m working on. I’m not zero waste (if there really is such a thing). Particularly, I’m still trying to figure out how to buy food with (way) less packaging. Although I recycle most of my “non-recyclable” kitchen waste through TerraCycle, I realize it’s still not as sustainable as avoiding the packaging in the first place. Still, I’m pleased that so far I’ve reduced my actual send-it-to-the-landfill trash to, on average, one tiny bag a month.
Which is all to say: there are a lot of heavy-duty reasons why it’s important for all of us to be more mindful of the waste we’re creating, but for me the top reason is joy. I love this lifestyle. For me, it’s a move toward health. Making conscious waste choices is no different from making conscious eating choices. They both require discipline and some self-growth. But they’re both deeply rewarding.
Anyway, enough preaching. For those interested, I promised last winter that I’d share a post about my top suggestions for creating a zero waste home office. For me, the office was one of the easiest transitions to make, since I was already creating very little waste in that area of my life. Below are my tips for making sustainable choices in your writing life.
Buy (or Bum) Tools That Are Eco-Friendly Choices
1. Highlighter Pencils
I outline longhand in a notebook and use a color-coded highlighting system to organize my notes. But highlighters, of course, are plastic (and toxic). Fortunately, a super-easy switch to make is to highlighter pencils. These are basically just giant colored pencils, but they work just as well as the markers.
2. Aluminum Pencil Sharpener
I bummed mine off my mom (who might have gotten it from my granddad). Instead of buying a big plastic sharpener, I keep this one handy for topping off my pencils. (I also have a wooden sharpener that came with my highlighter pencils, which was great since they’re too fat for the standard-sized sharpener.)
3. Stainless Steel Scissors
Ditch the plastic handles for an all-steel version. I haven’t actually made this switch myself because somehow I already own a bazillion scissors—which in itself is a good reminder to use what you have, even if it is plastic, instead of buying something new just because it’s “zero waste.”
4. Paper Tape
Most tape is plastic. Whether you’re mailing review copies of your books or just taping the flap on an envelope that just won’t stick, opt for a paper alternative for packing or wrapping. I haven’t made this switch yet either, but will as soon as I use up my current supplies.
5. Compostable Phone Case
When I finally got a smart phone last year (yes, I was the last person on the planet to get one), I bought a wooden case off Etsy. I thought it was a better alternative, but half of it ended up being plastic. When next I need a case (which will be a bummer, because I love this one), I’ll be looking into compostable options made from eco-friendly materials.
Although digital downloads aren’t without their own footprint, it’s clear that e-books don’t require the same output of physical resources as do paperbacks and hardcovers. I’m not a solid e-book user (I also use Paperback Swap and, of course, the library), but when I’m buying new, I generally opt for the digital version.
7. Wooden Coasters
Gotta have my coffee (or kombucha) handy when writing! There are lots of good options available for coasters (including odds and ends found around the house, if you’re so inclined). If you’re buying new, opt for a natural material such as wood, instead of plastic.
8. Beeswax Candles
I use a big three-wick candle for “dreamzoning” when it’s too cold or windy for an outside fire, and I like to have a small candle in the corner of my vision when writing in the evenings (or reading in the mornings). My research tells me beeswax candles far and away the healthiest choice—for both myself and the planet. In regards to health, soy wax is a decent runner-up (although its footprint is often problematic, depending on how it was sourced). If the candle doesn’t tell you what it’s made from, then it’s probably made from paraffin (a petroleum byproduct) or other chemicals. (Also, look for cotton wicks, as some others contain lead.)
9. Wooden/Natural Fiber Decor
In decorating your office, opt for furniture and decor made from natural materials, especially if you’re buying new. Look for hardwood furniture (not MDF or laminate—which are constructed with chemicals such as formaldehyde). If you need a rug, avoid polypropylene and nylon (read: plastic) choices and opt instead for wool, cotton, or jute. For decor, shop used (such as antique typewriters!) or find non-plastic alternatives (books!).
10. Recycled Pencils
Pencils in general aren’t so bad, since they’re made primarily from wood, but if you need to stock up, why not choose pencils made from recycled newspaper? Recycling your own trash is great, but the process only works if we’re also purchasing recycled materials.
11. Recycled Notebooks
You could, of course, opt out of using notebooks altogether in favor of no-paper options like your computer and phone. But, c’mon, we writers love our notebooks. Instead of kicking the habit (although it’s a good idea to only buy notebooks when you actually need them), make a conscious choice to find recycled alternatives. Avoid plastic covers—which include faux leather versions. I got these big fat beauties for outlining and this slim version for my monthly budgeting. And I’m currently considering this lovely for collecting sayings.
12. Recycled Address Book
Technically, you could use one of the above notebooks if you need it for something like addresses. But you could also opt for a sweet little recycled version made specifically for the purpose.
Choose Tools You Can Reuse/Refill
13. Fountain Pen
When writing those longhand outlines, I’ve always used an ergonomic pen. I love it, but it goes through ink cartridges like nobody’s business. When I mentioned in my New Year’s goals post that I was thinking about trying a refillable fountain pen, awesome reader Glenn Cox sent me a pen and a bottle of ink (woot!). I haven’t completely made the transition but am committed to getting there.
