Zero-Waste Living on a Student Budget


Living a zero-waste lifestyle can seem daunting, especially for students on a tight budget. But with some creativity and commitment, it is possible to dramatically reduce waste – saving money and the planet – even as a busy, broke college student. To help students learn sustainable habits, the campus environmental club has partnered with the essay service at Academized to hold a zero-waste essay writing contest. Here are practical tips and strategies for low-cost, zero-waste living on campus.

Reduce Food Waste

Food waste is a huge issue, with up to 40% of food in the United States going uneaten. For students, dining halls and meal plans contribute to the problem. Here are some ways to cut food waste on campus:

  • Take only as much food as you’ll eat at buffet-style dining halls. Get small portions and go back for seconds if still hungry.
  • When dining halls serve pre-plated meals, opt for smaller portions if available or share with a friend.
  • Store and eat leftovers from dining halls instead of tossing them. Keep reusable containers in your backpack or dorm to carry away uneaten portions.
  • Freeze extra food from dining halls to prevent spoilage. Soups, baked goods, breads all freeze well for later. Invest in some durable containers and bags to keep items fresh.
  • Plan homemade meals to use up ingredients before they spoil. Casseroles, stir fries, omelets are great ways to creatively use up bits and pieces in your fridge.
  • Compost food scraps if possible. Many campuses now have compost bins in dining halls and centralized compost programs. If yours doesn’t, consider petitioning for one.
  • Grow your own herbs and greens if possible. Windowsill herb gardens or indoor vegetable systems let you use ultra-fresh ingredients.

Meal prepping is another great strategy to reduce waste. Take a couple hours on weekends to cook rice, grains, proteins, sauces and more in bulk to assemble quick meals during your busy week. Cooked foods keep several days in the fridge or can be frozen. Prepping your own snacks like granola bars, trail mix and roasted chickpeas saves packaging waste too.

With some habit changes, students can cut their weekly food waste dramatically. This saves not only rubbish headed to landfills but also money that would be spent on uneaten food.

Use Reusables

Disposable cups, bags, boxes and bottles are so convenient but produce incredible waste. Using reusables is an easy switch that greatly reduces trash.

A light canvas or cloth bag packs down small to fit easily in a backpack to bring to dining halls, campus eateries and the grocery store. Keep reusable containers, mugs, utensils and straws in your dorm room or backpack at all times. Look for compact, collapsible options that take up less space. Carry a reusable water bottle and fill it at drinking fountains instead of buying endless disposable plastic bottles.

Look for discounts on durable, long-lasting reusables at thrift stores and reuse centers. Many campuses have “free stores” where students exchange still-usable items like clothes, furniture, household goods and more. See what reusable treasures you can find there. After reading an insightful Academized review about their commitment to environmental practices, I decided to order my custom essays from their paper writing service.

For grabbing food on the go, keep a reusable spork or chopsticks, cloth napkin and container with you. Takeout containers are a huge source of waste. If you forget reusables, ask eateries to skip the plasticware and extra napkins.

Rethink Beverages

Bottled and canned drinks generate lots of avoidable waste. Here are zero-waste beverage options:

  • Choose tap water instead of buying bottled water. Use a reusable bottle. Filter water if concerned about taste or quality.
  • Make coffee and tea in your dorm with a small coffee maker and electric kettle. Use reusable mugs instead of disposable cups.
  • Buy milk, juice and other drinks in returnable glass bottles instead of cartons and plastic jugs when possible. Look for local milk and cream delivery services.
  • Make simple syrups to flavor water instead of buying flavored waters and sodas. Try infusing water with fruits, herbs and vegetables.
  • Brew homemade cold brew coffee, tea, lemonade and other drinks in bulk and store in glass jars in the fridge.
  • Consider buying reusable bags of loose leaf tea instead of boxes of tea bags. The bags themselves generate waste.
  • Enjoy tap water when eating out instead of bottled drinks. With a reusable bottle in tow, you’ll always have water available.

Kick the bottled beverage habit and you’ll massively reduce plastic, aluminum, and glass waste – not to mention saving a ton of money. With a little planning, you can quench your thirst sustainably.

Use Alternative Personal Care Options

Toothpaste tubes, soap bottles, disposable razors and other personal items create lots of plastic waste. Try these alternatives:

  • Switch to shampoo and soap bars with less packaging than bottles. Look for unpackaged bulk options.
  • Use a safety razor instead of disposable razors. Razor heads are replaceable while reducing plastic waste.
  • Opt for bamboo toothbrushes instead of plastic ones. Toothpaste tablets or powder are zero-waste alternatives to tube toothpaste.
  • Purchase shea butter, coconut oil and other toiletries unpackaged from bulk bins. Transfer to reusable containers.
  • Swap single-use cotton pads and balls for reusable, washable varieties. Washcloths work too.
  • Look for toilet paper, tissues and paper towels made of recycled paper or that come in compostable wrapping.
  • For feminine hygiene, try reusable menstrual cups and pads instead of disposable tampons and pads. Menstrual underwear is another waste-free option.
  • Go shampoo-free by brushing washable cornstarch into your hair to absorb oil. Rinse it out easily with water.
  • Switch to bar soaps, shampoos and cleansers instead of bottles. Larger bars last longer than bottles too.

With a mix of habit changes and swapping disposable products for reusable, you can easily reduce your personal care waste. There are affordable options for just about every toiletry.

