Four Ways Summer Interns Can Advance Your Corporate Sustainability

by | Jul 12, 2012

Summer is in full swing, and that means interns are probably wandering through your organization’s hallways, eagerly looking for projects. Rather than handing off yet another filing task, why not harness that energy and enthusiasm on an assignment that will advance your corporate sustainability agenda?

Here are four projects that you can easily assign to summer staff. These “intern-ready tasks” require no fancy software or specialized training — just the ability to move freely around your facility and observe current practices.

In general, each project will take about 2 weeks to execute (including planning, analysis, and debriefing) and require little planning. So even if you hadn’t thought about it until now, there’s still plenty of time to squeeze in a couple of them before the summer runs out!

Project One: Lighting Analysis

Want to know how much electricity you could save by retrofitting your office, warehouse, factory, or other facilities? You’ll need to start by understanding your current lighting profile — including what kind of lights are currently used, how often (and for what duration) they are used, and their energy impact. Have an intern (or group of interns) survey your facility and assemble a spreadsheet similar to the one below:

Once your intern has collected a robust lighting spreadsheet, you’ll be able to prioritize efforts and determine the impact of switching to newer lighting (e.g. by upgrading your overhead florescent tubing to more efficient versions), where lighting should be eliminated (e.g. unnecessary incandescent desk lamps), and the cost savings associated with any of the changes under consideration. Some of this preliminary analysis may be done by your summer interns, but we recommend that they work in close supervision with facility staff to keep them on the right track.

Project Two: Paper Chase

There are many reasons to reduce paper use in your office — cost savings, better accessibility, increased security, less clutter, and (of course) saving trees. But before you issue a mandate to “use less paper” it’s helpful to know exactly how much paper is being used, how it’s being used, and how long it’s being used (before it’s thrown away). You can turn this into a scavenger hunt, if you approach it right.

Start with the purchasing records to figure out how much paper (including copy paper, envelopes, stationary, post-it notes, invoices, etc.) is used each year. Be sure to include third-party printed documents such as annual reports, brochures, or sales materials that might never actually pass through your office but are part of your “paper footprint” nonetheless. Make a note of the paper manufacturer, the percentage of recycled content, other “green” attributes (such as “processed chlorine free”), and the cost per unit.

Then, figure out how and when that paper is used. How much paper is used for “corporate” things — like printing annual reports? How much is used by individual employees — such as printing out emails or documents for editing? Is the accounting department sucking up eighty-five % of the paper, or are they e-doc pros that can serve as inspiration for the rest of the company? How much paper is used in meetings — does everyone bring a copy of the 10-page agenda, or can it simply be emailed ahead of time and shared on the LCD projector?

Once you’ve got a good baseline, you’ll be well-equipped to go on a paper-busting bonanza. And more importantly: you’ll be able to target your initiative at the right people and the right paper types.

Project Three: Mail Review

Sit your interns down in the mail room for a week and ask them to collect information on your current mail systems. For starters, ask them to classify each type of incoming and outgoing mail, and the number of items falling into each category. For example, under incoming mail you might have: billing/invoices, personal correspondence, catalogs, priority envelopes, boxes/packages, and “junk.”

While the interns are conducting their initial tally, they can also be investigating opportunities to consolidate mailings (maybe you don’t need 50 copies of the Staples office supplies catalog!) or switch to electronic formats. For example, if you find that the mailroom sends out priority envelopes 50 times a week (at $5.15 a pop) for contract signatures, you’ll have added financial justification for pushing that e-signature solution.

Project Four: Waste Audit

If your interns are ready to get their hands dirty, consider doing a waste audit. Set aside your office waste for a week in a safe place. Then spread the waste and sort it into key categories such as landfill, food, mixed recycling, Styrofoam, paper, and cardboard.  Next weigh each category and tally the results in a spreadsheet. You can run a variety of calculations on the raw data, but at a minimum you can determine: how much waste you generate in an average week, what your waste stream looks like, what percentage of that waste is currently recycled, and what percentage of that waste could be (but is not) recycled. Below is an example of the type of data and analysis that can be conducted from a simple waste audit:

It’s grubby work, and there are a number of safety precautions that should be implemented before you turn your interns loose with a pitchfork and a bag of garbage. So make sure that you do your research and take time to set up the area, prep your interns, and explain the process ahead of time.

Short on Time or Staff? Here are Eleven Quick Tasks Perfect for Interns:

  1. Investigate food composting options available in your area
  2. Research local green business networking opportunities
  3. Enter previous years’ utility data into EPA’s Portfolio Manager tool
  4. Research sustainability conferences that might be worth attending and why
  5. Create signs to remind people to turn off the lights when they leave a room, make double-sided copies in the copy room, etc.
  6. Research local “green” tax incentives, rebates, grants, credits, and deductions
  7. Conduct a brown bag lunch to share ideas on how the company can “go green”
  8. Pull together some examples/templates for sustainability-related policies (like green purchasing)
  9. Research greener kitchen options (like getting rid of paper plates and upgrading to permanent cutlery)
  10. Research and put together a “green plan” for next year’s summer interns
  11. Compare “greener” office product pricing against current purchasing practices

Jennifer Woofter is the founder and president of Strategic Sustainability Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in helping rapidly growing mid-size businesses integrate sustainability into their business model. She tweets at @jenniferwoofter.


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