Single-use plastic creeps into our lives on a daily basis. With the on-the-go lifestyles that many of us lead, how can we use less plastic in a practical way? How can we make things portable and avoid disposable waste as we zip between classes or work shifts?
I’m Erica, an intern for The 2050 Company and a rising Senior at the University of San Diego! I want to do what I can to help the planet, but I sometimes find it difficult to navigate a system that values convenience over sustainability. The system is what truly needs fixing, and we can continue to ask for that from businesses and plead for government action. As individuals, small changes in our daily lives also add up to massive impact!
With lots of trial and error, I’ve picked up a few habits during college that are second-nature to me now, but I know they have really added up to help the planet. Also, a lot of these have saved me money and time (and who doesn’t want that)!
Here are 12 tips for how you can live a more sustainable life in college:
1. Eat plant-based as often as possible. According to UCLA Sustainability, “From a water perspective, it is much more efficient and cost-effective to eat plant foods than animal foods. From a greenhouse gas emissions perspective, it is without doubt significantly better for the environment to eat plant-based foods.”
Many schools are adding plant-based options into their cafeterias and restaurants around campus! As often as you can, seek out those options. This way, you’ll help the planet and may even get to try new foods! If this is something you’re interested in, but don’t feel like your school offers enough of, consider speaking out by emailing school officials to offer more options!
2. Unplug when you can. Vampire energy is the energy being used when appliances are turned off, but still plugged in. The device continues to take in energy, even when it’s not turned on. Therefore, it is using more resources and costing more money! Plus, a lot of times it’s better for your device's batteries to get a little break. Whether you live on-campus or off, unplugging things while they're not being used is an easy habit to pick up and a great way to be more sustainable.
3. Bring reusable silverware if your dining hall doesn’t have it. A while back I purchased a small kit with a bamboo fork, knife, spoon, and a few straws. It was around $10 and came with a little carrying case! However, you can just purchase an extra fork, knife, and spoon from wherever you get your silverware (or from your set at home) and carry that instead! Most campuses luckily offer reusable silverware, but if that’s not the case for you, bringing your own saves a ton of waste over time!
4. Carpool. This one seems so simple, but sometimes it slips our minds when we’re going out to meet friends. Walking or biking is the best option, but in a city like San Diego, driving is a must. If you can get into the habit, see if you can carpool with friends for plans, study breaks, and even trips to the store! Plus, it’s more fun with company!
5. Buy used textbooks. A lot of bookstores and websites offer used textbooks, often at a reduced price. Go for those when you can! Renting online versions also saves shipping costs, shipping emissions, and paper. If you like online versions, those are usually the most eco-friendly! For the smaller books and novels that you might use for English classes or just for personal reading, try a used book website! Thriftbooks.com is my personal favorite, and they almost always have the titles I’m looking for.
6. Reusable period products. This switch is probably my personal favorite! Using reusable menstrual cups is a jump from what many of us grew up using. Except, I’ve loved it in college, especially for those days when I have a marathon of back to back classes. They keep you protected for longer and save a massive amount of money in the long run. If those don’t work for you, reusable pads and period underwear are widely available now! I highly recommend products from the Honey Pot Company. Their products are great in quality, support an honorable mission, and the company is run by an amazing duo of black, female founders! You can find their products at Target!
7. Stasher Bags. These reusable silicone bags are the best for bringing snacks, parts of meals, and even hygiene products or school supplies with you! They are a bit pricey when you first buy them, but Stasher Bags a great alternative for plastic Ziplocks and are much sturdier.
8. 2050 Smoothies. These smoothies are a lifesaver for quick breakfasts that I can take to class with me! They inherently save food waste, which is incredibly important. “Food waste is responsible for more than 25 percent of all the freshwater consumption in the US each year and is among the leading causes of freshwater pollution.” In a system that wastes an incredible percentage of food, it is inspiring to know that one meal I eat every day helps give back and change the narrative around food waste. Plus, when I finish a 10-pack bag of smoothies, I wash it out and continue to reuse the plastic bag, just like the bags I mentioned in the previous tip!
9. Reusable coffee mugs at coffee shops. I do a lot of studying in coffee shops. It’s a great way to see more parts of the city and get some work done with my friends. I almost always try to bring a reusable coffee cup with me and ask if the coffee shop can make the drink and put it in my cup if they only offer disposable cups there! The insulated containers keep the drink warm for hours, which is such a nice treat during a long class or study session! Many more coffee shops are allowing reusable containers again as things shift back after the pandemic. Also, many times they will give you a discount for bringing your own mug! Our coffee shops at USD offer a $0.25 discount for bringing your own container.
10. Shop for secondhand clothing and shoes when you can. Thrift shopping is becoming a lot trendier and is a fun thing to do with friends! If you need something specific and can’t find it in a local thrift store, try websites like Poshmark and Mercari! There are thousands of listings on these platforms for many of our favorite brands. I find these websites especially helpful if I already know my size for that particular brand. Plus, if you sell on these websites, you can make some extra money, and oftentimes the clothes you're buying are at a massively reduced price!
According to Island Senior Resources, buying one used item reduces its carbon footprint by 82%. If everyone chose to purchase one used item (instead of new) this year, it would save:
- 5.7 billion pounds of CO2 emissions
- 11 billion KwH of energy
- 25 billion gallons of water
- 449 million pounds of waste
11. When something breaks, fix it. This is a habit I’ve had to learn over time, but taking the time to repair clothing or things in the house is usually much more cost-effective. As tempting and seemingly easier it is to just buy a new item when it breaks or rips, it is definitely more sustainable to repair the one you already own. I was shocked when I started talking about needing to fix a piece of clothing, and many of my friends knew how to sew really well and could fix the clothes for me!
12. Use reusable items like cups and bowls instead of plastic ones in your dorm. Like we said before, plastic creeps into our daily lives pretty much everywhere, but the best place we can reduce it is in our home! Using reusable plates, bowls, and cups cuts down on a lot of waste during the school year versus using disposable ones.
Am I Really Making A Difference?
One of my favorite quotes about sustainability is, “You can’t do all the good the world needs, but the world needs all that good that you can do." Our system is far from perfect, and we need dramatic change to reach the projections of the Paris Climate Accord. Many people are discouraged by how “little” of an impact they make with small swaps like this. First off, this impact is far from small. Just this past year, my roommates all started using stasher bags after borrowing mine a couple of times, and now they’re hooked. Changes like these have a ripple effect, and rub off on the people around you. Now my roommates will pass this swap on to the people around them, and so on.
Consumers valuing sustainable choices kickstarts businesses into valuing them as well. Like Katharine Hayhoe said in her Ted Talk, “The most important thing you can do about climate change is talk about it.” Keeping these conversations going makes vast changes in your school, workplace, in your dorms, and with your friends. Passion inspires passion, keep passing it on!