The Environmental Impact of Telecommuters

Americans are increasingly interested in sustainability. The Arctic ice shelf is melting faster than expected—with some scientists predicting it could be gone by 2040—and unusual rain, heat, and temperature patterns are clear and present signs of the changing environment. In July 2018, Algeria saw temperatures reach 124 degrees Fahrenheit—the hottest temperature recorded in history. The consistent barrage of news reports about climate change has most of the world concerned and wanting to make a change.

What does all this have to do with the job we choose? Many of us can lessen our carbon footprint by working from home or “telecommuting.” It is estimated that more than four million U.S. employees now work from home at least half the time. While that only accounts for a bit more than three percent of the total American workforce, the trend is growing. Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs recently reported that the number of telecommuting workers has more than doubled in a decade and most industries saw remote job listings grow more than 20 percent in 2016.

Here are several ways telecommuters can lessen their carbon footprint and positively impact the planet.

Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Anyone who has ever commuted to a job in a busy city knows that a ten-minute commute can easily take 45 minutes during rush hour. For most remote workers, avoiding traffic is one of the top selling points of their job; commutes lead to stress, wasted time, and decreased productivity. However, it is also good for the environment.

Whether grocery shopping or commuting to work, many of us rely on our cars for mobility, especially those who live in suburban or rural areas. The problem with driving is that is cars emit greenhouse gasses, polluting the air and the Earth. Those who opt to work from home (or commute on foot or bicycle) can cut down on the amount of gas they use to get to work.

A study by the Consumer Electronics Association revealed that in 2013, about ten million people telecommuted at least one day a month. As a result, telecommuting led to a total reduction in greenhouse gases of approximately six to eight million metric tons for the year. It also resulted in a fuel consumption savings of about 680 million gallons, which is the equivalent of 0.5 percent of the U.S. gas consumption for the year. While this might seem like an incremental difference, the work from home trend could have a more significant impact as it gains traction.

Not only do telecommuters lessen their gas consumption, but they also play a role in reducing the gas consumption of others. Global Workplace Analytics reports that traffic jams use up to three billion gallons of gas, leading to the emission of 26 million tons of greenhouse gases—all for the ability to get nowhere fast. With more people working from home, fewer cars will be on the road, resulting in less pollution.

A bonus: daily telecommuting can help employees save more than two work weeks a year due to not sitting in a car.

Use Less Paper

Let’s face it: printing can be a nuisance, from lugging large boxes of printing paper to troubleshooting paper jams. This is exceptionally apparent to telecommuters who tend to work alone and do not have office assistants to help out.

The U.S. Environment Protection Agency estimates that 43 million tons of paper were recovered in 2013—a recycling rate of about 63 percent. This means that more than one-third of all paper still goes into landfills and the average office worker is estimated to consume about 10,000 sheets of paper each year.

Telecommuters are already helping to change these statistics in small ways. Because they work remotely, they usually send documents over the internet—email, messaging systems, or cloud-based applications—thus reducing their carbon footprint.

What’s more, since telecommuters work in the digital age, they tend to be more aware of newspaper waste. A 2013 study by the Consumer Electronics Association estimated that more than five million U.S. daily print newspapers were displaced by paid digital subscriptions between 2010 and 2013. This shift of digital media and digital communication can help to preserve natural resources and protect the environment.

Reduce Plastic Waste

People who work from home are more likely to make coffee at home rather than buying a cup of joe on the way to work. Estimates put the home-brewed savings at up to $25 a month, which is more than $300 a year. Not only does making coffee at home save telecommuters money, but it also positively impacts the environment.

Each year, the world produced 260 million tons of plastic waste. A significant portion of that comes from packaging and single-use items like coffee cups and takeout boxes. A recent Vox article noted that food packaging accounts for nearly 30 percent of all waste generated across the U.S.—and this does not include other single-use items like disposable plates and utensils, diapers, junk mail, and paper towels. What’s more, almost 100 percent of all coffee cups are not recycled. Recycling is only part of the solution; we need to reduce our use of takeout containers and telecommuters are more likely to do so because they work from home.

Reduce Land Overdevelopment

According to the U.S. Green Building Council, buildings account for an average of 41 percent of the world’s energy use. In the U.S., buildings are responsible for three-quarters of the country’s electricity consumption. Not only are buildings a massive source of energy use, but new construction is also remarkably taxing on the environment.

Many of the materials used for new buildings are sourced in environmentally unfriendly ways. They are then transported and shipped around the world. What’s more, the demolition of old buildings to create space for new buildings causes even more harm to the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the construction and destruction of buildings in the U.S. in 2003 led to more than 170 million tons of debris. Nonresidential buildings produced more than 60 percent of that debris.

While there is not much data about the direct effects of telecommuting on new construction, it is clear that if more employees work from home, there will be less demand for bigger and more modern office spaces.

The Bottom Line: How to Telecommute

Change is on its way. As more companies allow for telecommuting, the scalability of these choices will become more evident. Some companies, like Dell, are committed to evolving the workplace to make it more sustainably sound. The company notes that on average, U.S. employees work from home more than nine days a month, resulting in significant associated fuel and emissions savings. Dell has helped its employees reduce their footprint by more than one metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.

Other companies are joining in on this trend. Initiatives like the Net Positive Project are helping organizations of all kinds do business that gives back to the environment, global economy, and society. This project was founded in 2013 by the World Wildlife Fund, The Climate Group, PepsiCo, Dell, IKEA Group, and others to focus on company lessening the use of water, carbon, and other material to have a more positive impact on the world.

Telecommuting may not be for everyone. Many of the elements of telecommuting come down to individual preferences. Some of the best jobs for work-from-home positions are in accounting, finance, real estate, mortgages, and human resources. Those interested in a work-from-home job can explore new opportunities according to their interests, many of which are outlined on this site.

Maggie O'Neill
Maggie O'Neill
Writer

After graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park with a degree in English, Maggie O'Neill followed the call to move across the country to the land of open-space and awe-inspiring views and vistas. She settled in Northern Nevada, where she pursued a career in journalism, writing for several newspapers and covering beats as varied as education, crime, and the outdoors. She launched her own business, RenoFreelancerLLC, in 2014. When she isn't busy writing, researching, and interviewing, she is having fun with her two girls and the menagerie of animals that now comprise their home.

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