zero waste college sustainability dad

How To Go Zero-Waste In College (The Insider Knowledge)

More and more students are now asking the question of how to go zero waste in college. College students typically live extremely busy, stressful and multitasked filled lives and now want to make those lives greener.

This article takes the student on a step by step journey of how to achieve a zero-waste lifestyle within the college environment. Packed full of helpful advice and tips this is your one-stop guide to your college life which promises to reduce the stress and increase the enjoyment factor.

Who knows, within this guide, you might even find the path to influence your college to become the change you want to see.

Zero Waste College Tips

Before moving to your new accommodation make a point of collecting some various sized used cardboard boxes. You will definitely need them for the move, and the cardboard can be reused for many purposes.

Even better, keep an eye out for people moving into the area as they may have free specialist boxes and wrap. Once you have your boxes and anything else useful use paper tape to seal them. 

This will keep them strong and 100% recyclable for the next person to use.

Thinking ahead; any soft materials that you will be taking with you will make excellent wrapping to protect your breakables. For this you could use your clothes, towels, sheets, rags, etc, the only real limitation is your imagination.

Now you are ready to move and it’s cost you nothing, plus you are 100% green!

Travel Light

travel light to college zero waste sustainability dad

The college will only take up a small part of your long and eventful life so it’s best to travel light. Anything that you don’t deem as essential just box up and store with family or friends. The less you move with, the smaller the carbon footprint you will create and the lower impact on the environment.

This is also a good time for a declutter. Try to donate as much stuff as possible and take your time to examine what is important to you. Donating your previously much-loved stuff is the right thing to do as it can now be much loved by another.

With this in mind also recognize that you should now try to kit out your new accomodation in a sustainable manner.

Others were once starting this new life and are now just finishing it. This means that they will probably have all the kit you need and may be very happy to donate it to you.

Reuse, Recycle, Repurpose

Check out the free adds, bulletin boards, and thrift stores before, as a last resort, buying anything new.

You will be amazed at how many mirrors, sofas, tables chairs, and even mini-fridges can be picked up in this way.

Now is the time to get arty!

 Think laterally, and try to pick up items that can be rescued, reused, repurposed or totally upcycled by you. If you do a good job you may even be able to sell them on.

This is the ultimate way of creating your own student chic and earning a little extra cash on the side.

Think of your new accommodation with a dresser painted and distressed to your own unique and particular style. Table lamps made out of engine parts or cushions covered in 1970s art!

By doing it this way your only limit to having a fantastic and unique student accommodation is your own imagination. 

Try Pinterest to get some amazing ideas and then post your own! You could even start your own zero-waste college pins and create a following of, “zero waste ideas,” for yourself.

Campus Sale?

campus sale goods zero waste college

When you move in try to fill up your living space with only sustainable products. In this way, you can pass them onto another student and continue the cycle of much loved, zero-waste college essentials.

Departing students may have already donated some of their possessions for the incoming students to use.

Other ex-students may have goods stored at the college and these goods will be ready for the new intake to claim for free, or at incredibly low prices. Either way, it’s definitely worth inquiring about.

This is a very green way of doing things and could prevent tons of stuff going to landfill or the incinerator. Check to see if the college is already supporting this zero-waste initiative and if not, then suggesting it may be appreciated.

Buy In Bulk

Try to buy your food in bulk and avoid purchasing anything in plastic wrap or single-use containers. Opt for goods in recyclable wraps such as glass, metal, and cardboard and save what you can for reuse.

Once you have some jars saved you can buy food from bulk stores and make even bigger savings. Use cloth bags and/or old pillowcases for dried foods and glass jars for both dry and wet foods.

You will ultimately save money in the long run and have a very real impact on the care for your environment. This is also a good way to get into the zero waste habits that you will need after college.

Carry A Water Bottle, Spork And Cloth With You

man drinking from glass bottle zero waste college hydration

This may seem obvious these days but everyone really needs to get into this habit. Not only does the hydrated brain work better but the savings on disposables could be enormous. Think of how many plastic cups, bottles, straws, knives, forks, and stirrers you use each week.

