A Sustainable School Year

College is a great place to start taking steps to live more sustainably and adopt practices that’ll continue on into your adult life. Once you pick up a few new habits to reduce waste, it’ll become second nature and feel easier as you go. If you have a limited budget, live in a dorm, or have a roommate, don’t worry—there are still things you can do to strive towards zero-waste living! 

While you start your zero-waste journey, it’s important to note that progress is better than perfection. Any small changes you make help shape the world into a better place. To put things in perspective, the Zero Waste International Alliance defines zero waste as “90% diversion from landfills and incinerators.'' So don’t be afraid of the “zero” in zero waste, all you have to do is try your best to recycle when you can and choose reusable options when possible. Here are a few simple steps to work on going zero-waste in college.

1. Have a collection of reusable containers

Using a reusable plastic water bottle (versus purchasing a plastic one every day) saves anywhere from 300 to 1,460 plastic bottles per year per person.

One of the biggest premises of zero-waste living is reducing single-use plastics by having your own reusable containers. While the environmental impact may not feel noticeable, using a reusable plastic water bottle (versus purchasing a plastic one every day) saves anywhere from 300 to 1,460 plastic bottles per year per person.

Start a small collection of sturdy reusable water bottles, coffee containers, and tupperware to help you avoid unnecessary plastic. You can even go to your local thrift store and find mason jars and containers for food for less than $1 each. These little containers are perfect for snacking and meal prep.


2. Buy in Bulk

If you like to snack throughout the day, try to buy food in bulk and pack your snacks in your reusable containers versus plastic zip-lock bags. You can buy long-lasting foods like nuts and trail-mixes from grocery stores with scoop containers where you can buy in large quantities by weight. You’ll ultimately save money in the long run and also avoid excess packaging by making your own snack-kits to go.


3. Navigate the food court thoughtfully

Figuring out how to go zero-waste in the campus food arena can be tricky; it really depends on your campus rules and whether or not you have a meal plan. 

If there’s an enclosed cafeteria that prepares hot meals, you may not be able to take that food outside of the cafe in your containers due to health and safety regulations. However, you can ask if you can take the to-go food options in your own containers versus the typical plastic containers that they offer. You can also minimize your food waste by taking small portions to start and going back up each time you want more (instead of over-estimating what you’re going to eat). If offered, compost your napkins and food waste on campus and if not, advocate for a composting system at your university.

Bring along your own set of reusable cutlery and napkins to avoid using single-use options that these vendors have.

If you also have a food court on campus with several different food vendors, you can ask them to prepare to-go meals in your own containers instead of their disposable to-go boxes. You can also bring your own to-go reusable cups and straws for drinks instead of their plastic cups. Lastly, you can bring along your own set of reusable cutlery and napkins to avoid using single-use options that these vendors have.


4. Choose reusable cloths 

There are cloth alternatives that can replace a lot of your cleaning and makeup supplies. Instead of using cleaning-wipes, try out cleaning cloths with your favorite household cleaner. You can also buy cloth napkins for your bathroom, reusable cloths for make-up wipes, and reusable cloths for a floor cleaner/mop. Cloth options have a longer lifespan, can easily be re-washed and are often made out of scrap and recycled materials.


5. Opt out of unnecessary promotional items

During the first few weeks of college, it’s hard to walk a few feet on campus without someone handing out or offering you free promotional materials. Whether it’s free soap, umbrellas, or a handful of glossy-paper coupons—a lot of these items are far from essential and end up in the trash. Try to be selective about what promo items you’re accepting, and think about if you actually want or need the items. Opt out of the things that would likely sit idle in your room.


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Leah Thomas is a contributing writer at The Good Trade with a passion for wellness, inclusion and the environment. She works on the communications team at Patagonia and is a sustainable living blogger at Green Girl Leah. You can connect with her on Instagram @GreenGirlLeah