Americans now spend an estimated 90 percent of the day indoors. Now considering that a third of our daily lives is likely spent in an office, it's important that those hours are healthy ones — that is once you get past whatever stress-related effects come from dealing with clueless bosses, ever-present deadlines, and that nose-picking chatterbox who sits next to you in the office writing HTML code. Make no mistake: Healthy workers are more productive workers.
Of course, a healthy office is also a more environmentally friendly workplace. While it makes sense to improve the air quality in the office, it's equally as important to lessen a business' impact on the environment. By shrinking the ecological footprints of our offices, we reduce pollutants, save landfill space, and help alleviate the greater problems we'll all face in the coming years. And that's exactly what we're trying to do at Charleston City Paper headquarters.
Our office is located in an old brick building across from the scrapyard on Morrison Drive. It's an industrial, aging part of town, and our office reflects that. Air circulation is poor, and our ductwork is dirty. A couple of the company's employees complain of chronic throat and respiratory problems.
To remedy that, we brought in experts from DwellSmart and EverGreen Concepts, Mt. Pleasant-based companies that specialize in green products, and green building and renovations, respectively. DwellSmart is the brainchild of Mary Gatch, who founded the retail store after realizing her own chemical sensitivity and then detoxifying her home. EverGreen Concepts was started by husband/wife team Drew Franyo and Suzie Webster, both veterans of the building industry who realized "green building" was their passion after renovating a two-century old farmhouse to be energy efficient.
After a thorough inspection, they gave us their recommendations to "green" our office. We've implemented some and will continue to do more as we renovate a downstairs portion of the building. Here's where we are now — and where we hope to be heading.
Ten thousand sheets. That's how much paper the 30 employees of City Paper use in an average month. We've purchased 30 percent recycled copy paper for years at $37 a box (5,000 sheets) from Staples. Beginning last week, we switched to 100 percent recycled-content copy paper, at an added cost of $10 per box.
To compensate for increased paper costs, we also purchased a duplexer for our Hewlett-Packard printer for $160, allowing us to print on both sides of a sheet of paper. Our employees agreed to utilize it whenever possible, and we estimate that a third of our print jobs will now be two-sided, saving 3,300 sheets a month. In six months, the duplexer will have paid for itself, and four months after that, the added cost of recycled paper will be covered.
"You're looking at virgin trees that went into making paper," says DwellSmart's Vicki Faith. "With recycled content, the paper has already had a life, and you're saving trees."
Our printer guarantees us that the paper in your hands was made with at least 40 percent recycled content, using soy-based inks. We'd love it to be 100 percent post-consumer, but at 40,000 free copies, that's a goal we can't quite reach yet.
Notepads, Post-It notes, and clasp envelopes are also frequent purchases at every newspaper. We were surprised to find that 50 percent recycled-content steno pads and 100 percent-recycled envelopes actually cost a couple dollars less at Staples than our current products, so we made the switch; we also decided to purchase 100-percent recycled toilet paper and tissues.
Dogwood Alliance, the leading environmental advocacy group for southeastern forests, has recognized Staples as the major office supply store making the strongest push to use recycled material, so we felt comfortable staying with them. Paper products from Staples are made, on average, of 30 percent post-consumer recycled material; the company has set a goal of 50 percent.
Encouraging our employees to recycle paper was the first and most important hurdle. Recycling has traditionally been centralized in the office, with employees having individual trash cans at their desk. Everyone agreed to convert their trash cans to recycling bins, forcing us to get up from our seats to dispose of waste rather than paper. For the waste we do generate, biodegradable trash bags are an option that allows everything inside to break down faster at the landfill, but they run about a dollar apiece from Staples. Where cost is a factor, 50-percent recycled bags are priced about the same as new plastic.
Our break room includes paper plates, plastic water cups and cutlery, and Styrofoam coffee cups. For those unable or unwilling to bring these items from home, we've switched over to corn- and sugarcane-based products provided by local company Ad-Naps. The new cups, plates, and silverware are compostable and break down quickly at the landfill. We've also begun drinking organic coffees from Charleston Coffee Roasters on Huger Street, just around the corner from our office, instead of the bottom-of-the-barrel stuff we've been slugging for years.
Not all recycling is good. In a building like the City Paper office, the only fresh air inside comes through the front door or the occasional open window. Whatever is released into the office air stays there for awhile, and everyone gets a fair shot at inhaling it.
"You're basically in a hermetically sealed building," says DwellSmart's Faith as she looks around our office. "Your cleaners are the biggest thing you can change that will make a huge impact on employee health. There are a lot of toxins in here."
