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12 Little Tips for Living Sustainably at College

Earth to all college students! Check out these 12 simple tips to help save time, money, and—of course—the planet.

As an eco-conscious college student, you’ve probably invested in a reusable water bottle to cut down on wasteful plastic packaging. And maybe you’ve hopped on a shared bike or e-scooter to get to class, doing your part to help cut back on CO2 emissions from fuel-based vehicles.

But, hey, that’s just Ecology 101. In time for Earth Day, we’ve compiled a list of affordable products (and a few zero-cost practices) that you may not know about—but that will help you do your part in making the world a greener place. You’ll also be setting an example for those who haven’t gotten the message that our precious air, water, land, and wildlife need our help. Here’s your a.m.–p.m. guide for becoming a zero-waste warrior.

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1. Conventional toothpastes, which consist of 50% water and contain harsh chemical residues, are packaged in difficult-to-recycle tubes. More than 1 billion plastic toothpaste tubes are thrown out each year. Instead, try toothpaste tablets, widely available online. Pop them in your mouth, add a little water, and start scrubbing those pearly whites. You can choose between fluoridated and non-fluoridated varieties. And remember to turn off the faucet to conserve water while you brush.

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Courtesy of Beauty Kubes

2. Shower with zero-waste hair and body-wash cubes that come in an assortment of fragrances. Beauty Kubes shampoo (packaged in biodegradable paper) leave your hair clean and fresh without adding to the plastic pile-up. Just crumble the dry cube in your hand, add water until a paste forms, and enjoy the suds! Conditioner bars are also available to smooth things out.

3. Feel good about looking good. Shop at clothing stores and on websites that have sustainable and fair trade policies in place.

  • Alternative Apparel uses sustainable, eco-friendly materials and nontoxic and low-impact dyes, and it adheres to fair labor practices.
  • Patagonia, as of Fall 2018, used renewable or recycled materials for 51% of their materials by weight; by Fall 2019 they aim to take that figure to 69%.
  • Reformation.com is 100% carbon-, water-, and waste-neutral.
  • Tonlé (“Green looks good on you”) takes otherwise unusable scraps from fabric factory floors and repurposes them into fashion-forward clothing.

If you’re looking to donate clothing, Uniqlo accepts clean, used garments and donates them to refugees, disaster victims, and others in need, or recycles them for other use.

Or stop by a Madewell store with your pre-loved jeans. Their partner the Blue Jeans Go Green program will turn them into housing insulation for Habitat for Humanity. You’ll also get $20 off a new pair!

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Courtesy of Stojo

4. You know those days when you need a lot of coffee to keep going? Rather than tossing a bunch of coffee cups throughout the day, carry your own reusable coffee cup. Collapsible ones from Stojo won’t take up much space in your backpack or tote and can handle hot or cold beverages. If you prefer glass, try Bwell’s version. (One would make a great graduation gift for your favorite caffeine fiend.)


college sustainability

5. With summer just around the corner, sunscreen should become part of your skincare routine. According to National Geographic Travel, about 14,000 tons of sunscreen wash off our bodies (when we swim or shower) and into oceans around the globe each year. Conventional sunscreens, which contain chemicals such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, have been found to damage coral reefs and the marine ecosystems they support. Opt for reef-safe nonchemical sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, from Badger or these eco-friendly sunscreen brands. The Oceanic Society recommends reef-safe sun protection but adds that, if you want to really be green, cover your body in sun-safe clothing instead of slathering yourself with lotion.

Still want to do more?

Organizations focusing on environmental issues offer college students an opportunity for their voices to be heard. Join or support the Sierra Student Coalition (SSC), the student arm of the Sierra Club, a progressive environmental organization established by famed naturalist John Muir in 1892. Since 1991, young people have joined the national SSC to work on sustainability and environmental protection projects.

Want to really get/get really involved? The Nature Conservancy offers youth engagement internships around the world.

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6. Plastic straws are notorious for the harm they do to marine life, in particular sea turtles. A video of a scientist removing a plastic straw from a turtle’s nostril has been viewed over 34 million times. Cities (like Seattle), companies (like Starbucks), and airlines (Alaska) have begun banning plastic straws or are phasing them out over the next few years.

