The Sustainability Guide for College Students on a Budget

Wondering how to go green at college while you’re on a strict budget? We have a few sustainability tips for you — a hundred of them, to be exact!

As you’re learning how to be sustainable in college and how to encourage positive change, forming simple habits now can not only help you as an adult but also influence other college students around you. If colleges hope to fight climate change, pollution, and so many other issues facing the earth, you and other students are the gatekeepers to those sustainability efforts. On your college campus, you can both learn and spearhead environmental change!

This list is meant to be a green guide for everyday living for students and also provide ideas for how to effect positive policy changes on campus.

College Sustainability Student Organizations and Groups College Sustainability Student Organizations and Groups

There are many ways you can push for sustainability on college campuses. Ideas are included below to help you learn how to build better habits, but what’s very important to remember is that you’re not alone! There are certain to be plenty of other college students going green at your school, and the easiest way to connect with them is by joining a club or group. These groups will often offer plenty of environmental activities for college students, paths for leading activism, and ways you can volunteer to help your community become more sustainable. Colleges naturally will have their own individual clubs and groups (for instance, schools like Cornell famously have a robust eco-activism section on campus), so you’ll want to check out the list for your specific institution.

Here are a few examples of the types of environmentally friendly student organizations you could join:

100 Ways Students Can Go Green at College 100 Ways Students Can Go Green at College

This is an ultimate guide on how to go green at college; you don’t need to do all 100 tasks to be considered “green,” but picking out as many of these sustainability ideas for colleges as possible and sticking with them can help you build very important habits.

Don’t fall for the idea that you’ll have to wait until you’re in the “real world” to go green. Don’t fall for the idea that you have no power over the dorm rooms, buildings, or college energy use, so it shouldn’t matter. Also, don’t fall for the idea that you need money to make changes. We’ve specifically found ideas for how to go green on a budget, how to reduce waste on college campuses, and how to make positive changes while you’re still in school!

A Note on Creating and Changing Your Habits

If you’re asking yourself, “How can I go green in college?” the secret is simple: habit-forming. Because you’re currently forming habits that can last a lifetime, college is an excellent time for going green. Solutions for going green can start when you’re learning how to take care of yourself as an adult — for instance, knowing how much food to get, knowing when to rely on convenience and when to make the extra effort, and being conscious of how much trash you produce. It takes much, much longer to break a habit than to form a new one. That’s why learning how to be more green while at college is such a good idea!

How to Go Green on a Budget as a College Student

Here’s a little secret: Most of our sustainability ideas for college students are budget-friendly and will help you save a lot of money in the long run!

If an eco-friendly change will actually help keep your budget under control, we’ve labeled it with the “saves money” symbol [$] on our list

As it turns out, many of our most wasteful behaviors, like relying on the convenience of K-cups, vending machines, and fast food, are also some of the most expensive ones. They add unnecessary expense to an already shoestring college budget. In addition, many stores and shops financially reward consumers who practice green behaviors; bringing in your own cup or canvas bag, for example, will sometimes result in a few cents off your order.

Most of the other easy ideas for going green at college don’t save money, but they also don’t require any type of investment. It’s just a matter of forethought.

On the rare occasion when going green may cost a bit of up-front cash, consider finding coupons or looking for discounts.

For instance, shampoo bottles are made from a type of hard plastic that’s particularly bad for the environment if it’s not recycled. You can skip the plastic entirely by buying shampoo bars made by Lush, which are a little bit more expensive than bottled shampoo. Keeping an eye out for green products and buying them when there’s a deal is a key secret to how to live sustainably on a budget.

25 Easy Plastic Swaps for College Students 25 Easy Plastic Swaps for College Students

1. Swap plastic bottles for a filter and reusable bottles. This is the most obvious one, so let’s get it out of the way! Once you get in the habit of using a steel or plastic reusable bottle, it becomes second nature. [$]

2. Bring your own cutlery and avoid plastic utensils at events. A collapsible utensil set is easy to tote along wherever you go.

