Dear Umbra,

Earth Day seems like a good opportunity to raise environmental awareness in the office. Do you have any ideas for an Earth Day office party? The best I can come up with is vegan cupcakes in the park and an inter-department “use less paper” competition.

I work for a publishing company that is relatively eco-apathetic … sometimes we toss paper into the regular trash, and sometimes we toss non-recyclable trash into the recycling bins. Plastic bottles, cans, and glass definitely go into the trash can. We use plastic cups instead of the glasses and mugs in the cupboard (ew, germs!). We leave our lights and computers on at night … I’ve always been afraid to say anything, because I don’t want to sound preachy, especially since I’m a permatemp. However, I think people would be open to an Earth Day office party, and I believe that it’s extremely important to green the office.

New York, N.Y.

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Dearest Melissa,

Hooray for the Earth! I like your own ideas quite a bit. A game and a treat are a sound basis for an excellent party.

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Celebrate bad times, come on!

Photo: iStockphoto

Given the size of your company and your permatemp status, there may be more strength and success in numbers. Do you have any coworkers who might want to join you in planning an Earth Day event? If you can find a few friends willing to make up a “party committee” — there must be a more enticing term — and then invite others to join said committee, the Party and its agenda will gain more traction organizationally than it would if you operate solo. Even better would be involvement of the Powers that Be — who, once convinced of the merits of and interest in greener operations, could authorize CFL purchase, mandate turning off computers, change the dress code to lead to less wasteful heating and cooling, and exercise other useful powers. But let us assume, for now, that they are uninvolved.

When you invite your fellow peons to join the party committee, make it clear that the point of the event is ecological progress coupled with fun, emphasis on fun. Ensuite when you end up discussing the best ways to green the office, which can be a bit dry, at least it will be in the overall context of, “How can we get people to participate by making the process enjoyable?”

My editor, who has seen her share of parties, has great suggestions for livening up the proceedings. Her first choice (as usual) was eco-liquor, but since you might be in the park, let’s go with her second choice: green versions of children’s party games. Can you get ahold of, or make, a topical piñata? A car filled with Rolos, for example. Or how about a game of darts (the adult version of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey), covered with the faces of the Bush Administration? Or, since I’m not allowed to be partisan, how about ‘Round the Clock with faces of famous and infamous eco-related people, like George H.W. Bush, or Al Gore, or Leonardo DiCaprio?

As for the “competition” element of your party, I have a few ideas to add. Your paper-use reduction contest puts me in mind of a power-use reduction contest. Can the company as a whole reduce its power use by a certain amount between one power bill and the next? There are simple, low-commitment actions everyone could do to participate: send computers into sleep mode sooner, and shut off lights and computers at the end of the day. The difference here, of course, would be that the company is competing against itself as a whole; I don’t think it’s possible to check power use by department, although who knows.

If you devise a good reward (other than altruism), there might be enough motivation to see serious results. Ideally you would get the Powers that Be to buy in, and after the first month of measured effort, they would take the saved money and do something nice for the employees who participated. We can dream, right? In the absence of the Powers, you could bake more cupcakes or make laudatory posters (“We prevented X tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere! Zowie!”) — on recycled paper, of course.

Another obvious workplace Earth Day contest, in which you would also dangle prizes to increase motivation, is Who Can Improve Their Commuting Emissions? I see, however, that you work in New York City. I have to assume that most folks already take the subway and bus to work.

One other idea is a friendly suggestion sheet to help fellow peons know how to prioritize their eco-actions. Most people know that driving is a poor idea and that recycling is a good idea. But we are swimming in good and bad ideas, all undifferentiated from one another in our daily life, so we do nothing. You can help by giving out — or better, posting in a central location to reduce copy needs — a Tips Sheet about how everyone can participate in greening the office and their own lives, a more specific version of my Top Ten. Choose seven or fewer tasks related to life at your particular office: instructions on things like recycling paper, setting up a carpooling program for those who don’t use public transit, reducing computer power usage, making use of the reusable cups in the kitchen (and saying no to germophobia!), and so on.

OK, it may not be as rockin’ as New Year’s Eve. But everyone says to start with small steps — so your plan, with or without my additions, is perfect.