As we face an expanding population, climate change, and polluted air, water and food, there is growing consensus that we need to change the way we do things in all sectors of our society if we are to provide for today’s needs without sacrificing the well-being of future generations. Of course, we don’t have all the answers yet, which creates enormous opportunities for college students to make a difference and create a meaningful lifestyle — even career — in the process. Luckily, innovative solutions — the seeds of our sustainable future — are sprouting on college and university campuses around the country. The ideas and resources here highlight ways students can become environmental leaders and campuses can cultivate a greener, happier and healthier world.
What’s Your Environmental Quotient?
Do you think you’ve got the eco-savvy to be a Sustainability All-Star? Take this quiz to see how well you green your lifestyle. Then keep reading to learn cool tips you can incorporate into your life on and off campus.
Your roommate’s friend stops by and he wants to leave her a note. You…
You’re buying kitchen supplies for your dorm room. You…
You are a caffeine achiever. Got to have those cups of Joe every day to keep moving at full speed. You…
It’s Earth Day. You celebrate by…
You just left your room to get to class. Did you turn off the lights?
You’re going out to dinner with friends, and you’re in the mood for seafood. You…
Now that you look at the menu, the steak looks good, too. You…
It’s time to pick a major. What do you do?
America’s leading export?
Americans produce 7.1 pounds of garbage per day for every man, woman and child, adding up to 102 tons each in a lifetime.
– Garbology by Edward Humes
Are you going to eat that?
Feeding Americans uses 10 percent of the U.S. energy budget, 50 percent of our land and 80 percent of our fresh water. And yet, we throw away 40 percent of our food.
– National Resources Defense Council
Looking for more ways to be green as a college student? Browse our tips below to learn easy ways to live a sustainable lifestyle, on- and off-campus.
Clean Energy, Organics & Recycling in College
As the incubators of sustainable solutions, colleges around the world are showcases for emerging ideas, understanding and best practices to correct the current imbalances between humanity and the planet’s capacity to support us. These solutions are finding their way into everything colleges do — how they build their buildings, get their energy and food, what they teach, how they interact with their communities, and how they process their waste.
College sustainability programs are important because we can affect change on a small scale. This includes students who are all educated in different topics. Hopefully they will continue to foster sustainability in their daily lives after college and spread the sustainability word to others as well.
Not only do most of these innovations make economic sense by saving the schools money over the long run, they also create healthier learning environments and cultivate innovative leaders and solutions that will guide our planet toward more sustainable ways of living. Here are a few of the best sustainable programs and ideas from America’s institutions of higher learning:
It’s rare to walk by a new building on campus these days without seeing a sign boasting its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. These buildings earned rankings by the U.S. Green Building Council according to their performance in five design categories:
LEED buildings are placed in order to minimize impact on the environment and take advantage of the sun, natural shading and other site characteristics. Green roofs and strategically placed native gardens reduce storm water runoff. Walking paths, bike lanes and gardens replace asphalt parking lots. Less asphalt produces less heat in the summer and less runoff during rains.
With creative planning and design, water-efficient buildings can use significantly less water by incorporating native landscapes that don’t need irrigation, installing water-efficient fixtures and reusing wastewater for nonpotable uses.
Energy and Atmosphere
LEED buildings have a variety of design features that strategically conserve energy through better insulation, orienting buildings to take advantage of natural light and the sun’s heat in winter (and to avoid it in summer), natural ventilation and smart atmosphere controls, and of course using renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuels.
Materials and Resources
With the thoughtful attention to reducing the energy needed and other impacts associated with the extraction, processing, transport, maintenance and disposal of building materials, LEED buildings can create reductions throughout the entire life-cycle of a building, thus reducing cost and impact on the environment.
Indoor Environmental Quality
LEED certification requires building designers to consider air quality, lighting, acoustics and other factors to protect the health of people inside and support healthy living, working and learning.
In the United States, buildings account for:
- 38 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions
- 13.6 percent of all potable water use (15 trillion gallons per year)
- 73 percent of U.S. energy consumption
Only 3 percent of Earth’s water is fresh water. Of that more than two-thirds is trapped in glaciers, which makes conservation and creative reuse essential.
– U.S. Green Building Council
As many have heard, energy produced by fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas are leading contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention the other nasty chemicals their use spews into our air, water and ground. With so many large buildings that need to be heated and cooled, colleges and universities can make significant contributions to more sustainable uses of energy. Here are some of the innovative ways they’re doing it:
Campuses across the country are reducing their dependence on fossil fuels by installing solar. Several campuses are now 100 percent fossil fuel-free; many are getting closer. The top 30 alternative-energy campuses in the country produce nearly 2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to power 187,000 homes annually according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Rooftops are among the least-utilized parts of buildings and are perfect sites for photovoltaic panels.
