Today, as I prepared to post this, I realized I hadn’t prepared for lunch. So I ordered from a restaurant that I know uses eco-friendly packaging. Unfortunately, the delivery service put the order in a plastic bag. As I walked back in from collecting my lunch from the driver, three of my staff immediately pointed at me and shouted: Plastic bag! Pay 500 riel! We all laughed as I pulled out my wallet and put the money into our Plastic Shamming Box, for offenders such as myself. 18 months ago, this would have been impossible, with the office mostly swimming in single-use plastic. So how did we achieve our (mostly) plastic free office?
Last Plastic Free July we committed as a team to becoming a plastic free office. Two interns from PSE’s environment program had just joined us for the summer and they were super eager to share what they had learned at school with our staff. Our young and brave interns gave a presentation on the plastic issue in Cambodia and led a discussion on how to avoid the Five Big Bad Ones: Styrofoam, plastic water and drink bottles, take away cups, straws and plastic bags, with lots of data on just how staggering the use of these is in Cambodia.
It’s been one year now and what can we say about our success? Using no actual scale or measurement tool at all, I’d give us an 88% or A score for how far we have come to becoming a plastic free office. So how did we do it? Read below to learn about the steps we took, the challenges we faced, where we failed and where we were succeeded.
#1: Start by sharing data, facts and information with your staff
A few months before Plastic Free July in 2019, we invited Plastic Free SEA to come and give a presentation to our office staff in Khmer. The information about the plastic problem in Cambodia was later reinforced by our interns when they did their own presentation. No on in the team could say they were not aware of the problems of plastic bags filling water ways, garbage (mostly single-use plastic) piling up in the streets, and that each individual’s actions were contributing to the problem. They learned more about the health challenges of plastic like using Styrofoam for hot liquids or food, burning plastic waste and the impact on the environment.
Giving data is often meaningless without illustrating it with stories or visuals. Where possible, bring in a week’s average plastic use and show your team just how much it adds up to. Show pictures of oceans full of plastic bags or birds stomachs full of plastic bit and pieces. Numbers alone don’t illustrate the problem as clearly and pictures stir up emotions, whether it is seeing the environment ruined, learning about the suffering of animals or the health impacts on humans. For many, learning about the health impacts on humans can lead to change faster than more removed issues. Knowing that your own health or that of your children and family is directly harmed by plastic in the environment, pushes some people to adapt.
Tip 1: Before asking your team to commit to a plastic free office, make sure they understand WHY they are doing it, the impact of their actions (of lack of actions) and how they can help
#2: Make plastic free a rule, not an option or suggestion
There are ways to implement policies and rules in a workspace that are participatory or achieved through a democratic process. You can do a brainstorming session where everyone brings their ideas on how to achieve a plastic free office. You can make it fun and interactive and give everyone a chance to come with their ideas. Or you can do some role plays, do voting activities or play some games.
We didn’t do any of those things. We just made the rules and explained that we expect everyone to follow them. We acknowledged that it would be challenging but made explicit what was expected. From all of our discussions with staff about the plastic issue in Cambodia, they generally knew what needed to be done and what plastic should be avoided and how. What they needed was a push to get moving and that came from an understanding that office management was enforcing a plastic free office and will henceforth hold everyone up to those expectations. No excuses. We didn’t make a suggestion or ask the staff to do their part, we made sure they understood that we were doing this as a team and everyone was expected to do their best. And that their best was expected to be 99% less single-use plastic.
The reason we didn’t ‘gather ideas’ or ‘explore the options’ was because we felt it would have been redundant. For the most part, and especially after multiple presentations and discussions about the plastic issue, everyone knew what needed to be done. They needed a push to commit and get it done. No excuses taken.
Tip #2: Make your plastic free office rules explicit and non-negotiable
#3 Provide resources for your team to be able to do the things you are asking them to do
We didn’t just make the rules and expect everyone to follow our path to a plastic free office, we also provided the tools they would need to get there. We purchased reusable plastic boxes with lids for staff to get take away lunch in or to purchase snacks from street side vendors. We often celebrate achievements with tubs of ice cream and these are washed and reused for the same purposes. While our Tupperware often goes for walk (and doesn’t always make it back), we always have enough and use a small budget to replenish our stash about once a year.
To help the team avoid plastic bags, we made different sized bags using scrap materials. These are hanging by the entrance. When anyone goes out for office shopping, they take one of these for their purchases. At Christmas we gifted each of our staff with a Waste No More Pocket Bag for their own shopping at home. We gotten to the point that if someone is headed out to the market and they don’t grab a bag, the rest of the team reminds them.
