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August 11, 2009

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And how was your day at the office, dear? Greener, thanks

IT'S the little things that can make all the difference when it comes to saving the environment. A project involving companies in Shanghai has shown how effective a few changes in office practice can be, writes Zhang Qian. Low indoor temperatures, waste bins filled with used paper towels, the lighting full on although only one or two people are working overtime. These are not rare situations in office buildings around Shanghai and they're mostly the result of people's ignorance of how little changes in habits can help improve the environment.

To make people more aware of how to work "greenly," Shanghai Roots & Shoots, a charity educating youths about environmental issues and humanitarian values, has launched a "Green Office" program in 2006, researching the environmental conditions in companies willing to participate. The research involved equipment and facilities, staff habits and the company's environment management policy.

Companies are evaluated twice. Shanghai Roots and Shoots volunteers share the results with staff after the first evaluation, and provide suggestions including how to save paper, water and electricity. The second evaluation, after six months, assesses how effective the changes are.

So far 136 companies have taken part in the program, and about 40 signed up early this year. The average score for the 40 companies was 75 with 100 the top mark.

The top-score companies this year included Crown, a relocation company, RDF, a design company, and Applied Materials, a company that specializes in nano-manufacturing technology solutions. All gained scored over 90.

Though some companies have done great job in keeping offices green, staff at many others still lack of awareness of "green" working.

Paper waste is a major problem, according to Tatiana Ramirez, manage of the Eco-Audit Program at Shanghai Roots and Shoots. A single meeting may consume dozens of pages, volunteers find.

"Even though all the information will be projected on a big screen, each attendee still have about 20 pages of printed copies," says Ramirez. "It is a terrible waste."

Other problems such as leaving lights on when nobody is in and discarding polluting waste such as batteries and ink cartridges are also common in Shanghai offices.

Though energy-saving and emission-reduction have been highly promoted by local government in recent years, not so many people have effectively adopted the principles in their lives, especially in offices, says Zhong Zhengxi, office chief at Shanghai Roots and Shoots.

"They don't see that a little change can make a big difference to the environment. Yet, they are wrong," says Zhong. "Every individual can influence the environment. Whether to pose a positive or negative influence, it all depends on your choice."

The research also shows that though some people were aware of working greenly, they didn't know how to and sometimes did wrong things.

Ramirez says there are several misunderstandings. For example, many people believe that as long as they switch on a screen saver when leaving the office, they can largely reduce the energy consumption of the computer. In fact, the screen saver can only save about half of the energy. Ramirez suggests at least setting the computer to standby if you leave for more than an hour.

Some companies provide paper towels rather than electric hand dryer to reduce energy use. But many staff take several sheets to dry their hands. That involves the cutting down of more trees, which also poses a threat to the environment. It would be better to provide both while putting a note on the paper box to remind people to use only one sheet.

Most companies in the project improved greatly at the second evaluation. With a policy of printing on both sides of a paper sheet, many companies reduced paper use by nearly half. And energy was saved by accepting other suggestions such as turning off unnecessary appliances when leaving.

"Being green does not necessarily mean sacrifice. It is not necessarily the less electricity the better, but you can save what you don't need," says Dr Ian Rowbottom, principle applications engineer of Lutron GL Electronics, whose Shanghai branch also got a high score in the evaluation.

There are simple ways to save energy such as setting reasonable temperature for air-conditioners, setting a dimmer switch on lights to reduce energy and opening curtains to let in natural light.

It is widely believed that a bright office environment can help improve working efficiency, but it is not true, according to Chen Jinsheng, senior marketing communications manager of the Lutron Electronics Co.

Too bright lights accelerate eye fatigue and also consume more energy and create more heat which, in turn, increases the energy consumed for air-conditioning.

Admitting natural light and heat by opening curtains is an easy way to save energy. Drawing the curtains when it is too hot or cold outside can help keep room temperature comfortable with relatively low energy consumption from air-conditioning, while opening them when the outside temperature is comfortable can help save energy needed for lighting.

"Many people are crazy about finding renewable energy like solar; they always want to get more. But actually it is much less costly to save than to produce," says Rowbottom.

Each kilowatt hour of electricity you save would help save about 35 US cents, while each kwh of electricity produced by solar energy costs about US$7, he says.

In Shanghai, each kwh saved amounts to 0.6 yuan (8.8 US cents), while solar power is still new and inaccessible for most people.


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