If snowy Northeastern campuses can provide a majority of their heat through biofuels, then so can many others. Others have found ways to provide heat by using methane produced by landfills.
They don’t build them like they used to, and for most appliances, that’s a good thing. Modern appliances are much more efficient than those of the past, and colleges have been busy replacing their old furnaces, air conditioning systems, refrigerators, stoves and heaters for more efficient ones. Appliances use about 13 percent of the energy in the average house — imagine how these costs add up across a campus. At home, water heaters, clothes dryers and refrigerators/freezers use the most energy. If you’re in the market for a new appliance, look for those with Energy Star ratings. Research the best appliances and find energy-saving tips at Energy.gov.
Compact-fluorescent (CFL) bulbs use 70 percent less energy than old-school incandescent bulbs (which waste 90 percent of their energy as heat). Unfortunately, CFLs contain mercury and are a hassle to dispose of properly. Light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs use 75 percent less energy than incandescents. They cost a pretty penny, but their lifespans can be measured in decades, making up for the initial cost. And using less energy means creating less pollution. A single large college can save six figures on its annual energy bills and offset a small forest’s worth of carbon dioxide emissions with LED lighting alone.
Check out the light bulbs on your campus and see if they’re maximizing efficiency at EnergyStar.gov
Local, Organic, Unprocessed Food
Our modern understanding of a healthy meal has been skewed by decades of chemical- and fossil fuel-intensive agriculture; subsidies to support processed foods from corn, soy and wheat; and petroleum-based fuels that made transporting food around the world economically “rational.”
As the world realizes these technologies and conveniences come with a price, campuses everywhere are beginning to choose healthier foods, with fewer chemicals, grown by farmers nearby. Here are some of the ways sustainability flavors campus life:
Partnerships between dining halls and school agriculture clubs and programs give students in these programs the opportunity to learn all aspects of running a sustainable farming enterprise — growing food with clients in mind, who have the task of feeding thousands of people every day.
Partnerships between dining halls and local farms help provide sustainably grown, healthy, and often organic meat, fruits and vegetables, dairy and other products. A contract can be negotiated in advance, so farmers can concentrate on providing quality products at a price that’s fair, without having to worry about fluctuating prices on the open market.
Many schools have developed quality standards to improve the sourcing of products, such as fair trade coffee, grass-fed beef, or seafood that is grown or harvested according to accepted standards such as Monterey Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.
All take-away products our entire campus are compostable. Our composting program on campus is something that students can actually witness day to day. Knowing what is compostable and how to properly dispose of items, focusing on local and organic foods, is something that students can take with them after college.
Environment and Sustainability Majors
The heart of many college and university sustainability efforts lies in their curricula, as you might expect. Classes and concepts that were rare a decade ago are now common on campuses around the world. Environmental science and sustainable thinking has worked its way into classes ranging from environmental policy and regulation, to natural resource management, industrial ecology and product life-cycle analysis, sustainable international development, environmental health, renewable energy, climate change science, and, of course, agriculture.
Because removing fossil-fueled transportation is one of our best opportunities to create a more sustainable human civilization, campuses across the country are replacing their parking lots with bike lanes, running their fleets with cleaner fuels like biodiesel and/or electricity, and providing incentives for students to drive less and bike or walk more. Campuses and students are rewarded with improved health and less exhaust, congestion and wasted energy. Here are a few creative transportation solutions moving on campuses:
Bike share programs
For a few dollars each year, students on several campuses can join bike-share collectives, which provide them access to fleets of conveniently placed bikes. Just grab one, ride to your next class, and then leave it for the next member to take if she needs. Other campuses offer student-run bike co-ops that provide free bike-maintenance classes. Graduates (from these classes) can then choose from one of the many abandoned or donated bikes to fix up and have as their own.
Students and faculty who travel to campus without driving are often rewarded with incentives, such as gift cards or free gym memberships. Carpool and vanpool members might be rewarded with free parking spots or an entry into raffles for cool prizes.
Food waste to biofuel
Many campuses are taking the used cooking oil from their dining halls and converting it to biofuel, which then helps power campus vehicles.
America throws away hundreds of millions of pounds of garbage each year — from wasted food to packaging, old clothes and shoes, and obsolete furniture and electronic equipment (e-waste). Sixty-nine percent of this ends up in landfills, which squanders an estimated $20 billion each year of raw materials that could be put to better use with a little attention and innovation, according to Hume’s Garbology.
Campuses across the country are taking the lead in interesting ways to reduce the amount of waste they produce:
To cut back on waste, many schools are replacing plastic cups, dishes and utensils with ones made from cornstarch or sugar cane. The most ecologically friendly schools then compost these items to create fertilizer and mulch for campuses or local farms.
