Updated August 22, 2022 • 6 Min Read

12 Sustainability Tips for College Students

In November 2018, the U.S. Global Change Research Program put out a dire  National Climate Assessment . In addition to costing America billions of dollars, climate change is set to reduce agricultural output, increase premature deaths, encourage disease, destroy coasts and forested areas, pollute air, raise temperatures, and continue increasing wage disparities. Global warming threatens the future of not only America, but also the world as a whole. As the  leading carbon polluter in 2014 , it's up to the U.S. to change course – and quickly. Students seeking more information and wondering how to do their part can find concrete details and actionable advice for going green in the following guide.

What Does “Going Green” Really Mean?

The concept of “going green” has become a trend recently. With climate change and other environmental issues in many of today's headlines, it has become fashionable -- even profitable -- to use the term. But many lack a full appreciation of and awareness for what it really means to go green. According to Angie De Soto, Director of the Sustainability Institute, “Sustainability involves becoming aware of the impact of all the little decisions that we make.” She goes on to explain that she often tells students that sustainability is about being mindful of day-to-day activities and how they impact the environment as well as those who come after us. Recycling paper and plastics, along with trying to reduce your usage of electricity and fossil fuels are a start, but there are many other steps -- big and small -- individuals can take to protect and preserve the planet.

The  Middletown Thrall Library  (MTL) maintains a comprehensive resource on what it takes to live a green lifestyle. MTL adds that going green is a mindset that involves continual pursuit of knowledge regarding how to live life in an environmentally friendly and responsible way. In addition to big things that reduce people's carbon footprint, individuals can adopt small, everyday practices and behaviors that help protect the environment and preserve natural resources for current and future generations.

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Why is it Important to Go Green?

Even though it may seem as if the impact of climate change is still far away, the planet is already suffering from existing and irreversible damage. The way we treat the planet and its natural resources can have significant impact on our daily lives. Even if we don't immediately notice the effects, it will have huge repercussions on the lives of future generations. Some examples include:

Decreased food supplyTwo recent studies found troubling information regarding the future of food production if current inhabitants fails to treat the planet better. A  report  by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reports that global production of vegetables and  legumes  could fall 35 percent by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue growing at their current rate. A  second NAS study  found that corn production in the U.S. could fall by 50 percent if the temperature goes up by four degrees Celsius – a realistic notion by 2100. As the world's population is  set to expand by 10 billion people  in the next three decades, food scarcity could pose a significant threat. Rather than depending on commercial, large-scale farming operations, students can look for local, sustainable farms that avoid pesticides and sell locally rather using fuel to transport goods.
Decreased biodiversityThe Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services released a  2018 report  detailing the threat to biodiversity by 2050 if drastic changes do not come quickly. In addition to deforestation, pollution, and loss of habitat, climate change aggressively contributes to the eradication of species. According to the report, certain species could decline by 50 percent in Africa by the end of the century. Marine biodiversity also faces risks: rising temperatures, acidification of water, and extreme climate activities such as flooding and tsunamis destroy food and upend natural environments. The overuse of plastic also contributes to loss of marine life, as evidenced by the  troubling reports  on the contents of marine life stomachs. All of this can disrupt food cycles and chains, resulting in decreased and/or unhealthy food supplies for humans.
Extreme weather conditionsAs the climate continues warming, extreme weather conditions have become increasingly more common. In addition to a higher number of intense heat waves and droughts, the  U.S. Global Change Research Program  found that heavy rain downpours rose by 30 percent over the 1901 to 1960 average, with increased flooding and an above average number of days per year of heavy rain. Hurricanes have also increased significantly since the 1980s, particularly in areas near the Atlantic ocean. Hurricanes become more prominent due to sea surface temperatures rising, changes in the atmosphere, and an increase in pollution. Changes in snowfall also  present challenges , as snow helps cool the atmosphere, insulate the ground, and provide water to millions of people.
Loss of coral reefsWe may not see them all the time but coral reefs are a crucial part of our existence. According to the  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration , coral reefs are important for numerous reasons. In addition to being extremely diverse ecosystems, they support 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of hard corals, and countless numbers of other species. They support tourism, food production, erosion prevention, wetlands protection, and economic stability.  Current threats  to coral reefs include warming oceans, rising sea levels, storm pattern changes, precipitation fluctuations, altered ocean currents, and ocean acidification. If unprotected, coral reefs  begin flushing algae out of their tissues , giving them a bleached appearance. If threats do not subside, reefs eventually die off, reducing human food supplies, eliminating tourism and fishing jobs, and leaving coastal cities unprotected.
Increased diseases, health problems and deathA  2018 study  from the World Health Organization predicts that approximately 250,000 unnecessary deaths will occur between 2030 and 2050, due from factors such as diarrhea, heat stress, malnutrition, and malaria. In addition to diseases caused by rising temperatures, changes in the atmosphere will also contribute to an  increase of infectious and airborne illnesses  such as the Zika and Ebola viruses. Bacterial infections due to contaminated water will mostly affect developing countries that lack the resources to provide water treatment. An October 2018  CNN article  reported that other issues related to even modest climate changes can result in increased mental health issues, more cases of Type 2 diabetes, respiratory issues, higher instances of strokes, less safe driving conditions, and fewer food inspections.

