Not Your Average College Guide: Zero Waste as A College Student

  • By: greenorb
  • Date: June 19, 2021
  • Time to read: 11 min.

It was so easy to buy things off the dollar menu in college or get quick snacks from the campus store. 

But looking back at all the times I had to make two trips to the dumpster is certainly not easy. 

There are many ways to reduce your carbon footprint and live a zero-waste lifestyle while being a broke and exhausted college student! 

From class materials, recipes, and supplies you’ll need to be successful, sustainable alternatives are available! 

Can’t Live Without College Edition

In college, tuition expenses are just the beginning. 

For many of us, it’s the first time we are out on our own, having to do our own budgets and plan our meals. 

Many college guides advise you on what to buy, space-saving hacks, and dorm aesthetic and decor, but not many offer truly sustainable advice. 

When you’re making your shopping list in preparation for move-in day, ensure sustainability helps you make your final decisions.


Unavoidable for some classes – but thankfully, many professors now realize that many textbooks are unrealistic, and they aren’t mandatory, but definitely a helpful resource. 

  • E-books: take advantage of online digital copies! You might even be able to find free downloads available, or at least one with a considerable discount. 
  • Share: one of the best parts of college is the people you meet. A great way to cut costs and waste is to share textbooks with classmates and friends – just be sure to ask well in advance so you both can get the assignments done on time!
  • Rent: rent your textbooks to save money, and reuse one that will be used again and again! Sometimes rental textbooks have great notes, and info inside you may need for that upcoming quiz’s bonus question.
  • Buy Used: buying used books are just as environmentally friendly as renting!
  • Sell Used: if you don’t hoard books or want to keep them for future studies, selling them back is a great sustainable option rather than throwing them away because you’re free of that dreadful O-Chem text! A great way to make a few dollars back too! If there’s no buy-back program near you can send used books to this website, and they’ll mail you a check.

School Supplies

Folders, binders, notebooks, pens, pencils, it’s nearly endless! Recyclable and environmentally sourced products are common nowadays in the office sections of superstores. But there are also waste freeways to take notes and stay organized as well!

  • Go Digital: take notes on a laptop and avoid carrying many heavy notebooks, or risk exploding pens in your bag
  • Teacher Handouts: if you have a professor who gives stacks of handouts each class, ask if they can email you your copy instead! This will avoid the need for large binders or overstuffed folders, and can cut back on paper waste you’ll throw away at the end of the semester.
  • Compost: if you like traditional hand written notes, have no fear! Use earth-friendly paper and ink and compost your notes after finals week.


check out this awesome zero waste smart notebook! Scan your notes with their app and upload them to your digital locker for quick access. No need for paper as the pages are washable. 


To stay on top of your grades, you need to stay healthy, which starts by taking care of yourself. 

Some of my favorite bathroom swaps:

Safety Razor – replacement blades are cheaper than replacement razors

Bamboo Toothbrush – get a multipack and share sustainable ones with friends when they need a new one.

Tom’s toothpaste and flat floss – a great alternative! Recyclable tube, compostable floss, and great for you!

Shampoo and Conditioner Bars – grab some bamboo soap containers or bags to carry your loose bars of soap.

Body Butter Bar – check out this great DIY recipe video! Or shop for a locally made and sourced one. 

Make-up Remover Pads – plush, organic cotton, or even an old t-shirt can be used to make your own. 

Simply use some water for seamless removal. No more pipe-clogging wipes!

Unpaper Towels – great for dorm clean-ups; just throw in with your weekly load of laundry. 

They’re more absorbent too.

Reusable Water Bottle – a must-have! Bring to the gym, class, or even the cafe!

Reusable Coffee Cup – another must for those early classes and all-night cram sessions!

Dry Shampoo – my real best friend in college. 

Dry shampoo helped when I was short on time, or didn’t have the mental strength to take a full-on shower during exam week. 

However, aerosol spray cans can be quite wasteful, but as a college student staple, there are many environmentally sustainable alternatives:

  1. Package Free Dry Shampoo
  2. Dry Shampoo for lighter hai
  3. Dry Shampoo for all hair types
  4. DIY – ¼ cup powder, 2 drops oil, 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder for darkening. For best results make yours for your hair type.
    1. Light Hair – organic corn starch or arrowroot powder, essential oil
    2. Dark Hair – arrowroot powder, essential oil, cocoa powder


Use lavender to help with dry scalp, and tea tree to aid in dandruff-prone hair!