Simply by providing recycle bins, some campuses have seen recycling rates go from 5 percent to as much as 70 percent, cutting per-capita trash by hundreds of pounds, according to Waste Management. Many schools have made the pledge to recycle even more.
Often schools or student groups will host first-come, first-served giveaways of orphaned or replaced furniture, accessories, clothing and appliances. The best programs provide opportunities for leaving students to donate still-useful goods, which get passed on to incoming students the next semester.
We’ve had a significant decrease in paper use campus wide, and we’ve made huge strides in sustainable food on campus, not only in terms of buying local, organic and sustainably packaged food but also in terms of waste diversion as well.
Investing in Innovation
Some schools have set up green initiative funds to provide grants or loans to support sustainable entrepreneurism. These funds provide up-front capital to fund projects that help lessen the school’s environmental footprint and which demonstrate a return on investment within a specified period of time.
Sustainability permeates change in everything we do, how we think and how we solve problems and create solutions.
22 Tips to Going Green On-Campus
It’s important be green, but we get it; college life is busy. Luckily, a greener lifestyle doesn’t have to be difficult, and it can save you precious dollars. Small changes, regular habits, add up to a lifestyle without a lot of time or effort. Here are 22 easy ways you can live greener while you’re a student:
The most sustainable, eco-friendly products are the ones never made. Do you really need that gadget, item, toy, treat, item of clothing or accessory? Instead of shopping, hang out with your favorite people, go in on a communal purchase, or just sit back and read a book — borrowed of course. And when you do buy, choose bulk, recycled and products with less packaging to minimize the waste you generate. And finish those leftovers before they become a biology experiment!
It’s Not Used, it’s Vintage
When you do shop, resist the urge to fill up an oversized cart at Walmart or order a ton from Amazon to furnish your apartment or dorm room. Instead, buy products that already exist by retro-chic upcycling your furnishings and kitchenware at local thrift stores. It’s a cheap, fun way to get everything you need, plus you can enjoy the peace of mind knowing no rainforests were cut, mountaintops were removed or greenhouse gasses were emitted just so you could have matching plates.
Don’t Feed the Vampires
Did you know that charged phones and laptops that are still plugged in will continue to suck energy, as will plugged-in chargers without devices attached? Together, these can add up to 10% to your power bill and waste resources. Unplug your devices and chargers when they’re not charging. One way to do this is to plug all your chargers into a power strip, then turn it off when they’re not charging. And make sure to turn off your computer and other devices instead of just putting them to sleep.
Bike or Walk More
You’ll be healthier, less stressed, with more money in your pocket and less pollution in the environment. And it just makes you look cooler.
Eat Less Meat
Yes, bacon and burgers taste good, but it takes roughly 2,400 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, but only 25 gallons to produce a pound of wheat. That same water could instead grow vegetables to feed people, and that same wheat could feed a person instead of a cow. Similarly, it takes about 10 times the amount of fossil fuels to create one calorie of animal protein than it does to grow a calorie of plant protein, according to OneGreenPlanet.org. One way to do this is to start a Meatless Monday tradition with your friends and family. Find helpful resources and recipes for every meal at Meatless Monday.
If the entire U.S. did not eat meat or cheese one day each week, it would be the equivalent of not driving 91 million miles, or taking 7.6 million cars off the road.
– Earth Day Network
Keep Cool: Turn Down Your Thermostat
Turning down your thermostat by 3 degrees can save you 10 percent on your heating bill, while reducing the amount of fossil fuels used and producing fewer greenhouse gasses. Turning down the heat when you’re asleep or not home will save you even more (get a programmable thermostat; it will pay for itself quickly). Besides, you look really great in that sweater! In summer, the same applies to your air conditioner (minus the sweater part).
Face the Sun
If you’re living off campus, choose a house or apartment with southern exposure; let that winter sun warm your place to save heating bills.
Get a Water Bottle
Bottled water is a triple threat: it costs up to 2,000 times more than tap water, plastic bottles require fossil fuels to produce, and most end up in the landfill, or worse, floating in the ocean, where they kill fish and water mammals. Get a stainless steel water bottle, put your favorite eco-stickers on the outside, and fill up at the tap. Don’t like tap water? Get a bottle with a built-in filter to remove the chemicals from treatment and improve taste.
Shower with a Friend
OK, that’s fun to think about once or twice. But really, it’s not a long-term solution, especially if you’re single. Instead, take a Navy shower: get wet, turn the water off, soap up, then rinse. Done. Can you shower in under 5 minutes? 3?
