SDG3: The secret to a greener, healthier office

clock • 6 min read

However large or small a company is, there are simple ways to cut its environmental impact and boost employee wellbeing, argues Claire McLoughlin from the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change

The UK government's recently unveiled Clean Air Strategy outlined a raft of measures doctors, campaigners and organisations like the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change have long been lobbying for to tackle air pollution.

Measures such as phasing out oil and coal heating, ensuring that only the cleanest stoves are available for sale by 2022, and halving the number of people living in areas that exceed WHO guideline levels for PM2.5 particle pollutants compared to 2016, were warmly welcomed, amid grumbles that the plans didn't really go far enough.

The plans even extend to supporting the Medical Royal Colleges and General Medical Council in embedding the health impact of poor air quality into education and training curricula, a move applauded by healthcare professionals, patients and carers.

Safety in the workplace didn't feature, but many of the same principles apply.

We have long been aware of the health and safety impacts of working at screens and are all too used-to the in-house health and safety training experienced by every new company employee. How to alter the height of the office chair, the correct seated position at the desk and the optimal screen height are lessons we all must learn each time we change workplace and have become part-and-parcel of employer practice.

As the impact of our post-industrial revolution - now known to be resulting in air pollution and climate change - many employers are now also embracing the idea of providing employees with an eco-healthy workspace, encouraging and enabling ‘green practices' at work and supporting their staff in staying healthy in ways that also support the environment.

Schemes such as ‘cycle to work' are more and more commonplace, kitchens and open plan offices have recycling stations, and canteens are deploying re-usable and compostable cups and take-away boxes. Email footers ask staff to question the validity of printing out communications, and battery and toner cartridge recycling deposits adorn every floor.

Cycling or walking to work, rather than using a petrol or diesel-powered vehicles, actively helps to reduce global warming and air pollution from the burning of fossils fuels and the production of particulates from tyres, brakes and roads. It is also healthy exercise; burning calories, toning muscles, releasing endorphins and even sometimes enabling the forging of new friendships, all of which contribute to positive health and well-being. In fact, cycling to work has been linked with a 45 per cent lower risk of developing cancer, and a 46 per cent lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) compared to commuting by car or public transport.

Regular exercise helps to prevent the onset and development of numerous non-communicable diseases including those related to obesity such as Type two diabetes, some cancers and cardiovascular problems including heart attacks and stroke, and evidence shows it is hugely beneficial to mental health too. 

Engagement with sustainability in the workplace (and in the home) exists at different levels. The first is recycling of basics like paper, plastics and food containers. Then we have further recycling where we see batteries, toner cartridges and even shoe repositories employed.

Beyond that, while some organisations use biodegradable drinking cups to support the planet, others explore the provision of personal re-usable cups to replace single use plastic ones and encourage the use of re-usable, refillable water bottles that can be filled from a filtered water tap to reduce the number of plastic bottles purchased.

Sourcing locally takes yet more dedication and for some is less feasible, but for those offices that can, sourcing locally produced food and drink not only reduces transport pollutants that cause both global warming and toxic air, but also supports local communities and businesses.

Active and selective recycling quickly becomes a way of life if the systems are put in place to enable it. Recycling paper, tins, plastics and other disposables helps to reduce the pollution produced by waste and reduce the number of accidental contaminations from water and soil pollution and even food toxicity that can harm human health.

Taking plastic as a good example, most commonly used plastics are made from fossil fuels. Their manufacture requires a lot of energy - much of which is derived from the burning of yet more fossil fuels - and the processes that turn the petroleum oils into plastics also create carbon by-products. Actually creating plastics therefore provides a double insult to the environment, that adds to both pollution and to climate change.

Once used (and some 50 per cent of plastics are believed to be single-use) plastic needs to be disposed of. The three main methods of disposal of non-biodegradable plastics are land-filling, incineration and recycling, although only a small fraction is actually get reused or recycled. 

Incineration can result in dangerous substances like dioxins and polychlorinated-biphenyls (PCBs) being released into the environment. These can enter the food chain, where their damaging effects in humans are an area of continued research.

Decomposition of plastic in landfill can lead to human health from leaking of pollutants such as phthalates and bisphenol A into the soil and environ. These compounds can be absorbed through occupational or environmental exposure and are endocrine disruptors, meaning they can mimic male and female sex hormones. This can result in human health effects, the most dangerous of which impact the development of unborn and new-born babies. Plastic bags and straws from landfill can also blow into drains, rivers and the sea where they cause the death of marine life that get trapped in it or eat it. Once eaten, small bits of plastic can enter the human food chain and cause health problems.

Recycling is undoubtedly the safest and healthiest way to dispose of plastics. Lots of types can be recycled, and the materials recovered can be used again and again, which saves the environment and means the plastic doesn't impact on human or animal health.

Like the impact of many modern behaviours on the environment, the health benefits of acting on climate change and air pollution are now indisputable.

Green teams are increasingly common in workplaces, to monitor green-performance and advise companies and on more ways to support the environment and their employees' health. They can provide simple intranet tips on cycle routes to work that avoid pollution hot-spots and even advise on eco-friendly search engines that use advert revenue to plant trees or donate a percent of revenues to green causes can help a company.

However large or small a company is, it is simple to be even a little eco-friendlier, and in doing so support the health and wellbeing of all its staff and of planet Earth. Implementing measures that do this should not be viewed as additional to standard practice; they are part of best practice. Every workplace value, ethos and process should have at its heart, not just efficiency, productivity and customer care, but also environmental responsibility and staff wellbeing. Without healthy staff, there is no business.

Dr Claire McLoughlin is communications manager for the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change

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