Add to that all the paper napkins handed to you which end up in the trash and you can begin to see the savings. You can use a large cloth as a napkin, however, if you wrap using the Furoshiki method that cloth becomes so much more.

Finally, get into the habit of carrying a small sealable container with you. This comes in very handy if you get your cloth wet or you need to make an unscheduled purchase. It is also handy to use as your doggie bag for any of your leftover foods when eating out.

Food Court Options

On-campus food courts can be a tricky place to navigate. Very often they use disposables,single-use plastics, cardboard boxes and may not even let you take your food away. However, all is not lost and you still have zero waste options available to you.

Firstly you can ask for your food to be served directly into your own containers. This is where your saved jars, water bottle, cloth napkin, and spork come into their own. With all this equipment on hand, you don’t need to use anything disposable.

You can even reduce your food waste by taking smaller portions and returning each time you want more. This will reduce your food waste and keep you on the zero waste college track whilst keeping you fit and healthy. (smiley face emoji)

Secondly, if you have different vendors, you can ask them to prepare and place your, to-go, foods in your own containers instead of their disposable ones.

Lastly, You can make suggestions to the campus about their sustainability policies and see if you can make significant changes from within. After all, it’s not that long ago since a small amount of pressure saw the introduction of water stations on all campuses.

Make And Mend

Take my tip and learn a few basic sewing techniques. Not only will it save you time and money on replacing things it will make you the most popular person around!

Learning how to darn or repair and take up hems is an invaluable skill. Plus the savvy shopper can close some great deals on damaged clothing.These skills can also be used to create some unique and fancy looking stuff from simple design templates found online.

Think handkerchiefs, Cloth napkins, Furoshiki sized wrapping cloths, and before long you can be running your own small student business!

This is also a great time to start making your memories quilt. Use scraps of material from those things that have been special to you for this. You don’t need much as it will grow over the years, especially in love and memories but never in cost.


It seems like every week there is a new protest or event that you need to attend. This could mean spending money on event merchandise and paraphernalia, t-shirts, badges, etc which you just don’t want to do.

All of this stuff  steadily accumulates and will eventually end up in a landfill site somewhere. Furthermore, Your actions of buying or accepting of this stuff will only result in the creation of more of this waste.

No matter how strong the hard sell, or the pushing of the freebies onto your person, just say no. Explain to them the ecological impact that the creation of this waste is having and then suggest alternatives.

Just saying no should not be limited to freebies and one-off event merchandise either. Say no to free pens, brochures, leaflets, straws, toys given with certain food purchases and corporate goodie bags. 

Think of this as free waste, dumped on you so that you can eventually dump it into a landfill site. Also remember that Refuse is one of the 5Rs of sustainability. 

Use it well and it will keep your college dorm/living area clear, uncluttered and relatively stress and waste-free.

An uncluttered and free environment equals an uncluttered and free mind.

The Essentials Kit

In today’s modern age it may be possible to go fully digital but honestly, it’s not as much fun.

There is something special about the look, feel and smell of real objects and books. So my advice to you is to buy quality and then to treasure it. Learn to love these possessions and treasure them throughout your life as they will remind you of these great days.

Make recycled paper, pens, and notebooks your first choice and stay away from all the cheap disposable rubbish. A good quality refillable pen can last you a lifetime and make everything you study and write an absolute joy.

So I say, steer clear of the disposable junk and splash out in order to make your college days some of your most loved days.

Think Sustainability

Now that you have moved in and are keeping your new living space minimal, with only your much-loved items on display, it’s time to get practical.

Start collecting glass jars, metal, and ceramic containers in order to avoid using single-use plastic and start to think about composting.

You can then use these containers to store all your dry and wet foods and even drink from them. Small mason jars are excellent containers for a multitude of things and look very stylish with candles in them.

All of your glass, metal and ceramic containers can be individually personalized and should see you all the way through college. So not only do they look great, decorate well, give you a hint of style, but they will also lower your carbon footprint considerably.

If you have a communal bin area think about smaller storage boxes in your room to temporarily store your recycling. These could even be the cardboard boxes you moved in with for the time being.