How Colleges are Going Green

In many ways, sustainability is a new, more all encompassing term for practices that have  been around for quite some time . But, increasing concerns over climate change and oil resources have brought a new immediacy to sustainability. As a result, its definition is now much more than just recycling and reusing.

At the college level, many institutions are implementing simple everyday things to larger innovative practices and policies to help protect the planet and preserve resources for future generations. Some of those practices include:

Campus Gardens

Campus gardens are becoming a growing trend at colleges and universities. In addition to reducing emissions caused by food transportation, students also get the opportunity to learn about urban growing, organic agriculture, and sustainable food systems. At the University of Louisville's Garden Commons , any student, faculty, or staff member who helps can enjoy part of the harvest.

Reducing Food Waste

According to Michigan State University , the institution provides meals to 30,000 individuals each day, which generates more than 14,000 pounds of food waste. While the numbers may not be exactly the same at other colleges, many still do produce a large amount of food waste every day. Because of this, many colleges and universities have started food waste and composting programs. Many schools also got rid of trays to encourage students to only get food that fits on their plates. Others provide reusable food containers so students can take leftovers back to their dorms and return the containers. Others have created composting programs that take leftovers and turn them into soil that can be used on campus or sold in the local community.

Water Refill Stations

Millions of plastic water bottles get thrown in the trash every day, leading some schools to recognize the value of installing water refill stations. At Penn State University , students can take advantage of more than 100 water refilling stations around campus, providing them easy access throughout the day without spending money on bottled water or creating more refuse. At Duke University , researchers found that by installing 50 water bottle refilling stations around campus, the school body could avoid using more than 400,000 plastic bottles.

LEED Certified Buildings

In order for a building to receive the coveted Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, builders must follow frameworks that help the buildings run efficiently, cut energy costs, produce less waste, and take advantage of technologies designed to produce a smaller carbon footprint. The University of California, Berkeley is just one example of a school working to introduce more LEED certified spaces. The campus currently has five LEED Gold-certified buildings that use sustainable features such as stormwater collection, reclaimed wood, energy and water use monitoring, natural ventilation, and time-sensitive lighting to cut energy use.

Sustainability Curricula

In keeping with the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability, and the growing interest in the field, colleges and universities are offering more courses and degree programs that are tailored to sustainability. Classes in the sociology of sustainability, sustainable architecture, the economics of sustainability, sustainability and health, and sustainable farming and agriculture, as well as degree programs in environmental engineering, environmental science, and sustainable public policy are becoming more common at colleges and universities across the nation.