3. Get reusable straws, or simply decline them. Most restaurants won’t give you one if you simply ask them not to.

Our Earth: Plastic Straws, Marine Life, and Disabled Consumers

You’ve probably heard some of the concerns people have raised about plastic straws, either through the push, the pushback from disabled consumers who truly need straws in their day-to-day lives, or the one horrifying video that went around the Internet involving a sea turtle with a straw up its nose. The truth is that because of the needs of so many, we’re unlikely to get a ban on single-use plastic straws anytime soon. Meanwhile, these straws take anywhere between 100 and 500 years to degrade, depending on how they’re disposed of. So as of now, the responsibility is on the consumer to cut back.

4. Get a few reusable glass containers rather than 8,000 random plastic food storage pieces. [$]

5. Buy some canvas shopping bags. They’re also super-useful for moving!

6. Keep a reusable coffee cup in your backpack. Often, you’ll get a discount on your coffee for using it. [$]

7. Buy bar soap and shampoo rather than bottled ones.

8. Buy a bamboo toothbrush.

Our Earth: Toothbrushes

Because traditional plastic toothbrushes are made from a hard polyamide (PA) plastic, they can take more than 500 years to break down. About one billion toothbrushes are thrown away each year in the U.S. alone. If you don’t want the earth to be swimming in your old brushes, buy a bamboo toothbrush and learn how to dispose of it properly. If you already have a plastic toothbrush, reuse it for cleaning rather than tossing it out.

9. Can’t resist convenience? That’s OK. Buy drinks in glass bottles or aluminum cans. Yes, we all know that the success of last-minute papers relies mostly on caffeine. Monster energy drinks and Starbucks frappes come in aluminum cans and glass bottles, which can both be recycled and broken down more easily. You can also replace your usual iced teas and electrolyte beverages by adding the powdered versions to your reusable water bottle.

10. Don’t bother putting produce in a plastic bag at the grocery store. It’s completely unnecessary, since you’re going to be washing your fruits and veggies at home anyway. If you want a produce bag, consider buying a mesh version.

11. Use beeswax wrap rather than plastic wrap. [$]

12. Kick the single-serving Keurig and get a French press. They’re fancier and produce a tastier cup of coffee, and your new friends will be impressed at your coffee know-how. [$]

Our Earth: K-Cups

“No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable,” said K-cup creator John Sylvan in an interview with The Atlantic. “The plastic is a specialized plastic made of four different layers.” It may be absolutely haunting to you to know that the creator of this international brand has deep regrets about his invention, as coffee pods are often not recycled.

13. Decline receipts. A thin film of plastic is used in most receipts. Just say no whenever possible.

14. This is the holy secret of cleaning: baking soda (which is packed in paper) and vinegar (which can be found in glass). Cleaning supplies can be expensive and unnecessary, given that most messes can be cleaned with baking soda, vinegar, or a combination of the two. Most cleaning supplies come in thick, hard plastic, but with baking soda and vinegar, you can skip the packaging and the cost. [$]

15. Bro, do you vape? If you do, don’t buy your e-liquid in plastic, one-use containers. Use a mod you can refill with e-juice that comes in glass bottles.

16. Don’t buy DVDs/CDs. Either stream or just study instead (like you’re supposed to). [$]

17. Use replaceable safety razor blades rather than plastic. [$]

18. Use menstrual cups or reusable pads. Pads, like diapers, last a long time in landfills. [$]

19. Buy beer without six-pack rings. (But no, of course you’re not going to buy beer, right?)

20. Buy your snacks in bulk at the grocery store without any plastic packaging. You can get nuts, granola, popcorn, and all kinds of things without any packaging at all. Just bring your own glass container and weigh it before you pour. It’s also healthier than that box of 400 protein bars that your mom thinks you need.

21. Be on the hunt for non-plastic packaging at the grocery store. Get milk in paper cartons, tortilla chips in paper bags, bread in paper bags, and peanut butter in glass containers.

