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10 Tips for Going Zero Waste in College

10 Tips for Going Zero Waste in College

Zero Waste Lifestyle

Last Updated on April 2, 2020

So, I’ve been getting this question a lot. “What can I do as a college student?” I graduated 3 years ago – eek! But, I think I remember it well enough. I double majored in Musical Theatre and Mass Communications. So, I was around campus and involved a bit.

Regrettably, I drank a lot of sweet tea out of giant Styrofoam cups. If I could go back, I definitely would have slapped those out of my hand and been more involved in green initiatives around campus. So, here’s a little bit about what I’d change in the past, and things I would look towards in the future. 

composting: 

Do you have a garden or green house at your school? Does your school already have compost? If so, that’s totally awesome. I would have hooked the gardening club up with the cafeteria to start a compost. Not only could you sell the compost (extra cash what every college kid needs) but you could grow more food with it. It could be donated to shelters or used back in the cafeteria. 

campus sale:

Our campus had its own little craigslist and a couple of yard sales throughout the year to try and curb waste. But, when it was time to move out, so much stuff wound up in the dumpster. It was full of things that weren’t sold in time or things that were too big to take home. I would try to arrange a storage room on campus for the summer. Freshman or incoming students the next year could go “shopping” for dorm furniture and school supplies. It would save everyone money and save so much from the landfill. Proceeds from the campus sale could be donated to charity or what was raised could go to a fun event like a pizza party for the dorm. 

the bottle:

Duh. I mean this is the most obvious one. Carry a water bottle with you. If I could go back in time I would kick my self for using disposable coffee cups, sweet teas, and water bottles. I would keep one on me to fill up at my favorite campus spots. I secretly kinda miss the caf’s lemonade and infused waters on tap. 

school supplies: 

With the invention of small electronic devices, it’s easier than ever to ditch a lot of the traditional supplies such as pens, notebooks, and planners. If you can go full digital, more power to you. But, in some scenarios it can be challenging. Opt for a nice notebook made with recycled paper and a couple of nice pens. Don’t except junky ones from the school fairs. They run out and break really quickly. If you invest in one or two nice refillable ones you’re more likely to keep up with them, writing will become more pleasant, and you keep some junk out of your trash bin. 

t-shirts:

I pledged, which meant lots and lots and lots and lots of t-shirts. I mean is it possible to have an event without t-shirts? I didn’t buy most of them; because, I knew where they’d be in 6 months – goodwill. Try to avoid the t-shirt craze. Most shirts cost around $15, and there’s a new one almost every week. You could build a pretty nice sustainable wardrobe for the real-world for the cost of buying 2 a month through out your four years. Save your pennies for something better. The only shirt I still have from college is my letter shirt. 

cloth napkins & hankies:

I would most definitely carry both of those things around if I were back in school. Handkerchiefs are my all time favorite switch. Who’s gotten the sniffles in class or sneezed or coughed? Boom: you’re covered, and you’re not that girl in the corner of the room with 18 crumpled tissues on her desk – gross. You’re that classy chick with a handkerchief. People could possibly be intimidated by how much you have your shit together. 

event clothing:

Host a clothing swap. This would be so much fun to do for events, banquets, dances, mixers, and even recitals or the dreaded jury’s (music majors – you know). There are lots of occasions to get a little fancy at school. Boys you have it easy one suit and you’re set for life. Ladies, you probably don’t want to wear the same dresses over and over. So, you’d host an event where people would bring some clothes, and for every item they bring they get a token. Then they get to go shopping and can “purchase” one item with their token. No real money is exchanged and you can leave with some new dresses for events and you can keep swapping them at an annual or biannual event. 

 too many dresses

too many dresses

the bathroom: 

You probably share this with multiple people. If you’re a female, it’s probably decked with products, makeup, and all sorts of plastic. I’ll be writing a post about my bathroom products very soon! But, I could have definitely made a lot smarter choices back when. Easy switches include bar soap, bamboo toothbrushes, and for the ladies ditch disposable menstrual products for the cup. Probably my second favorite zero waste switch. Full post about that to come soon, as well. 

snacking:

You’ve heard of the freshman 15. Keep if off by snacking on healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. Most of that come sans packaging at the supermarket or you could probably get it from the caf and load it to go. You can compost the leftover bits at the compost bin you set up. I would most definitely put some apples in my bag or load up a mason jar with caf cookies. I’m pretty sure they’d be a perfect fit for a wide mouth – because not all snacking has to be healthy. 

don’t be afraid: 

Don’t be afraid of talking about what you’re doing.  People will ask why. And, once you answer most people will really respect what you’re doing. In fact, they’ll probably be curious. And, even if they aren’t going to make immediate changes. They will start to view things differently and become a more aware consumer. Most people aren’t aware that what they’re doing is harmful. They don’t know; they don’t see it. So, just by that little spark of action or conversation – you’re bringing it to their attention. Because, once you see it; you can’t un-see it. 

