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How One Employee Eliminated Bottled Water in the Workplace

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

It’s the 50th anniversary of Earth Day! I wrote this article in 2017 while working as communications manager for environmental consulting firm CH2M HILL’s award-winning sustainability and corporate citizenship programs. It’s still my favorite example of how just one employee can start a simple change by questioning the status quo.

The Dalai Lama once said, "“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

One person does have the power to improve the planet.

Deborah asked one simple question in her workplace:

“If this is a cleanup site, why are we generating a hundred thousand plastic bottles a year?”

When Deborah Singleton began working as environmental compliance director at the Hanford Nuclear Plant remediation project, she was dismayed to discover water bottles everywhere…stacked in cases in the office, scattered around on the project site, and in practically every cubicle. From June to October 2016, the project team consumed approximately 38,000 bottles (80,275 cups) of water.

With the approval of her boss, she gave a lighthearted presentation to the project team, reminding them that Americans buy 29 billion bottles of water each year, and only one out of five water bottles are recycled. She pointed out that 1,500 plastic bottles end up as waste in landfills or the ocean every SECOND, and it takes 700 years for one plastic bottle to decompose. To illustrate the problem on the site, she shared photos she’d taken of water bottles in conference rooms and offices, and littered along the fence line on the site.

She also reminded team members that the bottled water had been purchased for facilities and field crews that do not have access to potable water. However, some employees were taking cases of bottled water into their offices.

“People take for granted that bottled water is a given,” Deborah said, challenging her colleagues to bring in their own water bottles. “I realized we can’t change how people feel, but we can change some of their actions.”

Deborah knew how to effect change: she proposed a solution.

She asked her boss if they could begin purchasing additional water in three-gallon containers to reduce waste in the office. The 38,000 bottles of water consumed from June to October equated to 300 three-gallon containers, far less waste.

While encouraging employees to bring in their own reusable water bottles, they also provided the entire project team with reusable bottles. Deborah tracked the purchase of 16.9-ounce plastic bottles over the year with targeted reduction goals. She wanted to “encourage the folks here to pour it, not reach for it.”

Employees made a real effort to stop using bottled water, but Deborah also got a lot of pushback. It's hard to get people to change their habits. That didn't stop her from setting ambitious goals.

“We’re not being good stewards by making our environment pay for us to drink water,” said Deborah, who presented this as a target for all environmental managers on the Hanford site. “Now I’m challenging other units to do the same thing.”

Deborah’s first goal was to reduce the number of bottles by 10 percent. Her long-term goal was to get the number of water bottles consumed in the office down to zero.

“It comes down to this: what kind of footprint are we planning to leave behind?” asked Deborah. “We’re working on a cleanup site. Do we want people to dig in 100 years and find a whole stash of plastic water bottles?”

While Deborah was walking her talk on her project, our Environmental Management System implemented a global initiative to ask employees all around the world to #TapIn and commit to drinking tap water vs. bottled water as the company celebrated Imagine a Day Without Water. We invited people to take photos of themselves with their reusable bottle or mug and take the pledge! Here are just a few:

Here's one of the most important things to remember when trying to get people to change a habit, especially about environmental challenges like zero waste:

Inspire instead of SHame

If you blame or shame people for their habits, they'll become defensive and resist calls to improve. As Deborah found out, a more effective approach is to keep things light and inspire change rather than demand it.

This doesn't apply to all things, of course. In some cases, company policies or mandates are important to bring about real change in energy reduction, purchasing, water use, and other areas. For example, by changing printer settings to automatically default to double-sided printing, requiring employee numbers to print, and ongoing communication and education in our U.S. offices, we reduced paper use by 101 tons in just one year, surpassing our 40-ton reduction goal in 2016. We saved 1,848 trees (287 tons of wood), the energy to power 34 homes per year (3,066 million Btus), and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions equal to 48 cars per year (521,981 pounds of CO2e). Employees could still print single-sided, but it put the onus on them to change the settings instead of automatically printing everything single-sided.

When it requires people to change their personal behavior, I recommend making your communications inspiring, fact-driven, and fun. They'll be more likely to view the recommended change as a cool thing to do.

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." --The Lorax, Dr. Seuss

Happy 50th anniversary of Earth Day, everyone!

Contact me for more information about sustainability or environmental management in the workplace. Fertile Ground Communications LLC is a certified women-owned business enterprise, disadvantaged business enterprise, and emerging small business, dedicated to creating a kinder, more sustainable, and just world. With over 30 years of experience in the environmental consulting industry, I am passionate about sustainability and corporate citizenship, equity & inclusion, businesses that use their power for good, and doing everything I can to create a kinder, more compassionate world.

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