Zero-Waste Office


I decided to update this post now that I work in a normal American office, not one where French bboys breakdance for no reason in the middle of the day and everyone keeps a bottle of Hibiki at their desk.  As far as I know, there's no French equivalent to the word corporation. They use the word société, which (I guess) denotes socialization. The offices I frequented placed high importance on art, communal areas, and contemporary furniture. Couches, open space, and shared extended desks replaced cubicles. They might run out of copier paper or toilet rolls, but never wine, stocking cases upon cases of reds, whites, and rosé in every supply closet.

Apéro was an important part of the workday, arguably more important than the Ticket Resto-subsidized lunch. Office hours began later than the US, sometimes ending around 10 o'clock. Ostensibly, the French workweek is 35 hours. I heard this wasn't enforced. A minimum five to eleven weeks vacation, plus bank holidays, sweeten the deal. Contrary to what I've read online, casual Friday does exist in France, at least in Paris, the sneaker-loving capital.

If you're considering working in Paris, read Michel Houellebecq's Extension du domaine de la lutte. If you're already a proud member of the French workforce, or any workforce, here are some zero-waste desk essentials:Zero-waste desk drawer essentials
  • Mason jar. Perfect for hot and cold drinks, or microwaving leftovers. I carry my lunch in one wrapped in a cloth napkin and keep the other with water or tea in it in my purse. Keeping a few jars around comes in handy, and makes it easy to carry compost scraps home.
  • Baking soda. Keep in a small shaker or jar at your desk. Safer than deodorant, it won't stain nice suits and shirts. Swish with water after morning coffee instead of popping breath mints- many Parisians brush their teeth at work (alternately, make some zero-waste breath freshener or spray of your own). If you prefer a plastic free deodorant, Chagrin Valley Soap and Salve and Meow Meow Tweet make good ones without baking soda, and Fat and the Moon has a nice tooth cleanse in a small amber bottle.
  • Safety pins. Temporary fix for outfit mishaps.
  • Eyedrops. In France, you can buy recyclable plastic multi-application bottles that expurgate preservatives before reaching the ocular surface. Don't try making your own at home!
  • Garment brush. Replaces a lint roller.
  • Mooncup. Replaces tampons and pads.
  • Cloth towel (for drying hands) and soap / hand sanitizer. I'm only putting soap on here because I used to (actually still do) carry it in a little cloth bag to work. I used one piece to wash my dishes, one to wash my hands, one to spot-clean clothes, etc. It seems overkill now, but I didn't want to use antibacterial gels or packaged products. Savon de marseille removes stains better than Tide pens anyway. Add some lavender or orange essential oil to ethyl alcohol or vodka in a spray bottle for DIY hand sanitizer. I soaked lemon peel in vodka one week to make mine.
  • Utensils. Even people who don't care about zero-waste keep cloth napkins, a knife, fork, spoon, and mug or canteen at their desks for convenience. Pack lunch to avoid creating trash.
  • Extra shoes. All the women I know carry sneakers or ballet flats in Paris. They click-clack to lunch in heels but take the Metro in comfort, usually New Balances or Repettos.
  • Plants and cleaning supplies. Plants are the best zero waste air fresheners. If your desk or cubicle tends to get dusty, you could also keep a little bottle of vinegar (with a lavender or rosemary sprig in it, or citrus peels so the office doesn't smell like a pickle) at your desk and a small cloth to wipe things down.
I used to let my hands air dry after washing them or use a cloth napkin I kept in my purse, but now that I'm back in America, I’ve gotten in a bad habit of using hand dryers or paper towels (I can take the paper home in my jar to compost but I rarely remember, so I'm trying to be more conscious about air drying). One thing we do in my office now is print doublesided, and since our printer automatically inserts a cover page, if the whole team needs to print something, one person does it for everyone to reduce individual covers.

It would take six hours for me to get from my office to work using public transportation. I tried carpooling with coworkers who lived nearby, but then our schedules switched so I drive to work alone right now. As much as I'd love an electric car, I did the feasibility study and unless I buy a Tesla, it's not possible right now- we don't have the climate or the grid for electric in my locale, and I'd never make it home and back in the winter. My car is over ten years old though, in perfect condition. I drove it in high school and they say it'll last another ten years, so it seems more sustainable for me to drive this until it breaks than buy a different car. I telecommute any time I have the opportunity to, though.

To stay streamlined and organized at work, try clearing everything from your workspace. Put it all in a box, and take out what you need, as you need it. Place the items you use on your desk. After a month, if there are items you haven't used, get rid of them. My friend Sandra, a civil engineer, makes it a point to clean every day, both when she arrives at work, and before leaving, so messes don't pile up. Take a cue from reader Amber, a soon-to-be mechanical engineer, who manages to keep reference material and school papers organized in her beautiful workspace:

Far left and left, Amber's desk before. Right, in progress.

P.S. Put unused items and office supplies on Freecycle or offer to other co-workers and companies like Terracycle instead of sending them to the trash. My office collects batteries, printer cartridges, and other hard to recycle items, and even has a free library where people can leave and take books.

Paris to Go


  1. How neat to see my desk on your blog! Sorry to be out of touch for a bit, but school has been taking up a good deal of my time. Btw, although I may appear to be "structured" *wink*, I'm on my way to being a mechanical engineer. This experiment has been great! A few weeks since the picture on the right and it still looks about the same +thermos+one small notebook for ideas. I edited my books and reduced some of my paper on my bookshelf, leaving me with another near empty shelf. That shelf now holds any active project that I don't want to fully put away.

    I highly recommend #1 on your list, it has made a huge difference in how I think about what "needs" to be on my desk.

    1. Oops, I'm sorry Amber! I'm dumb for mixing that up- I fixed it to mechanical engineer now! And thanks for the updates, I can't wait to see the new pictures :) but even the before photos are a model of organization. Thank you for sharing !