So, college readers – what did you think? Would you implement some of these? Is your school already doing some of this stuff? I would love to hear! 

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  1. Really enjoyed this I also graduated 3 years ago but these are really helpful. I was also in a sorority so I understand the shirt thing… in our chapter we actually make quilts with them after graduation so you can remember all the events and stuff
    Also I’m a huge fan of the menstrual cup!

  2. This is a great post! College me was so, so wasteful, especially with disposable cups.

    I’m looking forward to your menstrual cup post- I agree, it’s one of my favorite zero waste switches! I really wish I had known about it earlier, my high school and college life would have been so much easier.

  3. Hi Kathryn,

    I’ve just discovered your blog, and as a Sustainability Masters (postgrad here in the UK) student and someone who has been slowly "transitioning" to zero waste for about a year now I’ve been reading through your posts with great joy.

    A great list, but I wanted to mention point 4. I know that going entirely digital might seem like the better choice, but I’d strongly contest that. I know that a tablet or laptop might have very little plastic or actual physical waste at the consumer end, but as it takes more energy to power a tablet (including the servers that it is constantly connected to) than it does a refrigerator, it becomes a very energy intensive option. And if you also factor in the manufacturing process of electronic items and consider the precious ores and metals used, many of which require highly resource intense extraction processes, I would say that some recycled notebooks and some sturdy refillable pens, like you suggest, would be the much better option.

    Please don’t think I’m trying to be down on your post at all, I had the exact same thoughts when I started my Masters and went out and bought an iPad thinking that was the green thing to do, before having to research the electronics industry and regretting my decision!! I absolutely love your blog and you definitely have a new follower in me 🙂

    1. Hi Jade! No, not at all. I think your suggestions are great! I am super open to hearing other opinions. I don’t think anyone going to college goes without some form of electronic device. I just think since they have them, they should use them. My school computer labs closed at 10:00. I typically didn’t even leave rehearsal until 10:30. There was no way I could even use a computer lab. It’s a tough decision to make, one of those gray areas that will differ for every school/person/situation. But, thank you for the notes, and thanks for being a new reader! 🙂

  4. Hello!

    I made the switch from disposable paper coffee cups with plastic lids to my own reusable travel mug/water bottle about a month ago, and I have been really enjoying it. I would also suggest using a tea ball. My college has lots of nature and a compost bin in the cafeteria, so it has been very simple to dump the contents out in nature or into the compost bin.

    Also, do you have any recommendations for good refillable pens and comfortable hankerchiefs? I bought some cheap cotton handkerchiefs on Amazon and have found them even scratchier than my thinnest tissues.

    Thank you!

    1. Your campus sounds amazing! Great suggestion for the tea ball. Everyone writes differently. Do you have a stationary store anywhere near you? You should be able to test a few out. As, far as hankies go, I would go to a fabric store and get a yard of cotton jersey. Cotton jersey doesn’t fray so you don’t have to have any sewing skills. Just cut it into squares, and it’s pretty damn soft. I got my hankies from a yard sale. They are so soft, probably due to age.

  5. I got a CSA box when I was a Senior in college and split it with my roommate who was also "crunchy" like me. It was still a ton of food though, so when I had a lot left over or was worried it would go bad I would plan a menu send it out to my roommates and ask them for a $5-7 contribution. They enjoyed a homemade meal while I was getting the CSA to pay for itself! I was very lucky that my campus was the CSA drop off, but usually there is some drop off in the area that can work for you!

  6. Hi! I know I’m late to this post, so I’m not even sure you’ll see this. Anyways, I LOVE your blog! I’m a college student in a small town in southern Oklahoma, and I’ve been trying to move towards Zero Waste for the past few months. I look around my campus, and I see so many little things we could be doing differently. Something I’ve been mulling over is starting a Environmental/Zero Waste organization in the fall (we have none). Do you know if there are any similar national organizations I could/should get hooked up with? Do you have any tips for getting people motivated—especially those who are unaware of the problem?