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5 Sustainability Tips for College Students

The greatest stride toward sustainability in the fight against climate change has overwhelmingly come from younger generations. A majority of adults between the ages of 18-34 say they are worried about global warming, compared to less than half of older people. College students in particular participate the most in climate change activism and promote social action against it. 50% of students say they want their school to reduce plastic waste by eliminating single-use plastics like plates, straws, and cups.


College campuses produce an immense amount of waste due to the nature of densely populated dorms, dining halls, and sporting events. A report found in 1992 that college campuses generated 3.6 million tons of waste. That was twenty-eight years ago when only 14.5 million students were enrolled in colleges. Now that number is up by 5 million, which all things being equal, means they now generate 4.7 million tons of waste.


Many college campuses have begun not only promoting sustainability and climate change in their academic programs and degree plans, but also have transitioned toward operating in an eco-friendly, sustainable manner. The University of Virginia, for example, set a goal in 2013 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2025, and dozens of universities have followed suit. Vanderbilt University estimated that their campus produces enough plastic in a year to cover their football field 1.5 times, and thus have banned single-use plastic bottles.


If you’re a college student, and are looking to do your part for the environment and take eco-friendly steps, here are our top 5 sustainability tips:


  1. Use Sustainable Tableware

Thousands of college students use disposable plates on a regular basis. It’s understandable, college students need affordable, convenient tableware for their busy schedules. Especially when you live with roommates, your dorm room alone could go through hundreds of plastic, paper, or styrofoam plates every month. That adds up when you take into account that to make 600 paper plates, it takes 450 gallons of water. Just one plastic or styrofoam plate could take 600-900 years to decompose because of the oil that is used to make them. Now multiply that by every plate you and your roommates use in college, then multiply that by every student in every college in America. That’s a catastrophe for our landfills and the environment. As a matter of fact, every single piece of plastic ever made that’s been sent to landfills, still exists.


At every point of plastic’s life cycle, from the moment it’s produced to the moment it’s dumped in a landfill, it’s contributing to climate change. It pollutes our air and water, as well as poses severe health risks to wildlife. Researchers are also discovering just how harmful plastic is to humans, with risks of kidney stones, breast cancer, reproductive damage, and hormonal imbalances thanks to the toxic chemicals that are released when heated. We are not helpless to the dangers of plastics, though. One way to combat the problem is to use eco-friendly, sustainable plates and tableware instead. There are a few options out there, but palm leaf plates are the most innovative and most friendly to the environment. They are 100% biodegradable, compostable, sustainable, and all-natural.


Palm leaf plates are the perfect alternative to single-use plastic or paper plates. They’re affordable and sold in bulk, all the more convenient for college students. Palm leaf tableware is made from fallen Areca Palm trees. They collect the leaves that have fallen on their own, so as to not contribute to timbering or deforestation. Then, the leaves are rinsed with water and turmeric to sanitize them, and left to air dry. Several of these disposable plates can be made from just one leaf, and they are formed using heated molds. Absolutely no chemicals are used during the process and very little energy is required to make them, minimizing their carbon footprint. Surprisingly they are very durable and beautiful as well and have a similar look to bamboo plates. Then after you’ve used a palm leaf plate, it will decompose on its own, or it can be added to a compost pile and will break down in as little as 6-8 weeks.


Many college campuses have begun taking #BreakFreeFromPlastic pledges to reduce the single-use disposable plastic problem. This pledge effectively bans all non-essential, non-compostable single-use disposable plastics like plates, utensils, straws, to-go containers, and more. This means that palm leaf plates, which are readily compostable, can and should be used on college campuses by students.



  1. Eat Less Meat

Livestock production produces 18% of all greenhouse gases globally. To put the amount of resources and energy that goes into beef production, Monday Campaigns says that producing ONE quarter pound-beef burger uses enough energy to power an iPhone for half a year. Producing that ONE quarter pound burger also uses 425 gallons of water. If you skip just one serving of beef every Monday for a year, it’ll save the equivalent of emissions from driving 348 miles.


Many college campuses have implemented “Meatless Mondays” or similar campaigns to get students to consume less meat. Cutting down on beef and dairy products helps reduce the emission of greenhouse gases that impact climate change. It also reduces the demand for limited resources like land, water, and energy.


Cutting back on red meat not only helps the environment, but it also helps your health. Red meat is linked to increased risks of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and certain cancers. A heavy red meat diet also leads to weight gain, sluggishness, and tiredness, all things that college students should avoid.


Instead, try substituting meat with plant-based foods like vegetables, beans, nuts, soy, etc. If you don’t want to give up the quarter pound burger, there are plenty of soy and plant-based patties that look and taste similar to meat. You’ll feel more energized, be more active, and more importantly it’ll help the environment, too.



  1. Thrift

Fast fashion is destroying the planet. Stores like H&M are popular with college students because they offer a wide variety of clothes at cheap prices. Nowadays, it’s even easier to order clothes online in bulk, for cheap. When fast fashion took off, we began buying more clothes, and throwing away more, than ever before. The average American discards 80 pounds of clothes every year.


