A Guide To Reducing Your Waste In College

Reuse boxes for move in.

Rather than buying big plastic tubs, or new cardboard boxes for moving into your dorm or temporary living situation in college, think ahead by asking a local grocery store to save some large cardboard boxes for you to move in with, or see if they have any on hand from recent shipments. You get free boxes (woohoo!) and the cardboard gets a second life.

Seal it up with paper tape.

Use paper tape to seal them up for your move-in journey so that afterwards they’ll be 100% recyclable in paper recycling.

Skip the bubble wrap.

Wrap breakable items in clothes, towels and bedding that you’re already bringing along with you.

Equip your dorm sustainably.

Before you run out to Target or hop on to Amazon to buy a ton of brand new items for your dorm room or apartment, it’s important to realize that the space you’re in is temporary. Most students won’t live in their dorm room for more than a year. You don’t want to end up with a bunch of non-recyclable items or unnecessary decor or furniture when the school year wraps that you either have to A) figure out how to responsibly get rid of or B) send to landfill.

Get secondhand items wherever you can.

Beyond college, most people upgrade to a regular-sized fridge. Ask around to older friends at your school if they know anyone who has a mini fridge, furniture, or appliances they no longer need or want.

Check out local thrift stores for small furniture items, mirrors, lamps, storage baskets etc. You can even give things a fresh coat of paint or troll Pinterest for some amazing up-cycling ideas.

Opt for natural materials over plastics.

When choosing between two items – say a plastic storage basket or one made from metal – opt for the non-plastic item. Even if you end up recycling the item at the end of the school year, each time plastic is recycled, it’s downgraded, and eventually gets to be a type of plastic that is non-recyclable. 

Ask yourself, “how much use will I really get out of this?”

It’s easy to run through the aisles of Target and grab every picture frame, trinket box and votive holder because they’re cute. But don’t just grab items you won’t want to take with you after the school year ends.

Set yourself up for recycling success.

Recycling is so much easier if you have a dedicated bin or container in your room for recyclable items rather than having to walk an empty can down the hall or outside every time you want to recycle. Grab a bin from a secondhand or thrift store, or reuse a cardboard box you used when you moved in, and collect your recyclables in batches.

Have a set of real dishes on hand.

Avoid using paper plates and disposable kitchenware, and keep a real plate, bowl, cup and set of utensils in your dorm. You can get dishes for super cheap at thrift stores. Just wash in the bathroom sink when they get dirty.

Stock up on bulk snacks, or food in recyclable containers.

Cheap, late night food can be a lifesaver during 3 am study sessions. If you’re looking to keep your dorm or apartment stocked with snacks and quick meals, skip the styrofoam cup of noodles and plastic bags of chips for options like soup in aluminum cans, pickles in a glass jar, fresh loose fruit like bananas and apples, snacks from the bulk section of your local grocery like nuts, dried fruit or candy in reusable produce bags or bread from the bakery instead of pre-sliced bread that comes in plastic with peanut butter from a glass jar.

Revamp your shower caddy.

Make everyone on your dorm floor envious of your plastic-free shower caddy. Swap out these common plastic or non-recyclable items for their sustainable alternative:

Plastic bottle of shampooPlastic-free shampoo bar

Non-recyclable tube or bottle of face wash Tea tree and charcoal facial bar soap

Synthetic loofahNatural bath sponge

Plastic razor – Bamboo or All-metal stainless steel razor

Plastic bottle of body washRefillable body wash

Keep your space clean sustainably.

Go paper towel-less and stock up on DIY cleaning rags. You can make your own rags by ripping up old beach or bath towels or t-shirts. Upcycle a Windex bottle or get yourself an empty glass spray bottle, and make your own all-purpose natural cleaning spray to fill it with. The ingredients to make your own cleaner overtime will actually also save you money. That’s something all broke college students can get on board with.

BYOC (bring your own cup) to parties.

Plastic red solo cups have become synonymous with college parties. But you’re not the average college student, right?!

Avoid ending up with unwanted plastic on your hands, and bring along your own cup, mug or mason jar to sip your drink of choice out of at parties. It’s also a great way to not mix your drink up with anyone else’s.

Build a waste-free toolkit.

Stock your backpack or school bag with a “waste-free toolkit” so you’ll be ready to avoid any potential trash that might come your way. Here are some great things to always keep on you:

A reusable string bag: It’s super compact and light to keep in your bag, but can also expand like crazy to hold up to 40 lbs. It’s perfect for last-minute grocery trips or even lugging your dirty clothes to the laundry room.

Reusable water bottle + filter combo: Refilling a reusable bottle at a water fountain or in the sink is a no-brainer way to never use a single-use plastic water bottle again. If the tap water at your school isn’t great, keep a filter in your bottle to clean any impurities out of your water.

Reusable coffee cup: For most college students, coffee is a lifeline. Keep a reusable cup on you to avoid single-use cups. Some cafes even give discounts for bringing your own cup!

To-go cutlery: Say no to non-recyclable plastic forks, knives and spoons and keep a portable set of utensils on you.

Cloth napkin: Because spills and messes happen, keep a cloth napkin or rag with you to wipe up unexpected messes, or to even blow your nose with.

Reusable straw: Plastic straws are non-recyclable, but sometimes you just want to sip your iced coffee or smoothie through one. Keep a reusable straw with you so you’re always prepared!

To-go container: For food hall leftovers, or picking up some takeout, keep an empty airtight container with you to avoid using single-use takeout containers. We love these, but a basic mason jar works too.

Learn to say “no” to freebies.

Brands want to capture the attention and loyalty of college students, so they’ll often have brand reps on campus that pass out lots of free goodies from their companies. When you’re a broke college student, you’re pretty much conditioned to take anything that someone tells you is free, but before you reach for that Geico Insurance trucker hat, ask yourself “do I actually want this, or am I taking it because it’s free?”

Make this your least trashy school year yet! What other college situations are you looking for waste-free solutions for?