Not all self-care is a spa day or nice hot shower. Instead, borrow a game from a floormate or read a book from your school’s library when you need a quiet break. 

Dorm Decor

Those Pinterest boards of perfectly displayed dorms are pretty, but deadly for the environment. 

Plastic, plastic, plastic. Some students even redesign their dorm aesthetic each year, just throwing away what they’re tired of. 

Here are a few hacks to avoiding drastic dorm destruction:

College is expensive, try donating these items you no longer need

Shop with intent

Thrift Your Decor Items and Dorm Furniture

Use Environmentally Friendly Light Bulbs 

DIY Your Decor Items

Use Things You Already Have

Decorate with Purpose – make each piece functional, that way it isn’t collecting dust but serves a purpose while making your space cozy, clutter can be distracting anyway

Check out Some of these Sustainable Dorm Decor Ideas

Wasteful College Traps, and How to Avoid Them

There are many things in college that you will do because it’s convenient, including take-out or a togo coffee! 

Here are a few common habits or products you can avoid, modify, and cut back on added waste while in school.

Keurigs and K-Cups

  • Get this refillable k-cup to avoid those wasteful single-use k-cups
  • Save money by buying beans in bulk 
  • Buy coffee beans in a jar or compostable bag
  • Use a refillable coffee mug and avoid coffee shops and dunking trips

Cup O’ Noodles 

  •  get a pot and make a bigger batch at a time to avoid single-use styrofoam cups, and save the leftovers for a quicker snack next time
  •  find minute snacks in cardboard or recyclable packaging
  •  opt for healthier snacks

Take-Away without the Throw-Away 

  • on the days the cafeteria doesn’t sound appetizing, or you want to order in, pick restaurants that have lower or sustainable packaging. Many restaurants offer their entrees in eco-friendly to-go containers
  • dine-in and avoid delivery fees, and the take away boxes altogether
  • pick farm to table restaurants for a place with locally sourced ingredients and probably produces less waste itself 
  • opt for a meat-free meal

Avoid the Freshman 15… Pounds of Trash

Fortunately, many colleges and universities offer meal plans, so you don’t need to worry about your main meals throughout the year, but this doesn’t always work out. 

Your class schedule or heavy workload may make it difficult to always get there in time, or you may not be interested in the day’s selection. 


Grab an apple or banana on your way out for a quick package free snack for your walk to your dorm after class.

Late-night study sessions and midnight snacks require you to have food on hand or be able to access it quickly. 

It’s essential to know how to buy the best food for your health, brain, and the environment. 

Zero Waste as A College

Shopping Guide

  1. Avoid Plastic Packaged Food – plan your dorm essentials to be snacks in cardboard or fresh apples and oranges, for example. Cans of soup are great too, because they not only are affordable, but they can be recycled and stored for a while as well! 
  2. Skip the Plastic Water bottles – they’re pretty heavy to carry, and even more toxic to the environment. Grab some reusable ones instead, you’ll quickly find that perfect water fountain with the liquid gold anyway.
  3. Shop Ethically – shop at local health food stores, or larger stores with sustainable practices

Snack Guide

You don’t need to starve while trying to be sustainable; there are so many great snacks and quick meals perfect for college students. 

They usually only require one pan or pot, and a few staples ingredients. 

Try some of these out for size and see what ones you can come up with after being inspired: 

Budget-Friendly Recipes

Check out these plant based zero-waste recipes for some delectable plant-based favorites you can recreate right at home. There’s even some festive recipes inspired by the holiday seasons.

Here is a great 7 day menu by the Zero Waste Chef that will have you eating waste-free all week while developing permanent low waste cooking habits!


One of the decisions many college students have to make is if they’re going to bring their car. 

Can you afford that added expense? Is there parking on campus? Do I need my car, or are there other options available?

All colleges and universities have different regulations, but many actually prefer first-year students not having vehicles on campus. 