22. Exfoliate with honey, coffee grounds, or your own DIY face scrub rather than expensive care products with polyethyene microbeads. Do you want something chemically close to motor oil on your skin? No. [$]

23. Just skip the Solo cups. Go with paper, or have people bring their own mugs.

24. Make your own laundry soap rather than carrying bulk liquid laundry detergent. It’s pretty easy, and laundry detergent bottles are made of HDPE, which can take centuries to break down. [$]

25. Get a cloth laundry bag or wooden basket rather than a plastic one. Cheap plastic laundry bags break easily, anyway.

25 Habits to Reduce Trash While on Campus 25 Habits to Reduce Trash While on Campus

26. Resist the pull of free swag, especially if it’s made from plastic. You just don’t need that many lanyards.

27. Take notes electronically. [$]

28. Ask your professors if you can submit papers electronically. [$]

29. Get your textbook electronically, used, or from the library. [$]

30. If the bookstore won’t buy back your book, sell or recycle it.

31. Opt out of junk mail. Try opting out of junk mail here.

32. Try to cut down on food waste by bringing containers with you to the dining hall. Many dining halls use Styrofoam (or, if they’re waste-conscious, paper) containers. Bringing your own can lead to less waste. [$]

33. Dine in rather than ordering takeout, whenever possible. Takeout containers will create more trash.

34. You probably need a lot less food in your dorm room than you think! If you’ve bought a meal plan, you’ll likely be fine with that. Keep a few backup meals/snacks in your room, but you don’t need to go crazy with bulk items. [$]

35. Use cloth towels rather than paper towels. And you probably don’t need paper napkins at all. [$]

36. Remove waste from your makeup/skin-care routine with flannel squares. [$]

37. Use refillable ink cartridges. [$]

38. Don’t buy aerosol sprays for hiding that dorm-room smell. DIY sprays or DIY sachets can keep it smelling fresh. [$]

39. DIY a reusable sweeper-mop rather than disposable ones. That’s assuming you actually clean. [$]

40. Compost.

Our Earth: Composting on Campus

College campuses alone throw out a total of 22 million pounds of uneaten food every year, according to the Food Recovery Network. When you consider the amount of resources used to create that food, with one pound of beef requiring 1,847 gallons of water, for instance, this on-campus problem has a huge scope. Of course, it’s normal for first-year students to have eyes that are bigger than their stomachs, but learning how to deal with food scraps is one of the top things to consider when trying to figure out how to reduce waste on college campuses. Organizations like the Food Recovery Network feed the hungry with such leftovers, while many student-led programs, like the UC Davis club Project Compost, work on re-using food scraps not for human consumption.

41. If you have your own bathroom, buy a toilet tab or reusable brush rather than a convenient-but-polluting flushable brush.[$]

42. Resist the pull of recipe subscription boxes. They’re very wasteful, even if they use recycled materials. [$]

43. Use the available on-campus recycling bins.

44. Sign up for digital versions of any free publications on campus, like newspapers.

45. Throwing a party? Skip balloons and confetti. Do a soap-bubble release instead!

46. Offer to help friends clean up after parties. Recycle bottles and plastics. Old corks, liquor bottles, and wine bottles can be reused to make incredible art.

47. Eat less fast food. Every stage of the highly automated fast food process involves plastic, from the bags of shredded lettuce behind the counter to the wrappers the foods come in. If you’re feeling a stress-related food binge coming on, sit down at a local mom-and-pop. [$]

48. Reuse jars as cups and storage containers. They make great drinking glasses and catch-alls for coins and pens.

49. Don’t smoke. Some college students under stress become curious about smoking. Just don’t do it. The filters have plastic in them, and they are one of the most common forms of litter on college campuses. If you must satisfy the urge to smoke, consider buying a hookah. [$]

Our Earth: Cigarette Butts

Cigarette butts are the most common type of marine litter in the world, according to the National Ocean Service. They create pervasive, toxic microplastics that are very difficult to clean up once they start dissolving. In 2017, more than 2.4 million cigarettes were collected in coastal cleanup efforts worldwide, but that number had increased from 1.8 million just the previous year.

