How To Live Sustainably While Saving Money in College

by Jalen

As miniscule of an issue as it may seem to toss that plastic coffee cup into the garbage instead of the recyclable bin on your way to class, it’s undeniable that our world is reeling under the weight of waste—transitioning towards a more Eco-concious future is no longer just an option. But what if we told you that embracing an sustainable, eco-friendly lifestyle doesn’t mean diving deeper into your pockets? On the contrary, it might just be the key to unlocking substantial savings.

This post will help you weave together the threads of a frugal lifestyle and environmentally conscious one. Soon, you’ll have a ton of actionable strategies that not only reduce your ecological footprint but also reduce the strain on your wallet. Discover how, with a little creativity and commitment, you can live your college life in both a green and cost-effective way!

Understanding a Zero Waste Lifestyle 

Essentially, “Zero Waste” is a type of philosophy that challenges us to rethink our current high-waste producing practices.

At the heart of this philosophy are three guiding principles: reduce, reuse, and recycle. 

Reducing is about trying to avoid buying things that end up just being thrown away. It means opting for reduced or refillable packaging and maybe skipping on some of your impulse purchases. This can also be done by signing up for paperless documentation with institutions like your bank or your healthcare provider.

Reusing can be done by buying multi-use items like reusable straws, cups or utensils. Donating unused clothes to those in need would be a great way to practice this too. Just try to avoid single-use items.

Recycling ensures that items are transformed, reborn into something entirely new. That empty water bottle in the corner of your room can be used as a pot for a small plant. Or that old tee that doesn’t quite fit as it used to could be repurposed for a DIY tote bag. The only limit is your own creativity!

Why It Matters

How you live in college will set your habits for the future. Limited space in dorm rooms, the unpredictability of communal living, and our culture of the “new and now” can make waste-free living seem tough. Even taking small steps towards living more sustainably has a big impact, and you might inspire others to want to do the same. Sustainable practices, like buying second-hand or sharing resources, can even help you save a considerable amount of money as well. 

Practical Zero-Waste Strategies for College Students

Admittedly, it’s pretty easy to say “just don’t use plastic”, but they are involved with so much of our daily lives already that it’s easy to underestimate just how much of them we use. The lid on your coffee, your water bottles, and even the plastic utensils you get from fast food places all add up. With just a bit of awareness and ingenuity, these alternatives can reduce the amount of single-use plastics in our lives.

Reusable Water Bottles and Coffee Cups

Investing in a good-quality, reusable water bottle can be both stylish and environmentally friendly. Not only are you keeping plastic out of the oceans, you’re also keeping plastic out of your drinking water, as the water in plastic bottles are known to contain microplastics! In addition, you no longer have to stock cases of water bottles in your room, freeing up some storage space. There are even some cool reusable coffee cups on the market right now. They’re compact, so they won’t hog space in your bag, and most coffee shops give you a discount for bringing your own cup.

Utensil Sets

Here’s something that sounds fancy but is super practical: a portable utensil set. Imagine never having to use those flimsy plastic forks and spoons again! Keep a set in your bag, and you’re prepared for any meal, anywhere. These are perfect for those who order or eat out a lot.

Shop with Cloth Bags

Those thin plastic bags they give out at stores that rip easily and likely need to be double bagged aren’t doing the environment any favors. A good alternative to this would be cloth shopping bags. Cloth shopping bags are sturdy, stylish, and can carry way more than you think. They’re also very breathable and can keep your produce fresher. The only downside is that you need to remember to bring them to the store. 

Meal Planning and Sustainable Eating

If you’re the type of person who goes to the grocery store and buys food or produce with vague plans on how and when it’ll be cooked, then you’ve most likely also opened your fridge to some fuzzy friends forming on your stuff when you forget to use them. One way of combating this food waste can be done through meal prepping, where you plan, buy, cook, and store your food in advance. Doing this has saved me hundreds of dollars each quarter. 

Sustainable Dorm and Campus Life

Living in dorms is all about making the most of a small space, and believe it or not, this micro-lifestyle presents a fantastic opportunity to get eco-friendly. Just because your dorm room might be compact doesn’t mean its environmental impact has to be big!