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Pick up a package of reusable straws in materials ranging from stainless steel to bamboo to shatterproof glass to silicone.

  • This Senhai variety pack of 8 stainless steel straws ($9.99) has you covered in terms of both size and shape and has a near-perfect 4.8-star rating on Amazon. The straws come in rose gold and a fun iridescent purple, too.
  • The Klean Kanteen 5-piece stainless steel set comes with colorful silicone tips (to protect your teeth and eliminate the scalded-lips problem if you’re drinking a hot beverage).
  • The Koffie Straw, made from soft silicone, won’t heat up, is flexible enough to fold up into any bag and carry around, and is dishwasher-safe (although it comes with a pipe cleaner to scrub out the insides). Available in two sizes (7 and 10 inches), the Koffie will last almost forever, but when you’re ready to toss it, burning it turns it into 100% biodegradable ash. For other stylish options, check out these reusable straw varieties, or this list of options.


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flicker/Claudio Marioto

7. Love your burger 6 days a week, but make your Mondays meatless. Meatless Monday first began during World War I to conserve resources; the modern initiative was launched in 2003 and has gained a ton of traction since then—expanding to public schools, corporate dining rooms, hospitals, and dozens of colleges. Even Beyoncé and Jay-Z got in on the trend by offering concert tickets via lottery to the lucky winner promising to adopt a plant-based diet.

Cutting down meat consumption is a win-win: It reduces your risk for certain health problems, and it’s great for the environment because raising livestock uses a lot of water. And—ready for it?!—the methane produced from cow farts (yes, cow farts!) has been shown to have a significant impact on global warming.

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8. Forget your spam folder; your IRL mailbox is also full of junk! Opt out of junk mail. Credit card companies are notorious for sending college students piles of offers in the mail. Ditto catalog-heavy companies. How much of the mail you’re receiving is mail you actually want? Opt out to save resources, and the hassle. Call 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688) to get off most unsolicited mailing lists.

9. Settling down to study? Use an LED desk bulb instead of incandescent. According to EarthTronics, LEDs (short for light-emitting diodes) use at least 80% less energy than incandescent lighting. The result: Decreased demand from power plants and less greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere. What’s more, LED bulbs do not contain certain harmful substances such as mercury.

Sure, LEDs cost more, but they make up for it with their long lifespan of up to 60,000 hours (compared with 1,500 for incandescent bulbs). Here’s a handy guide to the ins and outs of light bulbs. An added bonus: Recent research shows that LED lighting boosts students’ alertness and overall performance.

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Courtesy of baggu

10. Vive la France! This sustainable-forward country has not only banned plastic bags, it has become the first country to also ban plastic plates, cups, and utensils, beginning in 2020. Be like France. Keep a couple of reusable tote bags on hand for grocery shopping. Options range from organic cotton to this lightweight nylon set that can be stashed in your tote or backpack.

If you’ve finished dinner and are planning on saving half that burrito for tomorrow, store your leftovers in beeswax wraps or in glass or stainless steel storage bowls rather than using plastic wrap or containers. For freezer storage, try these silicone bags, which can be rinsed and reused. You can boil food, then stash and store with these one-piece sealable silicone bags. If you rely on aluminum foil, keep in mind that although it’s recyclable, any stuck-on food interferes with that process.

Regardless of how “zero waste” you are, there will inevitably be trash that needs bagging. Use compostable trash bags to help to keep planet Earth a little more pristine. The only catch with compostables: They need to be used within a year, so don’t buy too many at a time.

Late Night

11. Oops, no clean underwear for tomorrow? When doing your laundry, use a detergent that’s phosphate-free and biodegradable, preferably with a concentrated formula so you’ll use less packaging.

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Courtesy of West Elm

12. After a busy day, it’s finally time for bed. Sleep well on organic cotton sheets rather than the ones labeled “easy care” or “no iron.” Those are finished with formaldehyde, which remains “a permanent and irremovable part of the fiber, and it continues to release [chemical] fumes for the life of the fabric,” according to MotherEarthLiving.com. Well-priced organic sheets are available at Target. West Elm carries organic duvets and shams as well.

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