Involve Others In Your Zero Waste College Journey

dream big make it happen sign

Once people see what you are doing they will probably be curious and ask you about it. Therefore don’t be afraid to talk to people and explain your lifestyle to them. 

Doing this will allow them to accept your new habits and support you in what you do. College is a great place to introduce and try out new ideas and help people to see the difference that they can make. 

You could also start a zero-waste college discussion group to highlight common areas of student wastage. It’s only by knowing how bad we are that we can influence change within ourselves and others.

Host A Clothing Swap

College is a time for many events and gatherings but you will not have a lot of money to spend. Thrift stores are great and you can find many a bargain there. Even more, bargains if you are using your new-found sewing skills, however, this is not true for everybody.

No one want’s to be seen in the same clothing over and over again so this is when a clothing swap becomes a great idea. At a clothing swap, people are invited to come along with some pre-loved clothing and swap them for tokens or just donate.

The clothes are then sorted, displayed on rails and shelves and the donators invited back into the room. Those people with tokens then get to go shopping and can purchase whatever clothing they want using the tokens. One token per item donated equals one token per item bought.

K.I.S.S. – Keep It Stupid Simple

No actual money is ever exchanged and you can leave with some new clothes for your wardrobe or tokens for the next event. It’s as simple as that and yet the system is very easy to run and extremely popular.

Eat A Bigger Plant-Based Diet

vegan diet

It is argued that reducing the amount of meat in your diet has many benefits for both you and the planet. Livestock covers about 45% of the land and all those animals contribute greatly to greenhouse gasses and grain consumption.

Think of all the methane and CO2 being created and released by those animals and you can see why reducing demand for meat is a good thing.

Eating less meat means that you will be contributing to the lowering of these gases and contributing to the safety of the planet. You will also be healthier for it, as eating too much meat is proven to be damaging to your health.

Benefits of eating a largely plant-based diet:

  • You will contribute to the lowering of greenhouse gases
  • Eating a plant-based diet on average costs less than a meat-based diet
  • It’s easier to control weight gain
  • Studies indicate that people on plant-based diets have a lower incidence of contracting cancer
  • Lowering the demand for meat may lower the number of animals bred in cruel conditions

This is not an extensive list as for that we really need another article. Suffice to say that cutting down on meat for just one day can have a serious impact on the environment.

Try Meat-Free Monday as your first challenge and then either stick with it or move to explore more options.

Composting Without An Outside Space

If you have a garden space then you should compost anything that’s compostable. It’s good for the earth, it’s good for you, and it’s part of the zero-waste lifestyle. If that’s not possible then you should definitely check out Bokashi composting.

Bokashi composting uses Bokashi powder or bran to break down food scraps and is highly effective. It is also great for very small places so check out “This Link” which will tell you all about it. F.Y.I. This is not a crafty attempt for me to sell you anything.

If you are living on campus then encourage them to start diverting their waste to self-composting. Each campus should have a sustainability policy and composting their own waste should really be a part of that.

Grow Your Own

student gardening zero waste college

Growing your own produce gives you a sense of purpose, an enormous feeling of wellbeing and keeps you on the zero waste high. It will cut down your carbon footprint in many ways and can even be done indoors.

There are even foods that you can regrow from the kitchen scraps! Other options include foods that can be grown in buckets or small containers. From herbs to potatoes it can all be grown with a little imagination and regular tending.

No matter whether you have a garden, dorm or a small apartment, you now have no excuse not to grow your own fresh and nutritious produce. The best thing is, none of it will be wasted and it’s a pastime that can be shared with others.

Create Snack Jars For Late Night Study

Glass jars are versatile and could become candle holders, drinking vessels, artwork or utensil holders. They could even become your late-night study snack jars. Not that you ever do that, right?

Instead of your poorly planned meals providing you with the perfect excuse to go to the store of temptation. Fill up a jar.

Snacks jars are the ultimate in guilt-free snacking when filled with seeds, nuts, fruit, pickles or even chocolate. whatever your fancy, a jar can accommodate it and be there for you when others can’t.

In order to get old labels off jars, try this method. Soak the jars in hot water and then remove the paper. Once done apply olive oil and then baking soda to the glue and leave for a few minutes.