Energy-Efficient Appliances

While you might be tempted to snag the cheapest mini-fridge or desk lamp, it’s worth considering energy-efficient options. These would cut down on electricity usage and reduce your energy bills if you’re paying for that separately. Even if you’re not footing the electricity bill directly, using less energy helps the overall campus reduce its carbon footprint. Plus, energy-efficient appliances tend to last longer, which means fewer trips to replace them mid-semester.

Utilizing Recycling and Composting Centers

Recycling and composting is a great way of reducing the amount of waste you produce. Your university likely has a few facilities aimed at waste reduction, and at the very least an on-campus recycling station. If your campus doesn’t have one in place yet, you can take the initiative by rallying some friends, having a chat with your student council, and working towards setting up a program. 

Composting can be very simple as well. Whether you have a communal kitchen or just a coffee maker in your dorm, those food scraps and coffee grounds can be turned into nutrient-rich compost. Most campuses have communal composting sites, but if yours doesn’t, a small compost bin doesn’t take up much space and can be a small garden’s best friend if you have a green thumb. 

Accessing Campus Resources

Outside of just recycling and composting centers, there’s a wealth of information and experiences available to you, too. Check and see if your university has information about green initiatives, seminars, workshops, or any eco-friendly events. Whether it’s Earth Day celebrations, sustainability fairs, or lectures by environmental experts, these are prime opportunities to learn and get inspired. Plus, it’s a great way to connect with fellow students who share your passion for the planet.

DIY and Thrifty living for a Zero-Waste Lifestyle

Another large source of waste that we cause without necessarily realizing it comes from the plastic in the bottles of all the cleaning and personal care products at your local store. But what if I told you that a more sustainable, budget-friendly, and satisfying alternative lies right within the confines of your kitchen or dorm? Making your own cleaning and personal care products would be a viable way to not only save some money, but also to clean and eliminate most types of dirt or grime you would typically encounter in your living space. 

How to make eco-friendly cleaning solutions

A simple combo of ¼ cup of white vinegar, 2 ½ cups of water, and a ½ teaspoon of dish soap is fantastic for cleaning windows, glass surfaces, or functioning as a general disinfectant. While the smell of vinegar is quite pungent, the smell will dissipate once it’s dry. However, you can also choose to add a few drops of your favorite essential oil—like lavender or lemon— to give it a more pleasant smell. Baking soda and water is another powerful duo that when mixed into a paste, can tackle stubborn stains, clean ovens, and even help unclog drains. These basic kitchen ingredients are not only cheap and effective but also biodegradable, so that way you’re not sending harmful chemicals down the drain. 

DIY toiletries & personal care

If you’d like to try making your own toothpaste you could use coconut oil, baking soda, and a few drops of peppermint essential oil. This mixture provides a gentle cleanse and the peppermint gives that fresh feeling. Although, In this instance I think going commercial is fine as commercial toothpaste will have fluoride in it unlike homemade solutions, which is essential for dental health. If you can, try to buy fluoride containing toothpaste that uses sustainable packaging. These can be from brands like The Good Company, Unpaste, and  

As for a body scrub, a combo of castile soap with honey and coconut oil does wonders, and you could also add in some drops of essential oils for your favorite aroma. Unlike commercial toothpaste, most commercial body washes contain ingredients that would be potentially more harmful to you than would be in a homemade recipe. The only downside to homemade solutions would be that they don’t last as long, but we would recommend giving this one a try. 

Making your own cleaning and personal care products might seem pretty “woo woo”, but it can be an exciting experiment in sustainability, self-reliance, and savings. The next time you run out of your store-bought cleaner or face scrub, maybe try making your own!

