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How to Live Sustainably: College Edition

Updated: May 5, 2021

With the fall semester starting across the country and college students moving back onto campuses, a lot of students are finding themselves on their own, making decisions about the way they want to lead their lives. Some of you might be wondering how to live sustainably while living in the college dorms, especially when you’re on a budget. If you don’t know what living sustainably means and why it is important, or alternatively if you know that living sustainably is a crucial step in order to save the earth but don’t know where to start, this blog post will cover what “living sustainably” is and could look like, as well as the numerous changes you can make to your college lifestyle to become more environmentally conscious.

What Is “Living Sustainably”, and Why Does It Matter?

First of all, let’s define what sustainability means. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, sustainability is defined as “the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time”. From that, we can define “living sustainably” as the practice of living one’s life in a way that does as little damage to the environment as possible and allows for the environment to maintain its state for a long time.

Living sustainably is important now more than ever, as emphasized by the World Wildlife Fund, as the earth has a finite amount of resources and humans are consuming these resources at a rate faster than the earth can replenish them. Over the last few centuries, economic growth has largely hinged on the overconsumption and overexploitation of the natural resources endowed to humans on earth, and if we, the human race, do not do something to correct this error, we could eventually run out of resources to use.

How to Live Sustainably in College

Knowing how important it is to make sustainable choices and conserve the earth’s resources whenever possible, here are some tips on how to live sustainably, even while in you’re in college and on a budget.

Tip 1: Invest in reusable items

Reusable items are some of the easiest ways to reduce the amount of waste you generate because these items, as their name suggests, can be used repeatedly for years to come, with little damage or need for replacement. Take, for example, the benefits of using a reusable water bottle. While there is an upfront cost to buying the reusable bottle, consider this cost an investment, as using this water bottle for a single year in college could save the earth 1,460 plastic bottles and save you $3000 in the process. Alternatively, if you invested in reusable bags to carry your groceries, you would be significantly reducing the amount of plastic bags being thrown away in landfills for years to come, as the lifespan of a reusable bag is equivalent to more than 700 plastic bags.

So consider buying reusable bags to use for your weekly grocery shopping trips, or a water bottle to carry around campus and refill in the dining hall during your lunch break. You could also bring your own tumbler when you grab that morning coffee shot before your 8 am lecture or carry a reusable straw in your backpack for all the late-night milkshakes you’ll be drinking with friends. Or invest in a set of travel-sized cutlery to use instead of the plastic forks and spoons that most fast-food restaurants have. The possibilities here are endless and only limited by your own choices.

Tip 2: Plan your meals

Remember those styrofoam takeaway boxes in your trash bin from all the take-out you’ve been eating in the dorm? Scientists don’t actually know how long styrofoam takes to break down, but their estimates are around 500 years or more. That means that one take-out box that you threw away in your freshman year of college will still exist long after you, your children, your grandchildren, and your great-grandchildren have lived out their lives. So you might want to reconsider the next time you’re about to Uber your dinner and opt to go to the dining halls instead so that you can save the environment and get your money’s worth out of the pre-paid meal plan as well. Or if you want to grab food off-campus for a change, consider dining in instead of taking away your food to reduce the amount of plastic bags, take-out containers, and plastic utensils being used and thrown out by your community.

Tip 3: Travel green

Depending on how large the campus and the city you’re living in is, you might be considering getting a car to take you from place to place. But before you do that, think about this: a typical car in the US emits approximately 4.63 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, which is equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide emission generated from burning 55,102 pounds of coal. Instead of driving, try using the public transportation available in your area, whether it be buses, subways, or trains. Some forms of public transportation near your university might even provide discounts or free rides for places within the city/district, so you’ll be saving money and the environment at the same time. Walking and biking are also good ways to get around if you spend most of your time on campus, and you’ll also have the added benefit of exercising regularly in the process.

Tip 4: Make use of technology for your classes

With universities switching to using online platforms like Canvas for homework submissions and posting class material, university students have also been making the switch to taking notes and completing assignments on digital devices over pen and paper. While some students use their laptops to take notes and type out their assignments using applications like OneNote, Google Docs, or Microsoft Word, others who favor writing notes by hand may obtain laptops that have touchscreens and styluses to write their notes on the screen during lectures. Those with more generous budgets might invest in a designated tablet to take notes on with apps like Good Notes or Notability. If you’re more nostalgic and prefer the feeling of writing with pen and paper, consider getting a reusable notebook, where you can scan your notes into your phone or laptop and erase the notebook for the next day’s classes, wasting 0 pages of paper in the process. These digital alternatives are just a number of possibilities for you to save paper and you’ll no longer need to break your back carrying a stack of notebooks or binders with you to class every day.

Tip 5: Get electronic copies of documents

This tip goes hand-in-hand with the previous tip, but whenever possible use digital copies of documents you obtain. The average US household throws away approximately 13,000 pieces of paper annually and each person uses approximately 680 pounds of paper per year. These figures could be greatly reduced if you do your part in reducing the number of paper documents you obtain or print, especially if you have access to digital copies of these documents instead. For example, see if your bank can give you your monthly bills or bank statements virtually instead of mailing it to you. Not only will this save paper, but it will also save you a couple of bucks each month, which will eventually add up. Instead of printing out your syllabi every semester/quarter, save a PDF version of it on your computer instead and save yourself the hassle of paying for printing at the university library. If you want to save a couple of hundred dollars from buying textbooks, you could also obtain the PDF versions of your required readings from your university library or from your professors and read them off of your tablet or laptop instead. If you’ve invested in a tablet or laptop with a touchscreen and stylus, you could also do your problem sets digitally and submit the PDFs for grading instead of printing out the problems and working them out by hand.

Tip 6: “Free and For Sale” and Thrift Shopping

With students moving into and out of college every year, there is bound to be furniture that gets thrown away, especially since approximately 9 million tons of furniture in the US ends up in landfills each year. Take advantage of “free and for sale” groups at your university to look for nice, lightly used furniture that you can buy for your dorm or apartment, as chances are these things will be thrown away if they aren’t sold. As an added bonus, these items will likely be significantly cheaper compared to buying furniture from a store as upperclassmen will probably be looking to get rid of these pieces as soon as possible. Thrift stores are also a great place to look for university merchandise or vintage outfits at prices well below the original price, and you’d be giving all these items a second life, keeping them away from piling up in landfills across the country.

Next Steps

So if you follow these 6 tips, you’ll be on the right track for adopting a more sustainable and environmentally conscious lifestyle. But these are just some of the ways you can start living sustainably throughout your college experience. There are so many more ways to incorporate sustainability into your everyday life, so if you’re looking for other tips or blog posts about the concept of “living sustainably”, or just want to learn more about being an eco-conscious global citizen, make sure to subscribe to our newsletter and check back here for more blog posts, as well as follow our social media to get regular updates about how you can lead a sustainable life.

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