Choose Smarter Cleaning Supplies

Conventional cleaning products often contain harsh chemicals in disposable bottles and spray cans. Here are more eco-friendly options:

  • Make all-purpose cleaner at home with a few simple, safe ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, lemon and Castile soap. Buy in bulk to reduce packaging.
  • Look for dish and laundry soaps, detergents and other cleaners sold in bulk dispensers and refillable containers.
  • Wash dishes, surfaces and clothing with plain water when you can. Hot water and elbow grease go a long way.
  • Opt for reusable rags, sponges and mop heads instead of paper towels and disposable cleaning wipes. Cut up old clothes and towels for rags.
  • Buy wood cleaner made from plant oils and waxes instead of aerosol sprays. Look for cleaners with minimal, recyclable packaging.
  • For surface cleaners, fill a labeled reusable spray bottle with vinegar, water and essential oils. No need for brand-name spray cleaners.
  • Use a washable silicone scrub brush instead of disposable sponges and scrub pads.

Making your own cleaning products is often cheaper than buying conventional cleaners too. And reducing chemical cleaners is healthier for you and the planet.

Shop Secondhand First

New clothes, furniture and other goods require immense resources to produce and ship, generating mountains of waste. Buying used saves money and the planet.

Check out thrift stores near campus for clothes, shoes, accessories, kitchenware, linens, electronics and more. Vintage and consignment shops offer unique finds.

Look on websites and apps like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, eBay and Nextdoor for free or cheap secondhand goods being given away or sold locally.

Host clothing swaps with friends where everyone brings lightly used items to exchange. See if your campus has a reusable office supply exchange program or a sharing library for household tools and appliances.

Shopping at garage sales and flea markets can yield very cheap secondhand finds. Bring cash and be ready to negotiate deals.

Buying secondhand reduces demand for new products and their associated waste. Extending usable goods’ lives is the epitome of zero-waste. And students love saving money on quality items!

Be Mindful of Electricity Use

While not physically “waste,” excessive energy use depletes natural resources and impacts the environment. Reduce electricity waste by:

  • Using natural light during the day instead of overhead lights. Open blinds and curtains.
  • Turning off lights, electronics, appliances when not in use. Never leave devices in “sleep” mode, which uses energy.
  • Unplugging chargers and equipment when not in use. They use energy even when idle.
  • Using fans and portable heaters sparingly. Wear layers to stay comfortable before blasting the heat.
  • Choosing LED bulbs that use far less energy than incandescent varieties.
  • Opening windows at night instead of running air conditioning during cooler months. Use a fan to keep air circulating.
  • Turning off radiators and heat in unused rooms. Close vents in unused rooms.
  • Lowering water heater temperature to use less energy for hot water.
  • Using the stairs whenever possible, instead of elevators or escalators.

With everyone doing their small part to conserve electricity, the campus’s overall energy use and emissions drop significantly.

Reuse and Repurpose Everything

Get creative about reusing items and repurposing them for new uses instead of tossing them.

Save and wash plastic yogurt cups, cottage cheese tubs and glass jars. Use them for food storage or drinking glasses. Eclectic dishware makes dining more fun!

Use scrap paper for DIY notepads. Bind with staples, ribbon or a hole punch and rings. Decorative duct tape makes an attractive cover.

Turn empty cereal boxes, cracker tins, tissue boxes and more into organization containers for dorm rooms. Wrap them in pretty paper for a finished look.

Make one-of-a-kind placemats from scrap fabric, old maps, photos, sheet music or pages from discarded books. Get crafty with mod podge, string, and other embellishments.

Turn old socks, t-shirts and sweaters into cleaning and dusting rags. Cut up worn-out towels for natural rug and floor cleaning cloths.

Breath life into worn clothes by tie-dying, embroidering, adding patches or applique designs. Host a clothing mending night with friends to fix everything from missing buttons to ripped seams.

Upcycling discarded items into new creations takes creativity and vision but reduces waste. Display your repurposed art around your dorm room.

Recycle Absolutely Everything Possible

If reusing or repurposing something isn’t feasible, be meticulous about recycling whatever you can.

  • Take advantage of campus-wide recycling programs. Know what can and cannot be recycled.
  • Seek out terrestrial recycling for hard-to-recycle items like plastic bags, Styrofoam and electronics.
  • If your campus lacks recycling infrastructure, take the initiative to start programs. Petition the administration for change.
  • When buying goods, choose minimal and recyclable packaging. Avoid plastic-wrapped items when possible.
  • Recycle literally everything that is accepted – don’t put recyclables in the trash unless absolutely necessary.
  • Rinse and clean recyclables to ensure they can be properly processed. Recycling with residues can contaminate entire loads.
  • Learn your local recycling center’s rules. For example, some may require removing paper labels from cans, flattening cardboard or bundling paper.
  • Purchase recycled paper products when possible. The market for recycled goods makes recycling economically sustainable.

Recycling takes an extra minute but keeps valuable materials out of landfills. With everyone’s participation, the campus recycling rate rises – saving natural resources and money on waste fees.

The zero-waste lifestyle does require more forethought and effort than being wasteful. But the rewards – for your wallet, your campus and the planet – make it more than worthwhile. By adopting these practical strategies, students can achieve a low-cost, zero-waste college experience while inspiring wider change. With a little creativity and commitment, a zero-waste lifestyle is achievable for any busy student.

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