Don’t waste this opportunity: The upside of COVID-19 office shutdowns

Don’t waste this opportunity: The upside of COVID-19 office shutdowns

Covid-19 has disrupted life as we know it. It has limited our supply chains, brought travel to a standstill and turned our once bustling CBDs and office spaces into ghost towns. 

Westpac CEO Peter King recently told the ABC: “What has happened through Covid-19 is managers have learnt to manage remotely, employees have learnt to work remotely and it [has] happened at scale,” Mr King said.

“Whether we go back to the size of workforce in the CBD is an open question.” An open question for many, but one we are keen to explore.

Late last month Edge Environment hosted a live, interactive webinar with special guests from across the corporate sustainability sector. Up for discussion was ‘how empty offices have provided an unexpected opportunity to improve waste management’ — and in more general terms, what the future of workplace sustainability could look like as we face the post-Covid future.

Topics thrown around the table (or should we say screen), included auditing and documenting systems, making sure buildings have the right bins and collection times in place, the potential consideration of sustainable packaging to align with safe return to work guidelines, and ensuring appropriate signage, which can be easily adapted to reflect the ever-changing climate.

The panel also discussed some great, innovative ways to help businesses shake up workplace culture and empower their staff to take ownership of waste and recycling going forwards.

The rise or fall of waste?

Average office space recycling is estimated to be around 30-40% nationally, but Covid-19 has given us the opportunity to create something better. As we begin to plan our return to the workplace, keeping sustainability at the front of mind is a must. 

During the webinar, Kim Host, Resource Recovery Manager at Mirvac shared that office generated waste in Mirvac-owned buildings had decreased by a staggering 64% in April — of that number, 72% was general waste and 58% was recyclables. The retail sector experienced a similar decrease, with 47% less waste than months before restrictions came into effect.

These are of course positive findings, but stand challenged by the notable rise in disposable items making their way into the wider community; from takeaway coffee cups and food containers, which were once favourably replaced by reusable alternatives, to health hygiene products like masks, protective gloves and wipes. Edge Sustainability Consultant, Lloyd Parker told the webinar that these items will inevitably contribute to higher waste streams than what we are used to, and therefore providing appropriate waste management and disposal services may be required by businesses.

The three biggest things that I can recommend to businesses at this time are to reinvigorate your waste auditing processes, continually improve your signage with the use of specific images and photographs, and finally, document and operationalise these processes into something that can be continued.

– Lloyd Parker, Sustainability Consultant, Edge Environment

Back to the office

Alongside some great, inventive ideas on how to take advantage of office closures, we also heard about the steps companies can take to engage their employees once they’re back in situ.

Ryan Swenson, Head of Sustainable Development at Officeworks shared his successful experience with the webinar — by modifying their existing processes and injecting life and meaning into the recycling process, in just a few years Officeworks has rapidly shifted from recycling about 64% of their overall waste, to a current average of 85%, with about 50 stores recycling more than 90%.

One thing that we found quite successful was inviting some of our team members along to do a waste and recycling workshop, which was ultimately taking their general waste bins off to a site — unbeknownst to them — and [making them] conduct their own waste audit. It really could have gone one of two ways, but actually there was a real moment where everyone was like ‘wow, we can’t wait to see what’s inside our bin!’

– Ryan Swenson, Head of Sustainable Development, Officeworks

Hear more about what our panelists — Ryan Swenson from Officeworks, Kim Hostfrom Mirvac, Zoe Baker from CitySwitch, and our very own Sustainability Consultants, Blake Lindley and Lloyd Parker — had to share by watching the replay.

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Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi, via Unsplash

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