50. Veto vending machines. There are dozens of vending machines on campus, waiting silently for you to need a pick-me-up in your fourth hour of studying. Not only are they usually expensive, but almost every product in those machines has wasteful packaging. If you’re wondering how to be sustainable on a budget, resisting the pull of convenient, unhealthy snacks will both help your budget and save the earth in college! [$]

25 Green Things You Can Do While Moving In/Out 25 Green Things You Can Do While Moving In/Out

51. Don’t toss out your clothing. Here are some alternative ideas:

  • Host a clothing-swap party at the end of the semester.

  • Donate to a thrift store.

  • Convert old T-shirts into towels and hankies.

Our Earth: Fashion and Our Ocean

Cheap, fashionable clothing creates some of the worse type of pollution for our ocean. Tossing out and washing modern fabrics (of which about 60% have some form of synthetic fibers) creates micro-fibers (about 5 millimeters in length). One wash can release 700,000 fibers into the waterways. These tiny fibers can be devastating to marine life. The answer isn’t “don’t wash your clothes,” obviously, but to avoid synthetic materials as well as avoid buying and re-buying cheap clothing. Stick with one wardrobe while you’re at college, if you can. Thrift your fashion, as it won’t contribute to pollution from production and many items are made from older fabrics. Not buying cheap clothing every year can have a huge impact on the planet.

52. Recycle old electronics. You can recycle electronics at Staples for free.

53. Use the same tubs/trunks to move and to store things during the semester. You don’t necessarily need to buy and re-buy cardboard or plastic totes to move things. A trunk might be fashionable and create less waste, too. See if you can find any recycled plastic totes/tub or milk crates. Wooden or wicker crates can be a great solution as well. [$]

54. See if there are any “Dump & Run” events on campus. They’re becoming popular on environmentally conscious campuses, and they usually happen at the end and start of a semester. Seniors and juniors typically donate old things they won’t need anymore, and new students can buy them for cheap. [$]

55. Sell or pass on your old appliances rather than throwing them out. If there aren’t any “Dump & Run” events on your college campus, fraternities and sororities often pass on things, too, and you can always sell things on Craigslist. [$]

56. Be restrained with your dorm décor. Remember, you’ll only be there for a short time! The more you bring, the more you’ll have to pack and move. [$]

57. Buy tapestries and canvas art rather than one-use posters, corkboards, or bulky plastic frames. They’re also easier to pack when you leave.

58. If you think you’ll need a tool, flashlight, or other types of implements when you move in, ask your parents. They probably have three hammers in a drawer somewhere. [$]

59. Reuse your three-ring binders. Put old materials in paper folders and label them with the course number; it will make life easier for you later as you’re riffling through old stuff. [$]

60. Buy furniture that you really like and keep it. Buying a full matching set of pink plastic storage bins for your dorm room and then swapping to teal the next semester is not how to be sustainable in college. Buy things you think you’ll still like in your adult life. [$]

61. Forgot something? Thrift whenever possible. Didn’t pack enough sweaters? Don’t rush to the mall or to Target. See if your local consignment shop or thrift store has any, and buy used. [$]

62. Don’t toss out old clothing hangers. You can pack your clothes on the hangers and zip them up together, or donate your hangers to first-year students who forgot them. [$]

63. Fold and roll clothing to conserve space. Here are some nifty tricks from the Today show. [$]

64. Play Tetris when you’re packing your stuff, especially if it’s being shipped. Take a moment to try to figure out the best way to use every inch of space. [$]

65. Buy items that fold, break down, and compress. For instance, many types of lamps can be twisted and folded to take up less space.

66. Consider on-campus storage rather than shipping big items home and back. Jet engines do so much damage to the environment! If you have stuff you won’t need over the summer, paying for a month or two of storage may also be very convenient. [$]

67. If you can fit everything in two to three suitcases, then you probably can use public transit on the way home. Your parents probably love to come out and see you, but it may be less stress for you and them to bring yourself home on a train or bus, which often won’t have carry-on weight restrictions. [$]

68. Carpool. Know someone else going home who lives near you? See if you can tag along and all fit in one car. [$]

69. If moving off campus, connect with your roommates about community spaces and share items. You don’t need three televisions, 20 lamps, and four dish trays, for instance. Create a shared list of all of the items you’ll need, and put your name on the list next to the ones you already have. [$]

70. Donate unused food. Charities will often host a perishable food drive on campus toward the end of the semester.

71. Donate unused school supplies. Local schools, public libraries, and churches all need school supplies. See if you can support a classroom by giving your local school district a call.

