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How to Incorporate Sustainability into your College Experience

Being in college and living on your own is not always easy, let alone cheap. It is important to realize what is necessary and what is not when it comes to your personal consumption. 

Evaluating those choices and making more eco-friendly decisions can be an easy behavior to integrate into your lifestyle. Here are some ways you can make your life more green while also being a college student on a tight budget.

Utilize Reusable Items

Something that I have found to be really helpful is investing in reusable products. They are often a little more expensive than the single-use ones, but last much longer. Personally, I prefer quality over quantity, and I have found some useful alternatives for products I use the most.

Cleaning products often lead to water pollution because thousands of the chemicals within them end up in our rivers and streams. There are a few companies that I have found that offer reusable cleaning bottles made from safe chemicals and reduce the waste  plastic will create. 

Blueland provides cleaning kits that include four reusable bottles. One for hand soap, glass cleaner, bathroom cleaner and multi-purpose cleaner. It also comes with tablets that dissolve in water to create a cleaning solution. It is completely zero waste and you can purchase tablet refills at a low cost instead of purchasing a brand new bottle. While they are just as effective as the name-brand products you may find in the store, they will last much longer and create less waste, ultimately saving you money in the long run. 

Something else that I have found to be very helpful is buying reusable paper towels and napkins. Instead of using regular, single-use paper towels for minor reasons, I can use the microfiber towels I bought and still be able to re-use it multiple times before it needs to be cleaned. When they do need to be cleaned, I throw them in the washing machine along with the rest of my clothes. You can find many options on Etsy for a low cost and in cute patterns. These have been proven to be effective and long lasting. Even though paper towels are not that expensive, it helps me reduce my own waste and save some valuable space in my small dorm room.

Skincare is an important part of my morning and nighttime routine and I used to use cotton rounds to clean my face until I discovered that there is a reusable option. Also available on  Etsy, these are incredibly soft and feel just like the normal cotton rounds that I would just throw away afterward. I know it may seem gross, but they work just like the reusable paper towel options. They come with a small mesh bag that you can place them in after use and throw into the wash along with the rest of your laundry. You can use them to clean your face or remove makeup and they will still come out clean and ready to use again. They are so easy to use and I definitely recommend it if you are also an avid cotton round user. 

Baggu sells items made from mostly recycled materials without compromising affordability and quality. This includes totes, pouches, cases, hats, home goods, masks and even collaborates with other brands. Everything that they make comes in a variety of fun and bright patterns as well as various sizes, depending on your needs. I have the standard and baby reusable bags and I absolutely love them. They even fold up into a small square in a pouch that can fit in your back pocket. They are so versatile and accessible to take with you virtually anywhere and also it helps reduce your personal waste by not needing plastic bags. 

Of course, having a reusable water bottle is key. Fortunately, I see so many people who carry around water bottles that are reusable and durable. I simply do not understand why plastic water bottles are still so popular, especially in areas where clean water is very accessible. However, investing in a reusable water bottle, such as a Hydroflask or a S’well, can help the environment as well as keeping your desired liquids colder for much longer. These bottles are durable and can last you a very long time, therefore reducing your personal waste for years to come. 

Conserving Energy

One way to reduce your environmental footprint is to take shorter showers in order to reduce water consumption. The average ten minute shower uses about 18-gallons of water and only increases as time goes on. It is also beneficial to take colder showers because it helps reduce energy consumption as well, but that one may be a little more difficult considering this brutally cold winter we are having in Washington. 

In the United States, more than one trillion gallons of water is used on showers alone, which is a frighteningly large statistic. Sure one person can’t make a difference that large, but with anything like this, it takes a lot of people to really make an impact. It is important to take matters into your own hands and hope that others will follow in the future. 

Something I have really taken advantage of while being at school is utilizing the natural light that comes from the large windows in my dorm. Having the lights on seems unnecessary when natural light can do the job just as well. Along with keeping the lights off during the day, it is also important to turn the heat or air conditioning off when you leave the room for long periods of time. I understand that we do not pay the bills here, but it is a good habit to learn because, one day, you will realize how much electricity bills cost. Simple changes like this can make all the difference and are really easy to incorporate into daily life. 