Adopting Cleaner Energy Sources

Behind the scenes, and sometimes quite publically, colleges and universities are undertaking major initiatives to adopt more sustainable energy sources. At older institutions like Virginia Tech, this can mean everything from phasing out coal burning furnaces to turning to cleaner coal and natural gas for power needs. Wind and solar power are also being integrated into the power grids on campus. In 2014, Randolph College was recognized by the EPA's “Green Power Partnership” program, in large part because of a contract to purchase electricity generated by burning landfill gases from Collegiate Clean Energy, a subsidiary of Ingenco. “Having a person to fully work on something like renewable energy really helped because it takes a lot of negotiating with the power companies, with lawyers, and with the college's business office to get a deal like that done,” explains Randolph's sustainability coordinator Ludovic Lemaitre.

Encourage Better Modes of Transportation

Carpooling has long been high on the list of objectives in large urban areas, and dedicated fast-lanes for carpoolers are now the norm. But colleges and universities, especially those with large campuses, have also been working to cut down on drive-alone rates by encouraging students to use public transportation and shuttle services, and by implementing carsharing programs and other initiatives, such as bikeshare programs, that cut down on car use emissions. “We now have a carsharing program on campus,” says Iowa State's Merry Rankin. “A student came up with the idea, I had him research it, we were able to take that research into an administrative meeting, and ultimately to implement it.”

Increasing Landfill Diversion Rate

Because it's out of sight, out of mind, people often forget that landfill trash produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is a major contributor to climate change. Reducing the amount of garbage that ends up in landfills through recycling, repurposing and composting has become a top priority at many colleges and universities. The AASHE encourages colleges and universities to increase landfill diversion through its STARS, or Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System, and an annual Recyclemania competition.

12 Tips to Help Students Go Green

If you aren't already green -- or even if you are -- college is a good time to develop more eco-friendly practices. Sustainability is a learned behavior but it can sometimes feel too abstract. “I think a lot of students are interested in this issue, so that's not the problem. I think many feel overwhelmed and just don't know where to plug in to do something about it,” says Angie De Soto. She likes to start students off by taking them through some of their regular routines. For example, she says, “Think about where the food you eat comes from; this can be the first step toward a more sustainable lifestyle. How much processing went into making that food? Or are you using a styrofoam to-go container? Even if the container were compostable, if you don't put it in a composting bin it's actually worse than styrofoam in terms of the greenhouse gases it will emit when it breaks down.”

Here are some good and relatively easy ways to begin or continue the practice of being green:

  1. Rent, Borrow, or Share a Bike
    Bikeshare programs are becoming more common, both on campuses and off. Find out whether your school has such a program. If not, there may be another local option, or you may want to get involved in setting the wheels in motion for a bikeshare initiative. Riding a bike helps reduce carbon emissions and keeps the rider in better shape, but it can also become a productive habit. Ludovic Lemaitre helped bring a bikeshare program to Randolph College, and he puts it this way: “The bikeshare program is practical, which gives students an incentive to use it. And then they might find that they feel good about going on bike rides -- it's fun, it's destressing, and relaxing. It's something students might then pick up as a habit, and it can set things in motion for other eco-friendly behaviors.”

  2. Pay Attention to Packaging and Bags
    Merry Rankin tells students at Iowa State to just say no to bags at the grocery store and elsewhere. “Bring your own bag or just don't take a bag,” she says. Similarly, look for products that have less packaging, which equates to less trash and less material that will end up in a landfill to emit methane and other pollutants. For a deeper look at packaging, where it comes from, and where it goes, Rankin recommends The Story of Stuff .

  3. Unplug
    At Iowa State, Rankin estimates that the average student brings five electronic devices to campus with them. She also points out that unplugging those devices is a big piece of the puzzle and a good habit to get into. The AASHE and other campus sustainability organizations sponsor “power down” days and nights, when students are encouraged to curtail energy usage. There are even dorm vs. dorm sustainability challenges that go on for weeks and even entire semesters.