72. Pay attention to any other charity drives happening toward the end of the semester. Eyeglasses, cell phones, laptops, tampons, and other items are all needed by others. If there aren’t any collections going on, connect with your RA; maybe you can be the change!

73. Don’t bother with bubble wrap or foam pellets. Just use soft pillows and towels when you’re packing. If you need more material, use old newspapers. [$]

74. Recycle boxes. If you must use cardboard boxes, either recycle them or pass them on to anyone else who might need them.

75. Leave no trace. Don’t make the next person clean up your mess, and if you’re living off campus, don’t trust your landlord to recycle the stuff on your lawn for you. It’s safe to assume that anything you leave behind will end up on a landfill.

25 Other Ideas for How to Be Sustainable in College 25 Other Ideas for How to Be Sustainable in College

76. Don’t bother bringing your car on campus. Why add to your carbon emissions when you can easily bike, walk, run, or take the bus to class? [$]

77. Do errands (like grocery shopping) with your friends. Ride-sharing can lower your emissions as well.

78. Use public transit whenever possible. Students typically get special deals on local public transit, too. [$]

79. If you’re far away, reduce the number of times you fly home. It’s OK if you miss people, but there’s always Skype or Google Hangouts. [$]

80. Study at the library or other shared spaces. Don’t create more energy consumption when your college is already paying to keep the library lit up at all hours. [$]

81. Cover your windows in plastic during the winter. [$]

82. Use fans rather than AC in the summer. [$]

83. If living off campus, take charge of the thermostat. Keep it at a steady, consistent temperature everyone can live with.

84. Adjust the settings on your gaming devices, laptops, and TVs. For instance, even the “sleep mode” on a PS4 sucks up a great deal of energy.

85. Get an energy-saving power strip and turn the whole thing off when you’re not there. You’re probably going to spend very little time in your dorm room if you’re getting the most out of college, and there’s no reason for all of your devices to be on all the time.

86. Get a solar charger for your phone.

87. Eat more vegetarian and vegan meals on campus. You don’t have to be vegetarian or vegan to eat like one a few times per week, and the more you eat them, the more your dining hall will produce them.

Our Earth: Meat Consumption

A study revealed that giving up beef would have more of an impact on your carbon emissions than giving up driving a car. Because of the methane created, land use, and water use, meat has had a very large impact on emissions: It’s estimated that “the production, processing, distribution, and retailing of animal products” represents 9% of America’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Dairy has also been a big concern, and numerous milk alternatives have popped up to lower the impact. But keep this in mind: You don’t necessarily need to go fully vegan to help the earth. Being a “conscious carnivore” and eating meat only a few times a week or getting your friends to celebrate a “meatless Monday” potluck off campus can introduce new people to new options.

88. Buy local produce at farmers’ markets. Local produce creates less emissions because it doesn’t need to be shipped.

89. Question whether or not you actually need appliances (like mini-fridges, microwaves, etc.). A community microwave, for instance, is often available in a common area of your dorm, and toasters are often not even allowed. [$]

90. Eat those leftovers. Colleges have been making efforts to reduce food waste among college students, but you should do your part when taking portions. If your eyes were bigger than your stomach, don’t go to the dining hall until you eat your leftovers from last time.

91. Don’t grab a tray at the dining hall. Trays are just another item dishwashers need to wash, and they also encourage you to grab too much food. Just stick with plates and bowls.

92. Get LED bulbs for your lamps for late-night studying.

93. Resist the urge to buy stuff from Amazon all the time. Getting stuff shipped directly to you is great, but it also usually involves waste in the transportation process. Amazon has been trying to reduce waste, but the fact is that you’d be getting a textbook in a cardboard box rather than no box from your local bookshop. With foodstuffs, the packaging situation can be worse. [$]

94. If you must get items from Amazon, opt out of two-day shipping. Take John Oliver’s advice: If you’ve signed up for Amazon Prime, opt out of the automatic two-day shipping. It’s better for both humans and the environment.