Next, simply rub the mixture off by hand and wash the jar once again.

Natural Cleaning On A Budget

laundry white towels natural cleaning products orange baking soda essential oils sustainability dad

The area you need to clean will be small and so should your materials cupboard. Don’t listen to the manufacturers’ marketing hype as you only need a few cleaning products to survive, and none of them are toxic.

The next point is perhaps one of the biggest zero waste tips you will ever be told.

There are only a few cleaning products you will ever need and these are:

  • Distilled white vinegar
  • Baking Soda
  • Castile soap
  • Olive oil

With these 4 products, you can clean a whole house. However, you can add more natural cleaners if you want to and still stick to zero waste. This is because a natural cleaning product will fully decompose and carries no hidden toxic elements.

For a list of natural cleaning products, recipes, and tools required please read: 23 Reader suggested natural cleaning recipes that actually work

Natural Cleaning For The Body

Just like the living area can be cleaned naturally, so can you. It’s cheaper, non-toxic, fun to do and through the use of essential oils; you can make it personal to you.

There are many recipes for you online or products at the refill store for you to try.

Why not start with a few of these swops:

  • Plastic bottled processed soap – natural soap and shampoo bar
  • Disposable razors – stainless steel razor
  • Moisturizer – Shea butter
  • Lotion – organic coconut oil
  • Toothpaste – Mix of Baking soda, coconut oil, and essential oil
  • Synthetic sponge – natural bath sponge
  • Disposable menstrual products – menstrual cup
  • Plastic toothbrush for bamboo or wood

Once again this list can be huge and would require several pages to do it justice. For this reason, I am going to leave it there and allow you to find out more about the subject which is of specific interest to you.

Zero Waste Tips For - Away From Home Study

When you are out and about it’s easy to get caught out and have your values tested, so be prepared. Build yourself a little zero waste college toolkit and carry it everywhere with you.

Make it small and light and you will soon wonder whatever you did without it. My son loves his and it’s even caught on amongst his friends who now do the same.

His kit consists of:

  • Vacuum water bottle plus filter – for filling up at a water fountain
  • Reusable cup (he uses bamboo) – for refusing disposable cups
  • String bag – this might sound strange but it’s his most used item
  • A large square of cloth – napkin, handkerchief, food carrier, honestly the list is endless. He wraps his lunch in it using the Furoshiki method
  • Snack jar or other sealable containers – for those unexpected moments
  • Wooden toothbrush – I don’t ask!

This Needs To Be Repeated – Say No To Free Waste

say no to free waste sustainability dad zero waste college

As a student, you can be the target of many companies trying to lure you over to the dark side. From business cards to hats and from pencils to plastic document holders, they will all come your way.

This is the time to be strong and realize that they are just gonna fill your trash can with non-disposable junk. So stay strong and remember your Rs, and just say “no thank you, I REFUSE YOUR JUNK”.

Become The Campus Green Activity Activist

Many seats of learning are now looking to increase their own green credentials. So now is the best time to get involved and leave your mark. Could you start your own dedicated team of zero waste and sustainability centered College advisors?

Rather than working outside of the system you could be changing it from within. You could make suggestions about water and energy conservation, hard to recycle materials and foods served on campus.

Not to mention the self-composting, clothing swaps, reusable food containers and essential furniture donating that we talked about earlier. This may not happen immediately of course but you could strongly influence the change that you want to see.

So I say, be brave and go for it!

Final Words

I hope that this guide answered all or most of your questions and that you now feel informed and ready to start your zero-waste college life. My son has made many friends and influenced his college in lots of ways since he started.

Many colleges are now looking into the whole concept of sustainability so never has there been a better time for you to get involved and leave your mark.

Good luck for the future and I wish you all the success in everything that you do.

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sustainability dad

Mark Aspland is a proud father of two boys, would be amateur actor and green living enthusiast. He has been sharing hints, tips and sustainable living content on his website Sustainability Dad since august 2019. 

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He now has an army of followers who are like hearted individuals passionate about the environment and how to affect positive change through peaceful action.