Thrift Shopping and Secondhand Finds

If you haven’t been to one already, thrift stores are great for finding hidden gems and vintage clothing, and very often at extremely reduced prices. Additionally, when you buy second hand, you’re actively reducing the demand for new products, which means fewer resources used, less waste, and a decrease in the environmental damages linked to production processes. Whether it’s clothes, furniture, or other essentials, opting for used over new items means you’re choosing to extend the life of these products and keep them out of landfills a bit longer. Plus, there’s that unique style quotient. Finding that retro jacket or a classic mid-century desk can not only elevate your style, it gives you a unique story to tell.

How to find local thrift stores

If you’re trying to find local thrift stores, Google Maps or Yelp would be your best bet. If you’re at a large university that has a college town, chances are that there are 1-2 thrift shops around. It should be somewhat easy to find good deals near your campus as people tend to donate a lot of stuff right before they graduate.

The art of thrifting

The key to being a good thrift shopper is to always inspect items thoroughly. Check the seams, buttons, and look for any stains when you’re buying clothing. If you have a keen eye for fashion, keep an eye out for high-quality vintage brands or even modern brands with low wear and tear. If you’re buying furniture or electronics, make sure everything is sturdy, functional, and has all its necessary parts. Over time, you’ll develop an eye for finding quality items 

Buying sustainable clothes doesn’t have to mean sacrificing style or comfort. The next time you’re thinking of a wardrobe update or a dorm room revamp, maybe hit up your local thrift store before heading to the mall. Who knows, you might just become the most stylish person on campus!

Reselling and Trading Your Clothes 

Ever wondered what to do with those jeans that don’t quite fit anymore? Before you consider chucking them, consider either trading it with a willing friend or reselling it online using clothing and used item exchange apps. These platforms cater specifically to selling pre-owned goods. Websites and apps like Poshmark, Mercari, or Grailed (for those into high fashion) or even local groups on social media are good places to look. Reselling your clothes can be a great way to declutter and recoup some of your cash. 

If you prefer an in-person environment, consider traditional garage sales or joining college swap-meets. This way lets you refresh your wardrobe or gadget collection for pennies on the dollar without adding to the production demand.

Either by upcycling, reselling, or trading your unwanted items and clothes, you’re not only making smart financial moves but also contributing to a more sustainable future by reducing waste and extending the life cycle of your items. Next time you feel the itch for something new or want to declutter, remember there’s an eco-friendly and potentially lucrative path waiting for you!

How to Get Involved

If you’re looking to gain more in-person experience about sustainable living practices, most colleges already have some form of sustainability-focused groups. From eco-living clubs to organizations centered around specific causes like clean energy or zero waste, there should be something for you. These types of groups are not only good for expanding your knowledge and potential resources, but you also build a community. You might find a lot of value in the motivation that comes from working with others passionate about the same cause.  

But what if your specific sustainability interest isn’t represented on campus? Well, you can always start your own group! Gather a few like-minded friends, brainstorm, and pitch your idea. Whether it’s a club that focuses on sustainable fashion or one that promotes plant-based diets, the sky’s the limit. Strong movements often begin with small, grassroots efforts.

You can also take action by petitioning your school to start a community garden, advocate for constructing composting facilities, or even lobby for solar panels on campus buildings. Joining hands with facilities management, faculty, or the student government can make these visions a reality. 

Overcoming Challenges and Staying Motivated

Being completely honest, maintaining a sustainable zero waste lifestyle requires a ton of effort. Likely you will have thoughts of “Why spend time cooking when there’s fast food?”  or “Why wash a container when I can use a disposable one?”. But try to think about it this way, would you rather make the effort now to reduce the amount of non recyclable waste you contribute rather than having to deal with the environmental impact later on in your life? 

In Conclusion

Embracing sustainability in college is more than just a trend—it’s a transformative journey that can benefit both our planet and our pockets. By integrating zero-waste practices, not only can you reduce your ecological footprint, but you can make smarter decisions that would lighten your financial load. Every step, no matter how small, can create ripples of positive change, making our world a little greener and our futures a bit brighter.

As you embark on this path of sustainability and frugality, let’s keep the conversation going. Subscribe to the Frugal Student Newsletter and arm yourself with invaluable tips and insights on making eco-friendly and budget-conscious choices throughout your college years and beyond!

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