95. Don’t leave the dorm faucets dripping. Communal bathroom and sink spaces are known to drip because a busy person didn’t notice they didn’t shut off the water fully. Do your part to shut them off.

96. Take fast showers. Waste less water. Or, if you’re really daring, take a cold shower to waste less water and energy.

97. Shut the doors behind you. Such a simple idea for promoting sustainability on college campuses is to not leave doors open. Students coming in and out let heat and AC out, wasting energy, so if you’re the last one in or out, make sure the door is fully shut. It’s perhaps the simplest of these energy-saving tips for students but can make a big difference on a larger scale.

98. Consider air-drying your clothes. Pack a drying rack and save quarters as well as energy. [$]

99. Adjust the brightness of your laptop and smartphone. This avoids eyestrain and cuts power use. Consider using night mode on Twitter, YouTube, and Microsoft Office.

100. Encourage your friends to be more green with you. Keep yourselves accountable and help each other! You’re not in it alone.

How to Increase Sustainability on College Campuses and Encourage Policy Changes How to Increase Sustainability on College Campuses and Encourage Policy Changes

Of course, we’ve focused our eco-friendly college campus ideas on the things within the scope of your own control, but how can you influence others — including administrators — to create positive change? It’s one thing to be a role model and another to be an activist. Here are a few more simple ideas to promote college campuses going green:

  • Introduce new chapters/programs. Or create your own environmental club!

  • Support a plastic ban. See if your college would be willing to join an established community of plastic-free schools via the Plastic Pollution Coalition.

  • Create a compost heap and/or student community farm. Many other colleges have led the way, and it’s fairly easy to get started!

  • Ask your college to cut ties with organizations that deny climate change.

  • Ask about a bike-share program.

  • Ask your administrators if they plan on introducing more LEED-rated buildings and renewable power. See if they have a plan for switching to green energy.

  • Create a food toss-out tub to illustrate how much food waste happens every day at your dining hall.

  • Ask for more recycling bins around campus and in dorm rooms.

  • Throw student-run events/parties/drives/donation events. A “Dump & Run” event or an electronics recycling drive would be a great idea and likely appreciated by the staff.

Remember, you pay the tuition and are essentially a customer. Speak up! Simply asking the right questions, getting others to think, and doing your part is how to make your school campus green.

Shopping Sustainably on a Budget

Many major brands like Amazon, Walmart and Target have launched sustainability hubs on their website to actively show consumers how they are preparing to fight climate change and becoming more sustainable. Additionally brands like Patagonia, Toms, All Birds and others are being recognized for their efforts in moving the needle on what ideals a sustainable company should hold. 

However, getting people to shop more sustainably is quite a task. In our recent Sustainability Report we found that 92% of consumers would be incentivized to shop more sustainably if there was a tax credit or some form of discount on their purchase. This seems like a major area of potential to consider how to begin to influence sustainable shopping.  While that type of incentive doesn't exist today, you can still shop sustainably on a budget by staying on the lookout for good deals from sustainable brands and retailers.  Many brands are launching sustainable initiatives and also commonly offer discounts or sales to help you save money.  We'll call out three examples.  One example is Kohl's who announced their 2025 climate change and sustainability goals in 2019 very frequently offers discounts of 15% to 25% off when using a current Kohl's promo code at checkout.  Another popular brand, Nordstrom, announced their 2025 sustainability goals in 2020.  You can shop Nordstrom on a budget on their clearance site called Nordstrom Rack. Pair the already discounted prices with a Nordstrom Rack coupon and you'll be saving a bundle off regular prices.  Basically be on the look out for brands' climate and sustainability policies and stay in tune with their discount offerings. Our final mention is Staples - whose Sustainability center has information on how they offer sustainable services and products, free recycling and also often rewards customers for going green with special offers on Earth Day and America Recycles Day.  You can commonly save around 20% using a Staples coupon during checkout, so be sure to take a look before you purchase.  These are just a few examples, but there's many more brands putting together goals to be more sustainable. 

If you have more suggestions for this guide, feel to get in touch and let us know!