10 Ways To Reduce Trash Waste In College

I'm a full-time college student living that zero-waste lifestyle. Yes it's possible to get your education without making any trash! I've had my fair share of obstacles in this area of my life, and will certainly have more. It can be very challenging to live your values in a consumeristic society, and college is part of that. 

1. Bring your own reusable water bottle or coffee mug! Ok, I know I've suggested this so many times, and that's because I still see plastic littered all over the ground at my college campus! This suggestion is simple and easy: Just like I wouldn't leave the house without my keys, my phone, and my wallet, I don't leave without making sure I have my reusable water bottle with me at all times! Simply put, everything about plastic is toxic for for humans, animals, and the environment, and not buying plastic water bottles is 100% avoidable.

2. Boycott the vending machine. Vending machines are filled with either plastic packaged soft drinks, water, and other sugar-filled disasters, or full of processed snacks and candy. In addition, the companies manufacturing those products don't have ethical standards in place to support their workers or the environment. Ever heard of child labor in the chocolate industry? Yep, that's what our dollar supports when we choose to use vending machines. We are perpetuating poverty in some of the most vulnerable parts of the world. The alternative? Bring a snack from home in a reusable container. Candy wrappers and chip bags don't recycle.  

3. School supplies. I use eco-friendly and compostable pencils, hi-lighter pencils, and a re-fillable fountain pen. How many pens do you have in your house? I used to have tons--now I just have one. I take good care of it because it's the only one I've got and I want it to last me for life (The Life Without Plastic website sells plastic free school supplies. Link at bottom of this page). 

I use recycled paper to take notes in my classes. Writing things down helps me retain information, which is why I don't use a computer in class. There are also a few print shops here in town that let me go through their dumpsters! You wouldn't believe the amount of perfectly good paper that's being sent to recycling! What about textbooks? I rent mine because they are less expensive, and I don't want to add new books to the waste cycle. My college also has a webpage where students can re-sell their textbooks, which means getting one local instead of having it shipped in the mail. Some teachers are super awesome and make all their reading materials digital and free. A big thank you to the anthropology department at my college because they rock at this! 

4.Classes with required labs. One of the classes required for my major is a Bio class that has a lab. My friend took this class last semester, so I was able to ask her questions about how much trash was generated in the lab. She told me that for the first experiment, they were required to use an entire roll of paper towels EACH to test absorbency. This was obviously a huge red flag for me! It prompted an e-mail to my professor (one month in advance of the class) to open communication to see if it was possible for me to not make trash during the lab. For example, I requested if I could sit out on the paper towel experiment and watch instead. I asked if I could bring my own cloth towels from home to do the experiment, or do make-up labs for the ones that were trash producing. In short, she was not open to theses ideas AT ALL and assured me that her lab was sustainable, based on their water use to trash ratio. I don't agree with this. Furthermore she added that if I didn't make trash in the labs, she would fail me for incompletion. I understand, and it was heartbreaking. This was a hard position for me to be in, one that I did not foresee when I started going zero-waste. I now had to choose between my education or sticking to my values. I chose my values! Thankfully I did not need to have the class to transfer, but I will need it to complete my major. I now have to hope that someone else will teach the class next semester, someone who is more open to figuring out positive ways to reduce!  

Napkin, spork, and metal tiffin. 

Napkin, spork, and metal tiffin. 

5. Bring your own lunch! The cafeteria on campus is abysmal. It offers very unhealthy choices that are packaged in plastic. There's also a buffet, which is equally questionable, and they offer single use paper plates and plastic-ware. This trash is completely preventable! By having a small amount of forethought, it's simple to bring my own lunch in a reusable container and eat with my reusable utensils. What do I clean my face with after I smear food all over it? My own reusable napkin! I'm already bringing a backpack to school, so it's no stretch to add my lunch items to it. 

6. Carpool, take the bus, walk, or bike. Trying to find parking on my campus is a nightmare, because most everyone drives their own vehicles. Reducing carbon emissions when possible is kind to the planet! 

7. Don't use paper towels in the bathroom! Yes--always wash your hands, but instead of taking a paper towel (or 10, I've seen this a lot) use your cloth napkin or your pants! Seriously, what is the shame in drying your hands on your pants? No shame. If you think touching the door handle to leave a classroom, a bathroom, or anything else we put our hands on in a public place is cleaner than your own pants, then you're in for a real surprise about germs! Oh, and please shut the water off when you're soaping up your hands.

8. Reduce your carbon footprint at home: Unplug any idle chargers, use a non-electric toothbrush, reduce your shower time, turn off water when brushing teeth, watch movies in the dark and use fewer lights. Turn off the coffee maker after brewing, turn off the wireless router at night, wash larger laundry loads (which means doing laundry less often). Shut off your computer, reduce hair dryer use, avoid taking the elevator if you can climb stairs, compost, go paperless, buy less food and use up what you have first. These are just a few examples of how to reduce. 

9. Class parties: At the end of almost every college class I've ever taken the teacher calls for a potluck. The sentiment is nice, and yet it could be done in a more sustainable fashion. For example, most of the items brought are packaged in plastic and someone is often asked to provide single use disposable ware (cups, plates, utensils, napkins, etc....) I like to suggest that everyone bring their own eating ware and try to make something to share that is not packaged in plastic. People have been really into it! For most of us (myself included before I went zero waste), our trash habits are pretty unconscious. For example, every time I take my own reusable container to a restaurant to bring my leftovers home in, someone makes a comment like, "oh my god, you're a genius, that's such a good idea!" Thanks--and no, i'm not a genius, but sometimes the very simple things can be revolutionary! 

10. Simplicity does not mean easy. These suggestions may seem very difficult for some people to take on all at once, and that's ok! Even if we just become aware of our behavior around trash and focus on one thing at a time to change, like bringing our own reusable water bottles, that still has a long term positive impact! We share this planet, so it's only right that we each make some effort to heal the damage we have inflicted upon it. To do this, we have to examine our habits around trash, and cultivate new and healthy habits to replace the status quo. Living simply is not always easy, but that's what makes it something worth doing. If I want to learn how to play piano, it's unrealistic for me to expect to be really talented at it after one or two lessons, but with hard work, intention, mindfulness, and practice, I can become great at it! In this way, striving for simplicity is an achievable goal. It has allowed me to return to a way of being in the world that supports the health of people, animals, and this KIND PLANET!