  4. Use Reusable Water Bottles and Coffee Mugs
    Instead of buying bottled water and contributing to the packaging consumption problem, buy a refillable bottle to carry around campus. If you're a coffee drinking, get a reusable mug. Sometimes, on-campus dining and café facilities will offer a discount to students who bring their own mug. As Rankin points out, “If you count every student, and we have roughly 37,000 students at Iowa State this year, it can make a big difference if each one them is using a reusable water bottle and/or coffee mug instead of four or five plastic bottles or disposable cups a week.”

  5. Use an LED Desk Light
    While LED bulbs do cost more up front than incandescent and CFL bulbs, they last longer. A lot longer. And they're made to be quite sturdy. At Randolph College, Ludovic Lemaitre tells students, “When you come in as a first-year and move into your dorm, you buy an LED bulb for your desk lamp. You can go through four years without having to buy another bulb.”

  6. Watch Your Water Usage
    Water is a precious resource. Shaving a few minutes off of your shower time on a regular basis, and waiting until you have a full load of laundry to do a wash are both good sustainability practices. As an exercise in sustainability awareness, Angie De Soto recommends that students also stop to think about what they're doing when they brush their teeth. “Do you leave the water on while brushing your teeth? It's a small thing, but the energy that was used to clean the water that just runs down the drain, that's something that's worth thinking about,” she says.

  7. Recycle and Compost
    Angie De Soto thinks of recycling as one of the big “gateway” behaviors for sustainability. “Recycling forces students to think about where they are putting their trash, which doesn't come naturally for many people,” she explains. Most colleges and universities will have a recycling program in place on campus. But not all recycling is the same. Find out whether your campus has a single-stream system, in which all recyclables are placed in one receptacle and sorted out later, or a system that requires you to do the sorting before making a deposit. Larger and multi-site campuses may have more than one program, so take the time to check it out and learn what can and can't be recycled. Composting initiatives are also spreading on college campuses. Usually, this is something that institutional kitchen facilities will do a lot of the work on, but it's still worth knowing how your school -- and city, if you live off campus -- handles leftover food waste.

  8. Be a Smarter Shopper
    While some clothing brands have started selling environmentally-conscious clothing lines, the reality is that most of these are out of reach for college students due to higher prices. Even if you can't afford higher price tags right now, there are still ways to consume clothing that are kinder to the environment. Eco Age founder Livia Firth started the #30Wears campaign in an effort to help shoppers make environmentally responsible purchases. If you can't see yourself wearing something at least 30 times, don't buy it. You can also host clothing swaps with friends, buy vintage, or give your unwanted, gently used clothing another life by donating or selling them instead of throwing them away.

  9. Buy Second Hand
    In addition to clothing, students can purchase many household and everyday living goods second hand to cut down on the use of new resources and to reduce waste. As Merry Rankin points out, when students move out at the end of the academic year, they get rid of all sorts of furniture, couches, and futons. “All these bulky items end up in a landfill,” she says. At some schools, such as Harvard , students can take advantage of donation boxes when moving out, an online reuse list, and Freecycle events. At the start of each semester, the school partners with Habitat for Humanity to resell gently used items. UC Berkeley operates a ReUSE store where every item is $3 or less to encourage students to divert goods from landfills. Rather than buying commonly used items brand new (e.g. coffee makers, wall hangings, books, backpacks), students can save money and reduce waste by giving items a second life.

  10. Walk
    As often as possible, consider walking rather than driving. If you live in a safe neighborhood, walking can help cut down on emissions while also providing a free and easy way of getting exercise. Students save money on fuel, car maintenance, gym memberships, and parking passes while also doing their part to create cleaner air around them. Some schools sponsor walking challenges with prizes for those who walk the furthest. Missouri State is one such example.

