The Positive Environmental Benefits of Telecommuting

With the rapid advancement of technology, telecommuting has always been inevitable, but the pandemic changed business overnight. Most digital companies have embraced the new way of doing business and have benefited greatly, especially in decreasing costs to the business. However, there are enormous benefits for the environment as well. Telecommuting not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel consumption, air pollution, but even paper and plastic waste.

We have compiled a list of the top 6 positive environmental benefits of telecommuting:

1. Less Commuting Means fewer Emissions

Telecommuting has numerous advantages over working in traditional office spaces. It provides employees with disposable income, flexibility, independence, and an improved work-life balance. According to an article released by the Mail & Guardian in 2015, black South Africans spend an average of 102 minutes a day travelling to and from work, while white South Africans spend an average of 64 minutes a day commuting. Remote working not only saves money and time, but it has great benefits for the environment especially when it comes to carbon emissions. According to the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, South Africa’s carbon emissions dropped by a quarter of a million tonnes each day after the 27th of March 2021, when the national lockdown came into effect. 43% of the drop came from people travelling on land (cars, trains and buses).

2. Reduced Power Consumption

South Africa is the world’s 14th largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Our CO2 emissions are predominantly due to a heavy reliance on coal. Power consumption decreased by 28.1% due to the lockdown. Eskom has seen electricity usage drop by more than 7,500MW a day. When employees work from home, office buildings consume less energy. This includes lights, power supply for equipment and cooling/heating systems. The requirement for building maintenance is also low. Remote workers are also more conscious about their power consumption since they have to directly pay for their electrical expenses. 

3. Reduced Paper Usage

Telecommuting means working in the digital space and primarily means digitising documents. This leads to reduced paper usage by companies across the board. Without the need for paper documents, employers can drastically reduce the amount of paper used each year. Before the lockdown, studies have shown that switching to a cloud-based option decreases the use of copy paper by at least 50% over a year. One saved tree can remove up to 6.7 kg of carbon dioxide from the air.

4. Opportunity for Eco-Friendly Diets

Cattle and meat production produces between 14.5% to 18% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Employees that work from home are more likely to reduce their carbon footprint through eco-friendly diets. Since the employees are at home they have more time to choose healthier food options instead of choosing convenient fast food options such as take-aways. Studies show that people who eat home-cooked meals on a regular basis tend to be happier and healthier and consume less sugar and processed foods, which can result in higher energy levels and better mental health. Eating vegetables can substantially reduce emissions.

5. Less Plastic Usage

Telecommuting may not directly affect the number of plastic usage, but it rewards us with the opportunity to lessen the impact of plastic usage, and even eliminate it as much as possible. People tend to use less disposable plastic products at home. Employees are most likely to make coffee at home instead of purchasing coffee in plastic cups. It is estimated that approximately 500 billion coffee cups are produced annually around the world, and each cup takes about 50 years to break down and decompose. According to the South African PET Recycling Company, only 11% of South Africans claim to recycle constantly. Remote workers are also more likely to eat home-cooked meals for lunch, this reduces the use of plastic packaging by food companies (take-aways). Studies also indicate that being at home reduces the continuous consumption of single-use water bottles.

6. Improved Air Quality

When it comes to air quality, South Africa is considered moderately unsafe by the World Health Organization’s guidelines. The most recent data indicates the country’s annual mean concentration of PM2.5 is 25 µg/m3, which exceeds the recommended maximum of 10 µg/m3. The major contributors to poor air quality in South Africa include the mining and agricultural industry, coal-burning and vehicles. Since a large portion of South Africans worked from home during the COVID-19 lockdown, air pollution was kept to a minimum thanks to a limited number of vehicles on the road. The preliminary analysis of satellite data indicated that over the Highveld, NO2 concentrations decreased by 23% after the lockdown (27 March to 20 April 2020), and SO2 concentrations are 47% lower. The SO2 data only extends to 17 April 2020. 

With the recent development and the roll-out of the new Covid-19 vaccines, a lot of companies are battling with the decision of whether employees should work remotely or come back to the office. However, when considering the environment, the decision is quite simple. Understandably, humans will always be resistant to change, and some will always opt for the traditional office environment. It’s currently not feasible for every company in South Africa to have their employees work remotely from home, but those who can take it into serious consideration. 

Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that the company will allow all full-time employees to work from home if their jobs can be done remotely. We can hope that other digital companies will follow suit. To truly make an impact, companies need to take a more empathetic approach towards the environment. Telecommuting can reduce your overall impact on the environment and create a better work-life balance for most. If we truly want to make a difference, we need to seriously consider how our daily routine and behaviour impacts the environment.

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