Working a corporate job doesn’t mean changing who you are and what your values are. Think of adversity as an opportunity to inspire people to make positive change. If someone thinks you are weird for living zero waste at work, it typically means you are doing something different, and when it comes to sustainability and living in this world where sustainable decisions are often secondary, different is fucking awesome. I asked my best friend Katherine to share her story of working in the corporate world as a zero waste girl, and how she handles it. – Lauren

When I think of Zero Waste, I don’t immediately think of the corporate world, board meetings, suit-clad co-workers, standing desks, and Powerpoint presentations, but for me, they are more related than you might think. My name is Katherine Kartis and I’m a zero waste girl in a corporate world.

I used to question my dedication to environmental sustainability because what I accomplished in my corporate day job as a software salesperson didn’t embody my personal passion of reducing my carbon footprint. In fact, at this job, it seemed impossible.

True life: at a former company, a fellow employee actually started a petition to bring back the plastic cups I fought to have replaced with sustainable, reusable alternatives.

I asked myself should I even be at this company because they don’t share my values? But at the same time it was such an incredible and challenging job that paid well, had regular hours, and awesome benefits. I wasn’t sure how to overcome this internal struggle. I would even call Lauren, so upset, asking for advice as I felt like I didn’t have anywhere to move. And then one day it hit me— this job offers advantages that actually enable me to live a zero waste lifestyle and I can (and should) live it regardless of what other people think. I aspired to fulfill a zero waste “corporate” lifestyle, and that’s exactly what I did.  

For  anyone who feels or has felt the way I did, I want to offer you two things – first,  a virtual hug. You are awesome, I support you, and you’re not alone. Second, some pieces of advice that helped me break through:

Lead by example rather than trying to change office operations and the single-use, plastic-worshipping habits of your co-workers.

To my earlier anecdote about the plastic cups, know you’re not going to change everyone. Office politics can be messy. Don’t get me wrong, that pro-plastic co-worker made my blood boil. I couldn’t wrap my head around why someone would actually prefer the look and feel of cheap, toxic, single-use cups to reusable glasses or better yet, their  own reusable water bottle. Then I realized for some people it’s about control. I learned an important lesson through this experience: you can only control your behavior, not anyone else’s and not your environment. You’re more likely to positively influence others’ actions through confidently living your values.

Buy two reusable, plastic-free water bottles and keep one in your bag and one at your desk.

This way, in case you accidentally leave one bottle at home, you always have a backup bottle at your desk. Doubling up is ideal for reusable coffee to-go cups too, like the sleek bamboo versions by Ecoffee Cup or stainless steel cups by U Konserve. Be a part of the solution instead of the problem by avoiding single-use cups all together. Drinking beverages from a sustainable container made of glass, bamboo or stainless steel will also ensure you avoid consuming toxic plastic byproducts that affect hormone and endocrine health, plus your sleek, reusable water bottle or coffee cup is infinitely more professional and adult looking than a dixie or solo cup.

Place compostable items in a container to compost once you get home.

My first software sales job was in SoHo in downtown NYC in the midst of overpriced faux-healthy grocery stores, juiceries which sold food packaged in plastic, and tourist-trap sit-down restaurants. None of those options fit my lifestyle on a professional or personal level. My second sales job was in Manhattan’s “Silicon Alley” near Koreatown. The healthy options were even more limited. For a solid three years I brought my lunches from home in reusable, stainless steel containers with my own utensils and a cloth napkin.

But there was one major problem: there was often only one giant landfill bin for food, glass, trash, and recyclables. Definitely not ideal for a zero waster. Here’s what I did and what you can do. Simply place your apple cores, avocado pits, and any other food waste in a container (mason jars work great for this) and compost it once you’re home. If your co-workers give you strange looks, throw your apple core at them – just kidding – let this be the perfect opportunity to educate them on the benefits of composting.

Don’t feel obligated to accept printouts, company branded plastic trinkets, and birthday treats simply because they are free.

Zero waste is not just a lifestyle— it’s a mindset. Don’t feel shy or high maintenance to ask for digital versions of any paper handouts, and learn the art of kindly declining any freebies that don’t align with your lifestyle. Does anyone really need another plastic pen?

When it comes to office handouts and freebies like food that you don’t want, rather than sounding pedantic or negative, always start with a smile and a genuine “no, thank you”.  But, if you do want a slice of a co-worker’s birthday cake, but don’t want it on a plastic plate, gone with yo’ bad self and just pick a slice up with your hand. It’s definitely one badass way to start a conversation! But remember, always keep it positive and focused on the I, meaning why you choose to live this lifestyle, not why others should.

Maximize your company’s “Volunteer Days” and suggest environmentally-themed team building and community service initiatives.

Great examples include beach cleanups, clothing swaps, and a zero-waste film screenings featuring package free, organic snacks and beverages and watching a documentary like Gasland and Bag It.

Don’t ever be afraid to be a leader in corporate sustainability rather than a follower of “trash-y” habits. Remember: the next time a colleague offers you water in a plastic cup, just smile, pull out your mason jar, and politely say “thanks, but no thanks, I brought my own cup.”


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7 comments

  1. In Finland offices, schools and even malls have separate bins for different kinds of waste; biodegradable, energy, carton, metal, glass. We also have an incredible pawn system for returning plastic bottles!

    Personally, I’ve given up take aways, or then I bring my own dish to the place. 4 days a week I pack my own lunch, but our office has porcelain plates, metal cutlery and porcelain mugs – in fact no disposables are available. The lobby ladies take care of the dishes, but obviously everyone brings whatever theyve used to the diswasher.

    *writing from Finland*

    1. Wow, that’s incredible. I wish the rest of the world took after Finland in that regard. It’s awesome how you only bring reusables too. Keep it up!

  2. I’m starting to live a zero waste life, but I’m from Mexico and it’s really hard here, no one have the culture to even recycle, and not everything on american blogs apply 🙁 sadly I have to adapt my zero waste life but it doesn’t stop me. I can do it!!! Thank you for your tips!!

    1. Yes you can! I know what you mean because it can be difficult for me too when I visit certain parts of Florida. Continue to stay positive and confident that you can be zero-waste regardless where you are, it just may require more foresight and effort. You got this.

  3. Nice article. I had countless coworkers give me a hard time about the container of compostables sitting on my desk. I found the old style water bottles made for a great second life as a compost container and they weren’t breakable. I am always on the hunt for new ideas and products. I really like the bamboo coffee cup.

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