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Home » Guides & Resources » Every Student's Checklist for Achieving Sustainable Living in College

Every Student's Checklist for Achieving Sustainable Living in College


Getting into college or university in the U.S. is an expensive undertaking. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the annual cost of tuition, fees, room, and board averaged $17,237 for public colleges/universities and for private postsecondary institutions, (a) $44,551 at a private non-profit institution and (b) $25,431 at a private for-profit institution for the academic year 2016 to 2017.

Saving money is one of the goals of sustainable living, a responsible and holistic approach of utilizing resources to support current needs without compromising that of the future.

The other goals of sustainable living are:

  • Help the environment
  • Live healthily
  • Work with the community for the common good

Living sustainably seems like a tall order, but any college student can put their mind to the cause.

This guide lists small acts involving transportation, food, and other aspects of daily student life that can have a significant impact on oneself, the community, and the world as a whole.

The 13-Point Checklist for a Sustainable Life in College

Get around campus by foot or pedal as eco-friendly alternatives to driving a car.

Using your car less frequently reduces your carbon footprint. Do you know that it can emit 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a car can also release greenhouse gas emissions, like methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrofluorocarbon.

Your alternatives?

  • Biking: Bicycles do not release harmful gases, and they also cost less to own or rent. Biking regularly is also good for the heart and an instant mood booster. Check out your college’s bike rental or bike-sharing programs for low-cost options.
  • Walking: It’s free and healthy. While walking, you can listen to a podcast, go over your presentation, or simply clear your head. Still, be safe at all times. Have a walking buddy, walk in well-lit areas, and keep your phone ready for emergencies.

Say no to plastic packaging when buying daily essentials or groceries.

Per an infographic from WWF Australia, a plastic bag can take 20 years, a plastic straw 200 years, and a plastic toothbrush 400 years to decompose, if at all.

Plastic represented 13.2 percent of the total municipal solid waste generated in 2017, according to the EPA. That translated to 35.4 million tons of plastic products, which primarily came from containers and packaging. However, only 8.4 percent or 3 million tons were recycled.

So, bring a reusable shopping bag to carry your eggs, milk, produce, and grocery items. You avoid any fees and do your part in protecting the oceans.

States have enacted laws to ban single-use plastics or impose fees on using plastic bags. However, some have temporarily banned the use of reusable shopping bags to allay fears of COVID-19 transmission.

Hold on to your bags for now, and make sure they are germ-free and hygienic (go for washable bags) for use next time.

Unplug devices after using them and learn about power management.

Always unplug electrical devices or appliances when you are through with them. Whether they’ve been turned off or are on standby mode, devices continue to consume energy, called phantom electricity, for as long as they are plugged in.

Make unplugging a habit for safety and to save a bit of money. As an alternative to unplugging/replugging, use a smart power strip to switch off before heading out.

Other best practices to power up or down electronics include:

Check your laptop’s energy-saving settings. The eco-friendly mode is designed to conserve the battery and delay the need to recharge it.

Screensavers don’t save energy. It’s better to leave the screen on, put the PC on sleep mode, or switch it off when you’re done.

Turn off your computer every day. Don’t worry about harming or damaging its hardware because a modern computer can handle 40,000 on-off cycles.

Bring your cup, cutlery, and other reusable items.

It can take 450 years to break down plastic bottles, but only a few seconds to pack a refillable water bottle. An insulated water bottle is a great option for hot or cold beverages.

You can also bring a reusable cup or mug to your favorite coffee shop in or outside the campus to save water and earn discounts.

Pack your lunch or at least bring reusable utensils when eating outside. Bringing your own cutlery (BYOC) means one less set of disposable spoons, forks, and knives. Some of these portable utensil sets have eco-friendly straws, too.

Reusable food and beverage containers only take a good wash. To conserve water, remove any food scraps first and wash the dishes in batches.

In light of the pandemic, some cafes have rolled back their “bring-a-cup” program, and other restaurants have opted for disposable food-service items.

Recycle, recycle, recycle.

Per the EPA 2017 national statistics, Americans recorded a recycling and composting rate of 35.2 percent. If broken down into a per-person-per-day basis, the rate is equivalent to 1.58 pounds.

Here’s an actionable plan to boost recycling in a personal capacity:

  • Research your school’s recycling programs for food, textbooks, and computers, among much more.
  • Check out your state’s e-waste recycling programs. Consumer electronic products need to be disposed of safely and properly because they can contain hazardous materials. Your state probably has e-waste legislation to back the collection and management of computers, printers, television sets, and other electronic devices.
  • Recycle plastic products right. If you can’t reuse the items, put them in the recycle bin based on the resin identification code:
Recycling NumberAbbreviation (Example)Recyclable
1 PETE or PET (Water bottles) Yes
2 HDPE (Trash bags) Yes
3 PVC (Shoes) Yes, but confirm with the recycler
4 LDPE (Plastic bags) Yes, but confirm with the recycler
5 PP (Plastic diapers) No
6 PS (Styrofoam) No
7 Other Plastics No

Be a smart buyer and consider second-hand goods.