We celebrate everyone’s birthday at the office, usually with a cake. The cake shops in Phnom Penh usually give small square Styrofoam plates and plastic forks with each cake. To combat this, we visited the local Japanese recycle shop and bought small cake plates and dessert forks. These are much prettier than the cheap plastic plates and make each birthday feel more special, like a tea party rather than a quick stop at the road side with disposable plates. When we pick up the cake, we bring our own, large sized bag so we can refuse the plastic one from the cake store. Again, this took some getting used to, but now it is just the habit of our plastic free office team.
Tip #3: Buy some Tupperware in different sizes for staff to use or re-use plastic packaging from other sources, like ice cream
Tip #4: Prepare tote bags for shopping trips and place them somewhere easily accessible
Tip #5: Purchase second hand plates, forks and spoons for in-house birthday parties and celebrations so you can avoid the throw-away gear from cake shops
#4 Check in with your team
While we expected everyone to follow rules, we didn’t go into full dictator mode either from day 1. We acknowledged there would be mistakes and hiccups and situations where plastic was unavoidable. There have been times when staff forgot to take a cloth bag to the market with them and are forced to accept a plastic one. From time to time, the street vendors that walk past our office, already have their goods measured and set out in little plastic bags. Taking or not taking it will have the same result.
We discuss what are the ups and downs, the challenges, during our regular staff meetings. While we needed more such conversations in the early stages, there is less need after one year of working as a plastic free office. During these meetings we can also discuss and address any emotional issues that get in the way of the staff’s actions. Sometimes, our team members have mentioned that people question them or laugh at them for ‘being different’ rather than just doing what everyone else does. They don’t like to feel strange or different from others, or to have to explain their reasons. During a training in a village, when the team were adamant to uphold their plastic free values when purchasing snacks for the workshops, one market vendor asked: are you from a foreign country? Usually, it’s the foreigners who make the requests for no plastic.
We also worked hard to instil the value of caring for the environment and taking responsibility into the team. We wanted them to feel proud of the steps they were taking, rather than burdened by them or embarrassed. The comments from the market vendor above were taken as a compliment.
Tip #6: Build a sense of pride in your team towards the hard work of becoming a plastic free office
Tip #7: Try to implement the new policies with a sense of fun and humour
#5 Ask team to check in and look after each other
Rather than ‘policing’ from the top, we asked the team to look out for each other. We wanted them to take responsibility for themselves and for their teammates. More than that we wanted them to be proud of being part of a plastic free office.
To keep staff involved, we set up an Environment Working Group at the start of the year, but due to the COVID-19 crisis, our office closing for nearly 2 months, they are behind on their goals and activities for the year. We hope we can empower them to take leadership on environment issues without management pushing or guiding as much as in the past.
After many months of running a (mostly) plastic free office, we implemented a fine system for the times someone fails to avoid avoidable plastic. We charge 500 riel for each infringement of the plastic free rule. We’ll use this money, collected in a sealed box, for an end of year celebration together.
Tip #8: Do no implement a fining system from the start. It’s too much at once. Only do this once your team have had a chance to practice the rules and only if they agree to paying a fine.
What have we learned about life in a plastic free office?
The biggest learning has been: we can all do it! Once we set the expectation that we were to be a plastic free office, everyone did their best to adhere to the rules and staff immediately called one another out when others were not putting in the effort. In a follow up meeting this week, staff did mention that sometimes on the way to work they see a vendor they want to buy from but realize they do not have a container or bag with them. They may choose to skip the snack or go for it knowing they are liable for the 500riel fine. Either way, at each of those moments, they are thinking with the environment in mind and taking personal responsibility for their decision. They have also tried to engage with other people in the building to follow the same rules. When a new partner moves in or a new staff member joins the team, they patiently explain the rules.
I am so incredibly proud of how much our little team has achieved over the past year. Everyone now naturally grabs a Tupperware box to get snacks for the office. When the lady selling sun-roasted shells pulls up outside, one of our team goes to the kitchen and grabs a plate and tells her quickly that a plastic bag is not needed. If someone goes out to pick up something for the office and they come back with a plastic bag, the rest of the team tuts and shakes their heads. And for the other workers in our building, who do not follow as strictly our plastic free office rules, they regularly make comments and continually encourage them to make better choices.