11 Tips to be Zero Waste in College while on Budget
Ah college, some of the best and worst times in my life. And it was actually my senior year that I first started going zero waste, so I can confidently say I had a zero waste college experience (though wish I had started earlier!)
And boy oh boy am I happy that I did because the mentality shift I had allowed me to save around 35% of my income in my first job (that didn’t pay so well).
So yeah, living this zero waste lifestyle is great because you’ll save money in the long run. And you also don’t need to fork over a ton of cash to start living more sustainably.
Because I certainly know that in college, you’re meticulously watching every penny you have.
Check to see if your college has a sustainability group
I was lucky and my school did. They made sure all the dining halls had compost stations for food scraps and help yearly events to educate people on.
They’d also hand out reusable thermoses and water bottles at certain events, which was an awesome perk.
See if you have those resources around you as well (whether at your school or in your town) to take advantage of.
Repurpose what you already have
The theme for today’s post and the biggest tip I have is to repurpose what you already have.
I had a bunch of water bottle from free events, so rather than buying a new one I used those.
If your college gave our reusable bags, use those!
Got glass pasta sauce or jam jars? Upcycle those to be your 'new' water bottle, thermos, to-go cup, etc. More ideas for how to reuse your glass jars here :)
It’s better for the environment to use what you already have, and it’ll save you a ton of money.
Utilize Second-Hand stores
If there are some items that you need to get, check out any thrift stores near you. Also, as much as I don’t like Facebook, Facebook Marketplace is another great resource, especially for decor and whatnot.
Thrift stores are also great for finding pieces for themed parties (like Risky Business, Neon 90s, Toga, etc) without needing to spend a lot of cash on a costume you'll only wear once or twice.
And if you’re trying to declutter your space as a part of this process, make sure to sell your items, gift them, or donate them rather than dumping them in the trash.
Cut down on Food waste
If you’re grocery shopping, make sure you meal prep so you don't waste any food.
Bring a grocery list of what you want to make and just stick to that.
This will help save space in your kitchen (essential if you live with roommates), and also make sure you're not wasting any money on food you throw out!
And of course, skip the single-use produce bags and plastic bags.
For produce bags, you can upcycle old pillowcases, make your own from t-shirt fabrics, or buy a durable set that’ll last you forever.
For grocery bags, see if your roomies have extras. I feel like everyone has a bag full of resuable bags stuffed somewhere, neglected. If not, you can make your own or also buy some that’ll last you a lifetime.
If you want to see which products I've invested in, like reusable produce bags, check out my recommendations here!
If you have access to an all-you-can-eat dining hall like I did, don’t overdo it with the food. I noticed so many kids would get every dish only to throw out around half of their food!
Being cognizant of what you want and rather than do one large round, make multiple trips to food stalls until your satiated.
RELATED: Go Zero Waste Grocery Shopping -- see how I make sure I don’t create unnecessary waste while at the store
Skip the paper towels
All of my roommates have LOVED paper towels. And I get it, it seems easy to use it once to pick up or wipe down something gross and then chuck it out.
And while they are compostable, paper towels really aren't good for the environment.
Making paper towels is incredibly resource-intensive. They have to grow the trees, then cut them down, transport them to a facility to process it, add chemicals and what not to make them white and soft, package them in plastic, and then ship across the world.
I decided to make my own rags from college event t shirts that I never wore just by cutting them up (no sewing necessary). Then I made a bin for all my dirty rags and once every two weeks or so I'd throw them into their own wash.
Shop for clothes at second-hand stores
When I was in college, I know I didn’t have any spare change to shop expensive stores. My go-to’s where Forever 21, H&M, and Zara.
However, these kind of cheap stores are the embodiment of fast fashion, which is the idea that cheap clothes are produced to only be own for a short period of time. This emphasis of buying new but cheaply made clothes on a constant basis is terrible for the environment for a couple of reasons.
Why fast fashion is terrible:
First, it exploits foreign laborers. The majority of garment workers are only making \$3 a day, and a significant portion of them are young (18-24 years old) or even younger as this industry exploits underage workers. The workers are also mainly women who face sexual harassment on a daily basis in tandem with safety concerns in their unsecured facilities.
