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Sierra Magazine
Hearth & Home: The Happy Home Office

It's not just where you work, but how

by Kim Erickson

Telecommuting can go a long way to avoid the gridlock and stress of the daily grind. Yet a home office is fraught with perils of its own: ozone spews silently from your computer, poisons lurk in correction fluid, formaldehyde seeps from your credenza. And you can't even blame your boss.

You can, however, take some simple steps to make your home office both healthy and environmentally sound-whether you've been telecommuting for years or you're just setting up shop.

The hazards of hardware. Computers, fax machines, and copiers can be real energy hogs. But equipment bearing the EPA's Energy Star logo uses less than half the juice of conventional hardware. If business and residential consumers chose Energy Star products over standard models, the agency says, the reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions would be equal to removing 17 million cars from our highways.

But there are more immediate benefits than staving off global warming. Energy Star computers, for example, switch to an automatic "sleep mode" during periods of inactivity without sacrificing speed or performance. In addition to saving energy, these systems emit less heat and reduce electromagnetic field emissions, which have been linked to some types of cancers.

Office equipment, no matter how efficient, produces waste. Print and toner cartridges contribute over 38,000 tons of plastic and metal to landfills each year. Using and recycling remanufactured cartridges not only keeps these products out of landfills but reduces the amount of petroleum needed to produce new ones. Hewlett-Packard's Planet Partners and Inkjet Takeback programs encourage users to return their spent laser cartridges free of charge. A Planet Partners spokesman says that 95 percent of each returned cartridge is recycled, including the box and packaging material.

The paper trail. The average office worker discards over 100 pounds of paper every year, most of which ends up in landfills. Yet recycled paper is available for practically any use, and at a cost comparable to virgin paper. To save trees and eliminate paper-related pollutants such as dioxins and furans, try treeless paper. Hemp, kenaf, and other agriculturally based pulp sources are usually grown without pesticides, and are chlorine- and acid-free. Whichever type of paper you use, close the recycling loop by practicing conservation. For draft documents, print or copy on both sides of the paper, or try to fit two pages on one. On-screen editing can help reduce hard-copy drafts, while electronic business forms, e-mail, and faxes can help stem the tide of conventional mail. If you must ship documents, UPS now offers a reusable, bleach-free express envelope made from 80 percent postconsumer recycled fiber.

Space: the final frontier. Traditional office furniture not only contributes to the depletion of forests but can emit formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for years after its purchase. Opt instead for furniture made from certified sustainably harvested wood or recycled material finished with toxic-free paint and binding agents. For a list of manufacturers, check out the Green Seal Web site at www.greenseal.org. Or go fashionably downscale with pre-owned furniture.

Arrange your work space to take advantage of natural daylight. If you must rely on artificial lighting, one of the easiest ways to reduce energy consumption is to replace office lighting with compact fluorescent bulbs, which use the same fixtures but last ten times longer than conventional lightbulbs.

The EPA reports that the air inside most homes is five times more polluted than the air outside. But simply adding a few houseplants can help neutralize toxic indoor air. If horticulture's not your thing, open a window or use a freestanding air-filtration system to reduce airborne poisons.

Employing even a few of these strategies can extend the green benefits of telecommuting, and create not just a healthier work environment but a cleaner global environment.


Kim Erickson, who wrote about telecommuting for our November/December 1998 issue, works at home in Las Vegas.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org for more information.


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