  11. Turn Off Lights
    This one might sound like a no-brainer, but it is a practice that many students forget about. Turning lights (and televisions) off when you leave a room can add up to serious energy savings – especially if your dorm or apartment has not switched to energy-efficient lighting. The money saved may seem small, but the real pay off is energy conservation. In summer months, it's also important to remember that standard incandescent light bulbs use only 10 percent of their energy towards light – the remaining 90 percent goes towards heat, meaning students must run the air conditioner more to keep their room or apartment at a comfortable temperature. Using less energy results in lower electric bills, but it also means less greenhouse gas emissions.

  12. Eat Less Meat
    Did you know that raising and preparing meat produces between 10 and 40 times more greenhouse gas emissions than growing and harvesting vegetables and grains? This does not mean you have to go vegan though -- just cutting back on your consumption of meat and dairy can go a long way in supporting a healthy world. Try being vegetarian once a week, then go from there. As a bonus, eating more vegetables can help you live a healthier life.

Sustainability Quick Facts

Here are some interesting facts and data points about sustainability, courtesy of the Boston College sustainability blog and NYU's sustainability project:

Consider student waste

The average college student produces 640 pounds of solid waste each year, including 500 disposable cups and 320 pounds of paper.

American paper usage

The average American uses seven trees and 680 pounds of paper per year.

Change your laundry settings

Up to 90% of the energy used during a washing machine's cleaning cycle goes into heating the water, so use the cold setting.

Shower savings

Decreasing your showering time by three minutes not only saves water, it also saves 513 pounds of CO2 every year.

Recycling lifespans

There is no limit to the number of times an aluminum can can be recycled, and glass can also be recycled forever.

Aluminum recycling savings

The energy saved from one recycled aluminum can will operate a television set for three hours.

Glass recycling savings

The energy saved from recycling one glass bottle will light a 100-watt light bulb for four hours.

A lifetime of waste

In a lifetime, the average American will throw away 600 times their adult weight in garbage. This means that adults leave a legacy of 90,000 pounds of trash for their children.

Change your lighting

CFL (compact fluorescent lamp) light bulbs use one-fifth to one-third the amount of energy for the same amount of light provided by traditional incandescent bulbs. LED (light emitting diode) bulbs use up to one-tenth the amount of energy as incandescent bulbs, and last up to 50 times longer.

Sustainability Resources

  • Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE): The go-to resource for campus sustainability information, ideas, initiatives, and challenges is the AASHE, or the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. The AASHE has an annual conference, a newsletter, an online guidance center, an assessment and tracking tool, and links to everything that has anything to do with college sustainability.
  • Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive : Offers tools and guidance to student groups to bring cooperatively run, ethically sourced food options to campus.
  • Energy Action Coalition : An alliance of 30 organizations that support student clean energy initiatives, including the grassroots Campus Climate Challenge.
  • Engineers for a Sustainable World : An organization dedicated to integrating sustainability into engineering curricula, and to helping students and faculty implement practical sustainability plans and projects.
  • Focus the Nation : A clean energy leadership development organization dedicated to fostering agents of change among college students.
  • National Wildlife Federation's Campus Ecology Program : The NWF's student outreach program, offering student consulting on sustainability issues, educational outreach and resources, and a climate action competition.
  • Net Impact : An alliance of young professionals, grad students, and business majors dedicated to confronting sustainability challenges.
  • Roots and Shoots : The Jane Goodall Institute's international environmental and humanitarian program for youth of all ages.
  • Sierra Student Coalition : The student arm of the Sierra Club, a progressive environmental organization that was established by famed naturalist John Muir in 1892.
  • Student Environmental Action Coalition : A student- and youth-run activist organization aimed at addressing environmental injustices and creating progressive social change on the national and international level.
  • SustainUS : A non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to fostering social, economic, and environmental sustainability.
  • United Students for Fair Trade : A cooperatively run student group promoting fair trade principles and models.

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