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Jeff Element is taking action against single-use plastic in the offices of his family-run travel business.

The president of The Travel Corp. Canada (TTC), which includes brands such as Trafalgar, Insight Vacations, Contiki and Uniworld, has banned more than 60 types of single-use plastic items, including straws, coffee stirrers, water bottles, plastic bags and cutlery. While some fixes are easy – proper water coolers, glass jugs and glasses have replaced plastic bottles – others are challenging for his 250 office staff in Toronto and about 3,000 worldwide.

“It’s the mindless things people never think about,” says Mr. Element. “Like remembering to ask suppliers that things not come wrapped in plastic. Or taking reusable bags before shopping at the grocery store for our social events.”

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Making it part of the culture from the top down is key.

“Get some people in your office who are your champions,” he advises. "I’m up in front of the group but it’s equally important to have people moving this forward throughout your organization.”

Craig Lee, TTC’s facility manager at the Toronto office, says finding suppliers that aren’t using single-use plastics and reminding staff to find alternatives when ordering food is an ongoing challenge.

“It’s a cultural shift, trying to get everyone to change how they do things normally,” Mr. Lee says. “In-house changes are one thing, but it’s difficult when your partners, suppliers and local restaurants don’t have similar plastic initiatives. We didn’t realize how much plastic we were using until we started the process of eliminating it. We’ve done a full audit on every department and aspect of our business, from cleaning to office supplies.”

Rolling out policies in stages has helped to keep employees from feeling overwhelmed.

“Baby steps and changing one thing at a time makes the overall adjustment more manageable and sustainable long term,” says Mr. Lee. ”We explain changes and relay the benefits to the environment with supporting stats to show that every small adjustment can really make a difference.”

Shannon Guihan, program director of the TreadRight Foundation, a not-for-profit organization created by TTC’s brands on matters of sustainability, says the biggest offenders are water bottles, straws and coffee cups.

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“These are truly unnecessary, convenience items,” says Ms. Guihan. “Carrying your own water bottle or travel mug and saying no to plastic straws are very reasonable actions to ask a community surrounded by safe, clean drinking water.”

TTC makes communal mugs, plates and utensils available for everyday use and also provides dishwashers for staff to use. Staff are also given a personal set of metal utensils to keep at their desks. For office events, they use drinking cups made from plants, which are domestically grown and renewable. The plates are made from sugar cane and utensils are 100 per cent plant material that’s biodegradable and compostable – all petroleum-free.

Mr. Element acknowledges alternatives cost more, which challenges the company to find cost-effective versions. But as an organization, they’ve set a standard that it has to be environmentally friendly or at least plastic-free.

“Plastic is pervasive in our society,” says Mr. Element. “We have to be mindful of it and remove as much as we can.”

That’s a cause with which Briana Loughlin can identify. After seeing the damage of plastic pollution in Australia, she returned to Canada determined to raise awareness about the impact of plastic on her own landlocked Calgary community. Now, as the co-founder of Plastic-Free YYC, a non-profit volunteer organization focused on helping Calgarians reduce single-use plastic waste, Ms. Loughlin engages with individuals, businesses and municipal leaders on making change happen.

“The largest hurdle in a typical office is getting everyone on board with the change,” Ms. Loughlin says. “Eliminating single-use plastic and reducing waste is all about changing habits, which can be difficult. As most of us are set in a routine, creating a new system that shakes up the status quo can be hard to implement.”

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She suggests stationery is a good place to start, by replacing disposable pens with pencils or pens that can be refilled and saying no to plastic tabs and plastic paper clips. You can reduce supply orders by reinforcing the reuse of supplies such as binders, file folders and binder clips. Also, look for promotional materials that last such as branded metal straws or seed-paper business cards that can compost rather than gimmicky gifts.

Operationally, she advises creating a system to save and reuse the shipping materials that orders arrive in. Boxes, envelopes and bubble wrap can all be set aside for repurposing on outward shipments. The bonus: reduced costs.

“I encourage trying a waste audit,” says Ms. Loughlin. “Collect a week’s garbage, don some gloves and start digging and sorting. It’s the best way to find where the waste is coming from.”

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