14. Staple-less Stapler
Staples aren’t plastic, but they do interfere with recycling (so be sure to remove them before putting paper in the bin). Plus, if you can staple your papers without a staple, why not? I got my staple-less stapler used off eBay (since all the newer options are made of plastic). Never have to buy or reload staples again…
Shop Your Home (and Your Trash)
15. Use Junk Mail for Scratch Paper
Although I try to reduce unnecessary mail as much as possible, I still get the inevitable credit card offers, etc. After cutting out and throwing away the plastic address windows, I recycle what paper I can’t use and save the smaller scraps for scratch paper. Sometimes I’ll even cut up the bigger pieces to create little scene cards for outlines.
16. Save Rubber Bands
Occasionally, the mail carrier will strap all my mail together with a rubber band. I always save them against that rainy day when I really need a rubber band.
17. Use Old Devices
I still have a 2nd Gen iPad, the first one I ever bought. The hardware is too old to play nice with the latest iOS updates, and I’ve been thinking about replacing it for years. But the truth is I only use it to run the Scrivener app when outlining away from my computer. And that still runs fine. So why replace it?
E-waste is a huge problem. Resist all those commercials telling you to buy a new phone/tablet/computer just because there is a new one. Instead, use every last drop of juice in the ones you have. (And then dispose of them responsibly.)
Cultivate Good Habits
18. Buy Used
I have several rules of thumb I use when deciding what and how to purchase.
The first rule is to wait. I don’t have an official time limit, but unless it’s an item I really need, I try not to buy things the minute I put them on my list. I think about it for a while, until I’m sure I really do need it and that I’m making the best choice for what to buy and how to buy it.
The second rule is to avoid plastic—both in the product itself and (often, more sneakily) in the packaging. As mentioned above, I look for non-plastic alternatives. As one example, when I needed a laptop stand, I bought a wooden alternative from Etsy.
The third rule is, when I can’t find a non-plastic alternative (and sometimes even then) I, buy used. I shop garage sales in the summer, buy clothes secondhand (mostly from ThredUp), and look to eBay before Amazon.
19. Request No-Plastic Shipping
Although I try to buy locally whenever possible, the fact that I’m super-picky about what I buy and how it’s packaged means I often end up looking online. There are several problems with purchasing from the Internet. One is the carbon footprint created by the package’s need to be transported to my door.
The other problem is that one of my biggest remaining sources of trash comes from plastic mailers and packaging. Whenever possible, I shop from responsible sources that don’t use plastic packaging (such as Package Free Shop, Wild Minimalist, Refill Revolution, Fat and the Moon, The Good Fill, Tiny Yellow Bungalow, and Life Without Plastic). When this isn’t possible (such as when I’m shopping on eBay or Etsy), I always try to remember to add a note to the seller, requesting they ship without plastic if at all possible. More often than not, sellers are happy to oblige.
20. Use Power Strips You Can Turn Off When Not in Use
“Phantom energy” refers to the energy some devices pull just from being plugged in. Anything that runs on a remote, features a light, or uses a big “wall wart” plug may be pulling power even when not in use. A good way to combat this (for your pocketbook as much as anything) is to either unplug unused devices (think: your toaster) or plug into a power strip you can turn off (this is great for big devices such as your computer and TV). My TV’s strip is on only when I’m watching something in the evenings, and my computer’s strip is on only during the work day. (While you’re at it, get strips that will protect your devices against power surges.)
21. Borrow Equipment When Possible
I don’t own a printer or a scanner. In part this is because I ruddy hate the things (and they hate me back). But it’s also because I use them only a few times a year. On the rare occasion when I need to print a contract or something that’s just a page or two, I use a relative’s. If I have a big printing job, I’ll take it to Staples.
22. Don’t Print Unless Absolutely Necessary
The big postscript to the above tip is to simply avoid printing whenever possible. As noted, I hate printing anyway, so this isn’t a big sacrifice. About once per book, I find I do need to see my words on the page in order to properly edit them, but mostly I edit on the computer or on my Kindle.
When I do need to print, I use an “eco” font like Spranq Eco Sans, which uses less ink than normal fonts. I also downsize the font as much as practical to reduce both ink and paper usage.
23. Play Downloaded Music Instead of Streaming
Everything that happens on our devices and/or the Internet often seems “zero waste.” But it’s important to remember that even when we play something off the cloud, that data is still being stored on a physical hard drive powered by electricity. In short: everything we do on the computer requires physical resources of some kind.
It’s so easy to play music on Pandora, YouTube, or Spotify instead of off the hard drive. But it requires less resources all around to play music you downloaded once rather than music (or video) you’re constantly streaming. I try to purchase music I like (either a digital download or a used CD), put them on my devices, and play off the hard drive instead of streaming. This isn’t a hard and fast rule for me, by any means, but it’s something I try to be aware of.
This list is, of course, far from complete. It’s just an inventory of the things I do or try to be aware of in making the lifestyle choices that are best for me and everyone else on the planet. I hope these ideas will inspire you to create or refine your home office into a waste-free paradise!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you tried a zero waste home office? Do you have any tips to add? Tell me in the comments!
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