For more information about the unacceptable practices fast fashion implements and promotes, please watch the True Cost documentary.
Secondly, fast fashion contributes to our global landfill and emissions problem. "12.8 million tons of clothing are sent to landfills in the US every year. This is a football field filled 14 ft deep with clothes. The fashion industry’s CO2 emissions are projected to increase by more than 60% to nearly 2.8 billion tons per year by 2030. Main cotton producing countries like China and India are already facing water shortages, and with water consumption projected to go up 50% by 2030, these cotton-growing nations face the dilemma of choosing between cotton production and securing clean drinking water " -Forbes.
Avoid Fast Fashion by asking these questions:
My recommendation for you is to critically analyze what ‘new’ clothes you need any why. Is this just for a one-time event? Will this serve me for many seasons?
If you decide that you need it, then think about where you might be able to get it that’s not from a fast fashion store.
Ask questions like:
Do I already have something similar? Does my friend/roommates have something similar that I can borrow? Will the thrift store have it?
Once I started thinking like this, I realized I didn’t need any many new clothes as I thought.
And for the items I needed, I started shopping at thrift stores. And these stores are a lot cheaper than F21 and you can find much better quality items with a little digging around.
And if those fail you, then I’d recommend buying it new. This lifestyle can be hard to maintain in our current economy, so don’t drive yourself crazy. But I would recommend taking the best care of whatever pieces you do buy to make them last as long as possible.
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Now when you do go to college events and fairs, say no to the freebies they try to hand out.
Because honestly, who really uses all those things anyway? My roommates ended up throwing out a bunch of useless crap when we moved out. So save yourself the hassle as well.
Hit up the library
Save yourself some money and check out all your books from your school’s library or the one in your city!
In addition to books, libraries have a ton of other resources. I’ve found that my libraries offer audiobooks, ebooks, and magazine subscriptions (NYTimes, National Geographic, and more), movie and TV streaming services, and even elearning courses (so you can learn things like SQL, Excel, photography, etc).
Throw a (fun) Zero Waste Party
I didn't have a lot of money in college, and neither did my friends.
So we ended up throwing a bunch of cheap parties that ended up being sustainable, even though we didn't even intend that to be the case!
Bike! (only if safe)
I say this cautiously because it wasn’t super safe biking in Boston and I only did it sparingly.
But if your town is safe, try biking over driving. It’ll save you on gas and car maintenance costs while helping keep you fit.
Make Easy DIYs
You probably don’t have a lot of time to spare in college between classes, studying, working, and partying ;)
But there are a few easy DIYs you can probably make to.
- All purpose cleaner: 50% white distilled vinegar + 50% water
- Deep Cleaning Scrub: ¼ cup Castile Soap +¾ cup baking soda.
+ Opt: 20 drops of tea tree oil
- Face moisturizer: Jojoba oil (I find this in a glass bottle at Whole Foods for \$10)
Carry a Zero Waste To-Go Essential Kit
When I was in college, I was about and about across different campuses, in different buildings, and going back and forth to my job.
So I made sure to carry a couple of items that would help me aviod making trash, which included:
- Water bottle
- Cloth Napkin
- Reusable snack bag (of course full of snacks, and when I was done eating them, I’d use the bag as a to-go compost container)
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Wrapping it up!
College is so much fun. But you definetley work your butt off. Enjoy your time, make great friends, learn a bunch of stuff, and try to not stress about being perfect with being sustainable. Just do what you can with what you have!
But side note: those red solo cups DO NOT have to be single use. I was known for always washing and reusing those cups at my parties haha.
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Hi, I'm Taylor
Amateur adult. Zero waste zealot. Personal finance fiend. Spicy food supporter. I’m an mid 20’s gal living in Denver, Colorado. My love of the outdoors has cultivated my zero waste lifestyle, which inadvertently fueled my passion for personal finance. Cheers to everyone interested in lessening their footprint while growing their wallet!