Something that really comes in handy when you live in a city like Washington is the accessibility of public transportation. Being a student at American University, we are able to utilize them for “free.” By doing so, you decrease your environmental footprint and also save a lot of money that you would otherwise use to get gas and pay bills for a personal vehicle. While the metro system is not super reliable at the moment, the bus system is not a bad option to use either. They are relatively reliable and get you where you need to be. By using apps like Moovit, you can track buses and metros and know exactly where you need to get off or switch to get from point A to point B smoothly.

Reevaluate Purchasing Habits

We are a generation of over-consumers and it is so blatantly obvious. Living in a world where clothing production is drastically increasing and quality is decreasing, it is important to know where you should shop and what to avoid. It all starts with you and your mindset. Wearing what you want to wear regardless if it is “in” at the moment is an important step in your personal development in regards to fashion. Trends are moving in and out so quickly that it is almost impossible to keep up. Stores only encourage this behavior by selling trendy items at very low costs. These items are often made by people who are overworked and underpaid in the foreign countries they are produced in. Knowing where your clothes are coming from and how they are made is also a big factor in being more sustainable in your consumption. 

It is a harsh reality, but many of us have fallen victim to fast fashion. There are many brands that do offer quality clothing, such as Everlane, Patagonia, and Levi Strauss. There are also many brands that are not considered sustainable and fall more so on the fast fashion spectrum of the industry, that are creating specific lines that are more eco-friendly. But beware of green-washing, which is where companies spend more money on advertising and marketing their environmental efforts than actually incorporating it into their production. 

While the aforementioned brands may be a little expensive, the most sustainable option is always using what you have first. When something does not fit you anymore or you no longer like it, never throw it out. Like they say, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure! There are many places where you can either bring it to be resold or donate it to people in need. I never really understood why people threw clothing out, unless it physically cannot be worn, but even so, fabric can be re-used and made into something else. Since clothing is a major part of human waste, it is important to find other ways to give it another life. 

Secondhand shopping is always a good way to go. More often than not, clothes are usually very durable and will last a long time. Thrift stores are always a good place to look if you want to shop secondhand. There are also apps like Depop, Mercari and Poshmark that offer virtually anything you could ever imagine online. While many of these things are used, they are more often than not in really good condition at reasonable prices. They are very easy to navigate and you can also sell your unwanted items on these apps and even make a little cash on the side. 

Keep yourself up-to-date

One of my favorite environmental blogs is Tree Hugger, which provides almost anything you could want or need to know regarding sustainability for. It has fact-checked articles written by qualified professionals in their field from a variety of different topics. They range from news, environment, home & garden, science, policy, eco-design, animals, clean beauty and culture. Tree Hugger provides guidelines and information that can help you live a more sustainable life. They work towards putting sustainability into mainstream media by their largely diverse topics providing valuable information. Not everything sustainable will work for you, but it is important to read up on the painless ways you can alter your lifestyle and lead a more green one.

Another one of my favorite sustainability blogs is by influencer Megan McSherry called Acteevism. Her main focus is to spread awareness on creating a sustainable and ethical lifestyle. While focusing on many parts of daily life, my favorite aspect of her blog is about fashion. Now the phrase sustainable fashion may sound like an oxymoron, the fact is that the most sustainable form of fashion is not buying anything at all. McSherry talks about the different ways you can culminate outfits with the things you already have. How to build your wardrobe in a way where your items are versatile and can be transformed into different occasions. How you can recycle your clothes into something else and sustainable swaps for not-so eco-friendly products. She also includes resources on her blog about Black-owned sustainable businesses as well as different forms of media who are also raising awareness in similar ways, such as podcasts. McSherry provides tips on how to reduce your waste in many aspects of your life, therefore creating a more sustainable and cost-efficient lifestyle. 


Before you go and purchase something, it is important to note that the most sustainable option is always using what you have first!

Riley-Kate is an undergraduate student at American University and is majoring in Public Relations and Strategic Communications and minoring in Sustainability. She intends to graduate in May of 2024. Riley-Kate's preferred pronouns are she/her/hers. Some of Riley-Kate's interests are playing tennis, drinking iced chai, traveling, photography, sustainability, writing, and fashion. She is also a big advocate for human and environmental rights. Riley-Kate is always thinking of ways that she can help make the world a better place.
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