In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when people were hunkered down in their homes avoiding the virus, something began to happen outdoors. The waters of Venetian canals cleared up; animals around the world roamed freer without the threat of human presences. Lockdown, it seemed, would give ecosystems a chance to heal.

And for a time, it did. Daily global carbon emissions were down 17% by April 2020 as compared to the same period a year earlier, according to a study in the journal Nature Climate Change.

But that hopeful narrative has since been shattered — or at least, proven temporary. Carbon emissions have climbed back to their pre-pandemic levels. Working from home, as it turns out, is not the climate-saving solution of environmentalists’ dreams.

“The reality of what I see is people on the road for meetings, so traveling a lot. They’re saying, ‘Well, if I don’t have to be at the office, why can’t I go to Florida for February and work from there?'” says Keefe Harrison, the chief executive and founder of The Recycling Partnership, an environmental advocacy group.

Now, more workers are powering more workspaces — at the office, at home and anywhere else you can open a laptop. That translates to more air conditioning and heating systems running, more coffee machines brewing and more lights on.

Plus, the push to bring workers back to the office has led many employers to build out their office buildings with more amenities. That means more environmental construction costs and more electricity power for the new facilities and technology.

Harrison says there are a few steps workers can take to make their hybrid work life more sustainable:

Audit yourself

Before you can make any adjustments to reduce your environmental footprint, Harrison suggests tracking your own behavior and the corresponding energy impact.

For true precision, she says you can use a “phantom energy meter,” a device that detects how much electricity your appliances are using even when they are not in use. But workers can also look at their electricity bills and how quickly their trash cans fill up to gauge their own environmental impact.

This is especially vital when it comes to hybrid workers who may now use twice as much energy because their home office is a replica of their company office, says Harrison: “Are you now running two air conditioners? Two computers? Two coffee makers?”

Build an eco-friendly home office

The adoption of hybrid work led workers to double many of the staples of the company office for their homes. Harrison says that has created more waste.

To limit that waste, she suggests choosing supplies made from recycled materials, using energy-efficient light bulbs (and when possible, natural light instead of light bulbs), and unplugging all electric appliances when not in use.

Overall, Harrison also recommends limiting your home office supplies to strictly the essentials: “People often want to know, ‘What’s the greenest thing to buy?’ The greenest thing to buy is to not buy anything.”

Use your voice and your vote

At the end of the day, Harrison knows that “the whole world wants more convenience” and that the eco-friendly choice and the convenient choice rarely overlap.

DoorDash-ing a sandwich might ultimately be what you want even if you already have leftovers in the fridge. Harrison wants to make it so that individual choices are not the sole bearer of what she thinks ought to be a systemic change.

“It’s not that you don’t deserve the DoorDash sandwich. But you shouldn’t be forced to take on the burden of that waste,” says Harrison.

That’s why she encourages individuals to “use your voice” by calling on companies and policymakers to enforce more environmental regulation on, for example, packaging materials and other environmental excesses that might go into something like food delivery. She says bureaucracies, governments and corporations must take on the majority of the burden of environmental change.

“I think we get into these trade-off conversations of ‘Which is better: paper or plastic? Working from home or the office?’ Really, we have to pull ourselves back to this infrastructure and system conversation,” says Harrison.

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