In our bathrooms and break room, we've historically purchased run-of-the-mill cleaners: Clorox, Formula 409, and the like. The cleaning wipes on the table where we eat lunch even contain a label warning people to wash their hands after using the wipes and to avoid touching their eyes and mouths. "I smell lemon-scented poison," half-joked EverGreen Concepts' Drew Franyo about our air freshener.
The EPA lists indoor air quality as a greater public health threat than hazardous waste sites, outdoor air pollution, or contaminated drinking water. With asthma rates soaring nationwide, it's not unlikely that the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from these products could have played a role in that epidemic.
To lower the toxic chemicals in our indoor air, we switched to Biokleen All Purpose Cleaner for sinks and tabletops, a non-toxic floor cleaner for the bathrooms, a citrus-based window cleaner, and a natural air freshener, all available at DwellSmart for less than a dollar more than our old products.
Even without toxic cleansers, the paints, carpets, and wall surfaces in our office are made from toxic chemicals. Franyo recommends cork, bamboo, or marmoleum flooring, and nontoxic paints for walls, but replacing those in the office is not feasible. We work here, you know.
In order to take a proactive approach to the problem, we purchased $100 of pothos and philodendron plants and placed them throughout the office. These versatile species thrive without direct sunlight, require little care, and are some of the most effective plants at absorbing pollutants such as formaldehyde from the air.
"The number one product to make a house more efficient is a tankless water heater," says Franyo, before either of us realizes that City Paper's office doesn't have a water heater at all. We're in the clear. That said, Franyo points out that tankless heaters warm water only when you need it, unlike tank heaters which consume electricity all day to keep a tank of water hot. Because tank heaters are about half the price (a tankless runs about $700), builders still predominantly use them, despite the significant savings to future homeowner by going tankless.
Our office lights are also fluorescent, with very few incandescent bulbs in-house. Compact fluorescent bulbs save the average household seven percent of their energy when switched en masse. We're doing alright there, too.
Unfortunately, a lot of City Paper's energy problems lie in leaky seals around windows, which allow air conditioning and heat to seep out. To help the problem, the office is soon installing programmable thermostats that won't heat or cool the whole building during the nighttime hours that the building is normally empty. A "master switch" that turns off all unnecessary devices during off-hours may also be installed, as well as individual desk "smart strips" that shut off peripheral devices when they're not in use (DwellSmart has them for $37).
Twenty percent of the average office power use is "phantom power" — computers and devices left on after hours, and City Paper employees have launched a peer-enforced initiative to begin powering down machines when not in use.
Our biggest "greening" challenge (and opportunity) comes with the renovation of our downstairs office, which we plan to move our sales staff into this year. Right now it's a damp, dark, open space, with crumbling flooring under old carpet.
"A lowest bidder-style operation would come in here, pull up a trailer with some inexpensive laborers, gut the place, and dump everything somewhere. Who knows where, but it'd be gone," says Franyo. "They'd clean the floor up, lay down luon flooring (a quarter-inch thick, toxic product), then put commercial grade carpet over that. They'd use low-grade, high-toxic paints and glues on the walls, put in some acoustic tile ceilings, and cap off the air vents so they don't spit out smoke or leak water. Then they'll install new sinks and faucets to give it a good look."
During their inspection, EverGreen Concepts discovered that our windows were drafty, the window seals allowed in water, and the ventilation system was "archaic" — it looked like a population of dust mites had gone on a decades-long reproductive orgy in there. Doing it right — sealing off leaks, improving ventilation, installing healthy flooring, using non-toxic paints, and purchasing a Trane CleanEffects air cleaner — costs significantly more than the "lowest bidder" scenario, but it raises the value of the building.
"If you're going to do something environmentally friendly, you add a lot of attributes to a building besides square footage," says Franyo, emphasizing that buyers nationally and in the Lowcountry increasingly demand efficiency and healthy products in buildings. "This is not just about hugging trees but about a quality of life."
"My biggest frustration is hearing people say, 'It's too expensive to be green,'" Franyo says about his work as a green renovator. "You may spend some money in the short term, but you'll save so much overall."
Many of DwellSmart and EverGreen Concepts' suggestions don't require spending any additional money, like the idea of painting the open ceiling downstairs with light colors instead of black, allowing outside light to infiltrate and reflect. Encouraging employees to bring their own cups and to-go containers for eating lunch is a no-brainer and takes only a few times to become a habit.
"It's a trade-off to do the best with what you've got," says DwellSmart's Faith. "Recycle and reuse what you can, and try to stay as green as possible."
Sustainability is hardly a fad — it's a requirement for our survival.