Get a Reusable Coffee Cup
Americans drink more than 400 million cups of coffee every day, according to the National Coffee Association. If we — the many, the proud, the caffeinated — bring our own cups, we can prevent millions of disposable cups from being produced and thrown into the landfill.
Support local farmers, enjoy food with higher nutrition and reduce the fossil fuels needed to get the food to your plate from a far-away farm.
Give the Gift of a Healthy Planet
For the holidays, donate to your favorite charity instead of buying people stuff they don’t need.
Carry a Reusable Shopping Bag
And when you get a plastic one, reuse it again for shopping. Recycle any plastic ones you happen to have.
Opt-Out of Catalogs
So much waste in trees and delivery fuel, when most of us shop online anyway. Get off most unsolicited mailing lists by calling 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688).
Spread Green Cheer!
Compliment others for their efforts to make a more sustainable world. People love to feel appreciated, and they’ll be inspired knowing someone else is noticing.
The fashion statement most people share is cotton, but many people don’t realize the entire production cycle is fraught with dangerous chemicals and way too much water. Buy organic cotton — or organic alternatives like hemp or bamboo — and make things better in lots of ways.
Support Better Brands
What you buy says a lot about who you are and the world you want to live in. Give your business to companies that create quality products while respecting human health, fair wages and the environment.
Don’t be a Drip
Don’t let faucets and toilets drip and leak endlessly. A single small leak can waste hundreds of gallons a year. Tell your landlord or campus maintenance. Replace toilet flappers and faucet cartridges before it adds up.
Green Your Laundry Routine
Wait until you have a full load before doing laundry. Use only the recommended amount of soap (and make sure it’s environmentally friendly). Choose cold wash and rinse cycles instead of warm or hot (most of your washer’s energy goes to heating the water). And dry your clothes on a rack in your dorm room instead of putting them in the dryer.
Get Recycling Bins
Ask your dorm advisor what materials are recyclable at your school. Get bonus points for setting bins up for your entire floor or, better yet, the entire dorm!
Bag Lunch It
A couple days a week, instead of buying vending machine or restaurant food in too much packaging, make a sandwich, or throw some leftovers into reusable containers, and enjoy a cheaper meal without all the wasteful packaging.
Make Real Connections
The Internet is an amazing thing, with incredible resources and easy access to ideas. But at the end of the day, you’re staring at a screen that’s sucking down power. Try this: turn it off — not forever, just for a few hours — and go talk to the people around you. Ask storekeepers what they’re doing to make a greener world. What are they struggling with? How might you help? Join the campus green club (or form your own), and become part of the solution by joining/enlisting others and tackling specific projects. Now, you’re not just another person alone trying to figure out what to do; you’re part of a movement. And that’s what the Earth needs right now — everyone working together to make this a greener world.
You want to make your school, your life, and your career greener. Years ago, yours might have been a lone voice in the wilderness, shouting to anyone who would listen about saving the Earth. Nowadays, there are a lot of great ideas out there, and there’s no reason to re-invent the wheel. There are a lot of great people greening higher education in fantastic ways across the country and around the world. Explore these links to connect with ideas and people to help you bring eco-awesomeness to your corner of the planet:
- The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) is the go-to resource for campus sustainability information, ideas and inspiration. AASHE is enjoying incredible growth and offers an annual conference, a newsletter, free webinars to support you in starting projects on your campus, an assessment and tracking tool, and helpful links to help you guide your institution down the sustainable-brick road.
- Sierra Club’s Cool Schools ranks colleges and universities according to 70 different sustainability criteria, from LED lighting to their sourcing of food and transportation initiatives. Check out the rankings, and then find inspiration in the creative ways the winners set themselves apart.
Looking at other schools’ sustainability programs is a huge way to enhance programs. Learning what works well from other schools can increase sustainability efforts on campus.
- The Global Footprint Network is a nonprofit organization dedicated to accurately measuring human impact on the Earth, so we will be able to make informed and effective choices in order to create satisfying lives for everyone. The GFN’s Ecological Footprint is a data-driven metric that tells us how close we are to living within the means of our planet.
- EnvironmentalDashboard.org is an online dashboard that allows you to see the amount of electricity and water campuses and communities are using at any given moment—because the more visible resource use is, the more people are inspired to conserve those resources. Numerous schools and communities have put these in place, but many more are needed. Maybe this is a good project for you?
- GreenBiz is an online publication that showcases the intersection of business, technology and sustainability. From cradle-to-cradle technologies, to climate change politics and how they affect business, and the hot sustainable technology trends, GreenBiz is a great way to follow the latest trends in eco-business and find your way into an eco-career after you graduate.
- Earth Day Network offers a wealth of ideas to build momentum in greening our lives across the country and around the world.