The fashion industry emits 1.7 billion tons of CO2 every year, globally. To put that in perspective, that’s much more than the amount produced by international flights and shipping. 60% of fabric fibers are synthetic, meaning they were made from fossil fuels. These synthetic fibers release nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 310 times stronger than carbon dioxide. So when 85% of textile waste in the US is dumped in landfills, these fibers do not break down. There is no accountability for fast fashion company’s carbon emissions or labor standards.


Thrifting is an affordable, sustainable option that has become more popular lately, especially with college students. People are finding cool, vintage clothing that you wouldn’t find at a department store. Cheaper costs and a shift in attitude toward used clothing has helped buoy second-hand shops, and in doing so greatly helps the Earth. When you thrift clothes, less clothing is being sent to landfills, minimizing your carbon footprint. Reusing and recycling clothes reduces the demand for synthetic clothing, reduces pollution, wasted resources, and greenhouse gas emissions.



  1. Stop Driving

Transportation is a major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, releasing several million tons every year and accelerating climate change. As of 2016, transportation is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, and road transportation is the worst offender. It affects everything from air, land, and water quality, to our health and well-being.


The more cars that are on the road, the worse the effects of pollution are. Vehicle pollution causes damage to the environment and our health by releasing lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and other toxic pollutants. Major cities are dealing with the issue of smog, which is an over-accumulation of carbon monoxide, ozone, and volatile hydrocarbons. These toxins are directly linked to cancer, respiratory diseases, and neurological disorders.


The fewer cars that are on campus, the better it is for the environment, and on top of that, the more safe and accessible it is for everyone. College campuses are densely populated and often do not have enough parking for all their students. This discourages students from bringing cars to campus, and encourages them to instead rely on other modes of transport. Consider leaving your car at home, and using shuttles or a bike instead.


Using campus shuttles is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint, since it reduces the number of cars on the road. College campus shuttles have designated stops where students need them the most, whether that’s by grocery stores, malls, or bus stations. Students can also petition to get another stop added if enough people express interest. The more that students use shuttles, the less traffic and pollution is created.


The best way to reduce the disastrous effects of road transportation is to use more sustainable transportation, and the best option is biking. Biking is an affordable, convenient way to get around for campuses of any size. Instead of worrying about where to park your car, you can bike right up to your class and park it at one of the many bike racks. College towns have the highest rates of bicycling, and most campuses have adopted bikeshare programs, where you can borrow a bike whenever you need one. Biking not only decreases greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants, it’s also great for your health and well-being. It keeps you in shape, increases your energy levels, and lowers stress.



  1. Conserve Energy

Energy consumption is by far the greatest source of greenhouse gases in the world. More than 66% of greenhouse gas emissions are from burning fossil fuels to produce energy for heating, electricity, and transportation. This is why a collective shift toward clean energy like solar or wind is necessary to slow climate change.


College campuses burn through energy like crazy because lights, computers, and appliances are being used constantly, day and night. Additionally, a lot of campuses are old, and aren’t designed to be energy efficient. Half of all energy the US consumes is wasted, and colleges are no exception. Universities in the US use 17 cubic feet of natural gas per square foot, and 18.9 kWh of electricity. This amounts to well over $100,000 of energy for a 50,000 square foot building, half of which is wasted.


On a smaller scale, the more energy a college student uses, the higher tuition and cost of living becomes. Higher rates of electricity consumption means higher bills and worse, more greenhouse gas emissions. Small changes every day from college students can save energy, money, and more importantly save the environment. Many college students don’t have a choice of what appliances come in their dorms or how efficient they are, but there are other, simpler ways to conserve energy.


First, unplug anything you aren’t using. Electronic devices and appliances that slowly suck up energy are called energy vampires. Energy vampires can be anything from hair dryers to game consoles to coffee makers. Over the course of a year, they can suck up to 9kWh per year (equivalent to $100-200). So turn off the lights, unplug unused appliances, and shut down devices.


Another way to reduce your energy consumption as a college student is to reduce hot water usage. Water heaters are the second biggest user of electricity, and account for 18% of electricity costs. A lot of dorms and apartments might not have efficient water heaters, which means energy is being wasted every single time you open the faucet for hot water. Take cooler showers, wash clothes in cold water, and use hot water only when necessary.



Final Thoughts


For the first time ever, the world is seeing a mass movement toward sustainability and saving the Earth from climate change. As a college student you’ve probably got a full schedule between studying, going to class, working a part-time job, and finding time to have fun, too. Between that hectic schedule, though, there are always simple ways for you to use less energy, minimize greenhouse gas emissions, and slow climate change.


Colleges have started offering green housing, more public transportation, clean energy sources, recycling and composting programs, eco-friendly disposable plates and water bottle refilling stations. It’s left up to the students to continue to hold their campuses accountable, and do their part.

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