For a fraction of the brand-new price, you can secure college essentials without breaking the bank.

  • Go thrift shopping for clothes and furnishings for your room. Did you know that of the 16.9 million tons of textiles, including discharged clothing generated in 2017, only 15.2 percent (2.6 million tons) was recycled? So, aside from curbing waste, you can get quality finds at low prices.
  • Save on textbook money by buying used books or renting them. Don’t miss out on the libraries near you, either. They may have the books you need, as well as other perks, like newspaper subscriptions, ebooks, and DVD rentals.
  • Buy a preowned laptop or desktop computer. It’s good for the environment given the challenge of electronic waste disposal. With a refurbished unit, you save dollars while still keen on performance and efficiency. You can also look into refurbished monitors, tablets, and other gadgets you need for school.

Eat healthily and sustainably.

Does your school have Meatless Monday? It’s a campaign which aims to reduce meat consumption for the welfare of animals and the health of the planet and its people.

A day or two of the week is fine for meatless meals. A balanced meal of nuts, legumes, fruits, and vegetables nourishes the body and keeps diseases at bay. The decision is also cost-effective with the rising cost of meat products.

You can also cook your meals to hand-pick the ingredients and control portions to avoid waste. Source your products directly from farmers’ markets and community gardens.

An additional step toward sustainability would be to consider growing your own food. Check out your campus garden for a plot to grow vegetables.

Donate and give back to the community.

Donating extra or unwanted material possessions reduces clutter and extends their useful lives.

Where can you donate your items? Many charitable organizations accept clothes, furniture pieces, appliances, gift cards, books, cellphones, accessories, sneakers, household items, and artwork.

For effective giving:

  • Check with the Better Business Bureau for accredited charities in your area.
  • Clean the items first before putting them in donation boxes.
  • Clarify drop-off or pick-up options, especially for heavy or large items.

If you have time to spare, volunteer at the local shelter. Check your state’s college students volunteer rate.

Go digital from your mail to your notes.

According to the EPA, paper and paperboard accounted for 66 percent of the total MSW recycled in 2017. However, you can do even more to cut back on paper usage:

  • Unsolicited advertisements in your mailbox are not only annoying but also wasteful. Put a stop to unnecessary mail by opting out permanently. You can also decide which marketing mail to receive by registering with (note: it has a processing fee).
  • For mail that matters, like your phone bill or credit card statements, switch to paperless billing. Just make sure you can keep track of them online.
  • Take notes through your laptop or tablet. Organize them, along with PowerPoint presentations and hand-outs in a folder, or take pictures of the notes on the blackboard and sort them out through an app.

Take advantage of discounts and promos for going green.

Check out your school, local government, and establishments’ programs that let you earn discounts, points, or rewards when joining their sustainability efforts.

Incentives have helped shape consumer behavior. For example, most of the students surveyed in this thesis chose a store discount for each reusable bag to lessen the use of plastic bags.

More awesome rewards may come your way as a green consumer or employee. However, these promos are only good while they last, and you need to carry on with your conscious actions to achieve a long-term effect.

Enroll in environmental courses or electives.

Are you keen on understanding the environment, especially the issues and challenges that confront it? Take up environmental science, ecology, or related courses.

Recycling is one of the most misunderstood concepts with people wondering about coffee cups, pizza boxes, and food containers being recyclable or not.

Climate change also has its fair share of misconceptions and naysayers. It’s worthwhile to spend time understanding theories that have a practical impact on the world.

Environmental science is broad, and not all concepts can be covered in a single course. You can supplement your learning with online courses covering sustainable development and other facets of the discipline.

Participate in campus campaigns and initiatives for the environment.

Students organized the inaugural Earth Day in 1970. As a college student, you can continue the legacy of the event by raising awareness to continue to protect the Earth.

Aside from the annual Earth Day celebration, channel your activism into making a difference every day through school campaigns that promote environment-friendly choices.

You can also get involved in your school’s environmental club to educate the community, raise money for solar panel projects and the like, and organize donation or recycling drives, among other activities.

Be informed and empowered as a student and a global citizen.

You have reached the end of this guide, but that doesn’t mean your work is over. Keep yourself open to new ideas, ways, or perspectives to help you achieve a sustainable lifestyle in college and beyond.


CDC EPA NCES NCSL Recycle Across America Wast Dive
  • Considerations for Restaurants and Bars. (2020, June 30). Retrieved from
  • National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling. (2020, March 13). Retrieved from
  • Office of Transportation and Air Quality. (2018). Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle [Fact sheet]. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Rosengren, C. (2019, November 15). How recycling has changed in all 50 states. Retrieved from
  • Schultz, J., Tyrell, K. (2020, January 1). State Plastic and Paper Bag Legislation. Retrieved from
  • Snyder, T.D., de Brey, C., and Dillow, S.A. (2019). Digest of Education Statistics 2017 (NCES 2018-070). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC
  • TIPS TO REDUCE WASTE AND RECYCLE RIGHT. (n.d.). Retrieved from


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