To help them get around campus and town, they usually offer a bussing system or encourage them to take advantage of the city bus routes, including campus stops. 

Many students live close to campus and can walk or bike to and from. It’s typically about weighing your options based on your budget, needs, and desires last. 

Not many students make their decisions with the environment in mind! 

Here are a few questions the planet would like you to consider before taking your car with you to school:

  1. Are there bus systems available that are free or of low cost? If you often carpool, this is a great way to carpool with a crowd. Sometimes students can take a bus to their college town from their hometown, too, so having a vehicle to get to school initially isn’t a hassle. Plus, many parents enjoy this annual drop off! 
  2. Do you live on or close to campus? If so, great! Most campuses have everything you need to be successful right on the grounds. You’re there to study, right? Take a bike, longboard, or roller blades to make the commute a bit quicker and avoid car fumes and expenses.
  3. Do you have other friends at school with vehicles? Odds are, yes. One of the amazing things about university is the amazing people you meet and create lasting friendships with. If you ask them for rides to the grocery store when you missed the bus, odds are they’ll say yes, but throw them gas money for the favor! Just because you don’t have car expenses doesn’t mean they don’t, either. Or ask to tag along on their trips, that way its two trips in one and less car fumes are released into the atmosphere. 


Trains, buses, vehicles, and airplanes have all been tremendous advancements for our technological world, making short and long distance travel a breeze no matter where you are. 

But with such advancement comes tremendous responsibility and pollution. 

In 2018 29% of greenhouse emissions in the United States were from transportation, making it the largest contributor to greenhouse gases (GHG). 

In the same statistical set of data, nearly 60% of transportation GHG emissions were from regular, low duty vehicle usage (EPA). 

In 2013, passenger vehicles alone contributed to more than half of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, and over a quarter percent of the amount of hydrocarbons that were emitted into the air in the United States.

Ways to Reduce Carbon Emissions From Your Vehicle and Beyond

  • Keeping your vehicle properly inspected will ensure it passes all environmental regulations regarding GHG emissions
  • Opt for a more environmentally friendly vehicle such as one that uses ethanol, SmartWay technology, or a combination of the two
  • Donate spare change to solar car research 
  • Carpool when possible
  • Walking places when you can and spending some time outside is a great bonus, especially when we’re always in a hurry. These extra minutes to yourself will soon be a great part of your zero waste journey
  • Get a secondhand bike, skateboard, longboard, and pair of rollerblades and connect with your inner child as you reduce your carbon footprint and save on gas money
  • When long-distance traveling opt for a train ride instead of a plane, or even a bus as it can carry many passengers than just yourself. They’re often going the same direction as you anyway, so why not?

Tips To Beat Wasteful Peer Pressures

Let’s be honest, not all of college is classes and studying. 

Going to parties, staying fashionable, or weekly coffee dates are all ways to enhance your college experience, but at what cost to the environment? You don’t have to give in to peer pressure, the pressures of fast fashion, and money-spending get-togethers and hurt the environment. 

To help, we’ve asked a few experts some of their anti-pressure planet-saving tips to help you stay sustainable while at school.

  • BYO cup – Avoid the red solo cup when at parties. Carry around a reusable one, but be sure it’s empty before leaving – open container tickets are not a good addition to your Friday night!
  • BYO reusable straw to the bar – We’re all guilty of using straws when out to eat or grab a few drinks at happy hour, but ask the bartender for no straw! If you love the ease of drinking your cocktails without the ice getting in the way, carry your own. It’s a great conversation starter in those crowded college bars
  • Opt for aluminum or glass contained beverages – avoid plastic cups and straws altogether by opting for bottled or canned beverages
  • Use your own refillable water bottle – Skip the plastic bottle and refill yours whenever you need to quench your thirst; they are good for more than just water
  • Use your own coffee cup/mug – when walking to the local cafe or hitting the Starbucks drive thru, use your own coffee mug or iced tumbler to save on plastic and styrofoam waste. Some places even will cut your price a little for your environmentally friendly effort.

This simplistic lifestyle produces much less waste and makes it easier to focus on the important things. 

Living a simpler life is also a more affordable one in the long run, and I think we all can agree when it comes to college, every tip to save money is a great one to know!

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