The Green Guide to College Living: 7 Ways Students Can Save Money & The Planet

University students riding bicycles on sidewalk with trees and grass surrounding.
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Between classes, clubs, jobs, internships and trying to keep up a social life, you’ve got a million things on your mind as a college student. So unless you’re extremely passionate about living a sustainable lifestyle, it’s probably not your top priority.

But honestly, being an eco-friendly college student is just as easy as syllabus week. With a few small lifestyle changes, you can make a big impact on slowing the effects of climate change. Plus, going green can actually save you a ton of green — and we know most college students are interested in saving money.

Here are seven easy tips to get you started on making student life more sustainable. 

1. Walk or Bike to Class

We know what you’re thinking — “Duh!” But did you know that even occasionally swapping your car for your own two feet (or two wheels) could save an estimated six to 14 million tons of CO2 a year?1 That’s a big enough difference to justify the extra cardio.

Using your car less frequently also means you’ll be using fewer harmful pollutants, like gasoline and antifreeze. Not to mention you’ll save a ton of money on gas and student parking passes. (Seriously, shouldn’t parking be included with tuition?)

2. Ditch Single-Use Plastics

You’ll need to start drinking more water with all that walking and biking, so let’s start with plastic water bottles. Putting our environmentalist hat aside for a second: Did you know that Americans spent more than $36 million on bottled water in 2020?2 Drinking water costs next to nothing and yet we’re wasting millions of dollars on it.3

Environmentalist hat back on: There are currently an estimated 2 million tons of discarded plastic bottles in U.S. landfills. And for the 1,000 years it takes a single plastic bottle to decompose, it’ll be leaking harmful chemicals into the environment.4 Need we say more? It’s time to recycle all of your plastic bottles and stop buying them for good.

If you don’t want to drink tap water, consider buying a filter or take advantage of those free water fill-up stations on campus. We know it’s not Voss, but it’s free to you, and Mother Nature will thank you.

If you’re looking for a good reusable water bottle, check out One Green Bottle, which is partly composed of recycled ocean plastics and reasonably priced compared to many of the top brands.

While you’re at it, go ahead and forgo plastic bags for tote bags and plastic food containers for Tupperware. And keep an eco-conscious mind at the grocery store by staying away from unnecessary plastic packaging (pre-peeled oranges, we’re looking at you).

3. Recycle Those Beer Cans

…Or soda/energy drink cans. Whatever your beverage of choice, make sure you’re recycling those containers properly. Trillions of beer and soda cans — about 17.5 million tons — have been trashed rather than recycled in the past five decades.5 This is extra shameful because aluminum is infinitely recyclable and the carbon footprint of producing a recycled aluminum can is much lower than that of a new one.

Also, don’t forget that you can make some quick cash by taking your cans to a recycling center in some states. Sure, it’s not much, but 5 to 10 cents adds up when you’re recycling every PBR case from last weekend’s beer Olympics.

4. Get Thrifty

Need new furniture for your dorm or apartment? Skip Ikea and Amazon and instead check the Habitat for Humanity Restore or Facebook Marketplace. Need an outfit for a themed party? Hit up a thrift or clothing consignment store like Goodwill, Buffalo Exchange or Plato’s Closet. Or organize a clothing swap on campus.

For an idea of how much thrift shopping can help, listen to this: It’s estimated that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global CO2 emissions — that’s more than all international flights and shipping combined.6 Plus, textiles account for about 17 million tons of annual waste.7 Gross.

So go on, get thrifty with it. And then, when you’re moving or ready for a cleanout, you can sell your items back. Take that, fast fashion.

That brings us to our next point:

5. Say No To Free T-Shirts (and Other Items)

…Unless you’re actually going to use them. College towns are full of marketers and campus groups handing out freebies. But if you’re not going to wear those T-shirts or use those plastic cups, you’re just helping the never-ending cycle of waste. We know freebies are tempting, but if you aren’t gonna use them, refuse them.

6. Utilize Solar Power

If you’re a college student reading this, we’re at least 90% certain you’re not a homeowner who can afford to install rooftop solar panels for thousands of dollars. (If we’re wrong, good for you, go for it!) But you can still reap the benefits of solar energy on campus or as a renter. Here are a few examples:

  • A plug-in mini solar system for your home that generates enough electricity to power electronics and lamps.
  • A window solar charger to power up your phone or wireless headphones.
  • Solar-powered string lights for your balcony or backyard.
  • A solar portable charger for those long days on campus.

There are also plenty of ways you can be a solar advocate and get involved in renewable energy solutions while being a broke college student. Which is a great segue into our final tip:

7. Start or Get Involved With a Green Organization

If you attend a bigger school with hundreds of student organizations, chances are you can find at least one club dedicated to green living or climate activism. Here are some ideas to try:

  • If you just moved into a residence hall, see if there’s a “green living” community. If there isn’t, start one. 
  • Go to the student activities fair or check out the student activities page on your school’s website to find clubs dedicated to sustainability. 
  • Check to see if there’s a class dedicated to sustainability that you can take to further your knowledge.
  • If you’re feeling extra passionate, consider running for a student government position and advocate for more sustainable solutions on campus. 
  • Many schools have so-called “Green Funds” available to advance campus sustainability initiatives, or you and your newfound group can apply for one. You can head to The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) for those resources.

Final Thoughts

These seven tips may be simple guidelines to get you started (and maybe help you save some money). But, don’t discredit them. Your small steps toward sustainability can make a big difference and influence others to do the same.

As one Vanderbilt University professor told EcoWatch, young people may have the greatest influence on the older generations when it comes to slowing climate change.

“When people see young people being active [and] hear young people expressing their concerns, that affects the way people think about themselves,” Jonathan Gilligan, assoc. professor of earth environmental sciences, said. “If they see young people doing things to protect the climate, it makes other people including older people, more likely to do something.”

Kristina Zagame is a journalist and content writer with expertise in solar and other energy-related topics. Before joining EcoWatch, Kristina was a TV news reporter and producer, covering a wide variety of topics including West Coast wildfires and hurricane relief efforts. Kristina’s reporting has taken her all over the U.S., as well as to Puerto Rico and Chile.

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