The reality of our planet’s climate crisis is looming large. NASA reports that Earth is warming at a rate not seen in the past 10,000 years, and this trend is clearly tied to human activities. Worsening atmospheric pollution means less than 1% of Earth’s air has safe levels of particulate contamination. And plastic is another major problem that has literally seeped into water, food, soil, and air. Sadly, if we don’t take radical action now, the near future is looking bleak, indeed.
But there’s hope, and it starts with eco-minded individuals like you. You already know that your small, everyday lifestyle choices make an impact. So, it’s perfectly sensible to view a huge decision like college through the same lens of sustainability, turning your college experience into an extension of your green lifestyle both academically and practically. After all, as Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “What is the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”
With that in mind, let’s illuminate your path toward a bright, sustainable future in this step-by-step guide to living green as a college student.
Start Here: Green College Choices
Going green in college starts with being wise in selecting an eco-conscious school. Although it would be fantastic if every college and university did its part to care for the environment, the truth is that they are not all equally focused on sustainability. But doing a little research to verify that your intended educational institution is going the extra mile to reduce its impact on the environment means that you will be well on your way to living a greener lifestyle.
Online College: The Ultimate Sustainability Hack
How much greener can you get than online college? Here are some reasons why online school is the ultimate green college life-hack.
No Commute (you can study from anywhere)
Without the need to travel to and from a physical building, you will not contribute to air pollution such as carbon emissions and other harmful substances that fuel-burning vehicles produce.
Digital Learning = Less Paperwork
Virtual instruction does not rely on paper handouts, and students submit all assignments digitally. Furthermore, many online programs use digital resources like e-books that go even further toward cutting down on paper waste.
Eating at Home Means Less Packaging and Food Waste
Preparing fresh meals in the kitchen reduces the paper, plastic, and Styrofoam packaging waste associated with fast food and meals on the go. Also, eating at home means that leftovers can be stored rather than disposed.
Reduced Energy Use
According to E Source, a typical 50,000-square-foot higher-education facility spends about $100,000 per year on energy costs stemming from lighting, cooling, heating, and ventilation. However, this drain on energy is steadily reduced as online learning supplants the need for power-hungry brick-and-mortar institutions.
Smaller Facility Footprints
If more students move to online learning, it is possible that the size of physical facilities can be reduced, thereby restoring and preserving more of the natural environment and landscape surrounding them.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), educational facilities use an enormous amount of water for landscaping, cooling and heating, restrooms, and cafeteria kitchens. A trend toward learning online can gradually reduce much of this water use.
Green Colleges and Universities to Consider
If a traditional college experience is important to you, but you want to attend a school that is sustainable, consider one of these options:
College of the Atlantic sits in the middle of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island in Maine. Its oceanside location offers rich opportunities for experiential learning and research within the natural environment.
Since its founding in 1969, the school has always valued the relationship between humans and their environment. In fact, the school has only one major — human ecology. Students design their own curriculum while completing structural degree requirements, diving deep into ecological, economic, cultural, or artistic pursuits.
But the college doesn’t just uphold sustainability in its curriculum — it actively pursues it in all operational aspects. College of the Atlantic was the first school to go carbon neutral in 2007, fully divested from fossil fuels in 2013, and is on track to eliminate its reliance on fossil fuels by 2030. In addition, the school demonstrates its commitment to the environment through sustainable construction, recycling, policies, and management of its 300 acres of farmland and 100-acre forested preserve.
Eight overarching sustainability goals guide daily operations at each of Arizona State University’s five campuses, a multifaceted approach that includes energy and water conservation, renewable energy production, waste reduction, and more.
The university’s impressive sustainability accomplishments include a comprehensive solar program, carbon neutral status for scope 1 and 2 emissions since 2019, and an urban forestry initiative that has planted over 800 trees to date. ASU also expects to be zero waste by 2025 thanks to its recycling and composting efforts. Another significant feature is The Garden Commons, a community garden on the Polytechnic campus; produce grown there is provided free to students, at low cost to staff, and donated to food banks.
Arizona State also does its part to provide the high-quality education necessary to produce the next generation of environmental leaders, with 13 programs focused on sustainability.
Situated in the heart of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Dickinson College’s campus is both picturesque and a paragon of sustainability. In fact, the school earned the No. 1 spot in the 2022 Sustainable Campus Index and is a member of the EcoLeague Consortium, a group of liberal arts institutions focused on ecologically minded education and sustainability.
Some of Dickinson’s eco-friendly initiatives include net-zero emissions status since 2020, a comprehensive recycling and composting program, achieving at least a LEED gold rating on all new construction, and an award-winning 3-megawatt solar field. The campus also features an 80-acre organic farm, bee cooperative, and bicycle loan program. Additionally, the campus received a grant from the EPA in 2020 for its bio-digestor project, which converts cow manure and food waste into biodiesel and biogas.
Make the Environment Your Life’s Mission with These Green Degrees
Choosing an environmentally responsible college is definitely an important step in your journey toward a sustainable educational experience, but before you get that far, you may want to think about which green degree is the right choice for you. After all, your degree will be your ticket to a career that allows you to spend the rest of your life caring for the planet. In the section below, we have categorized and summarized many of the environmentally focused degrees that you might consider. Give them a look to find a path that feels natural for you.
Renewable Energy Degrees
Environmental engineering degree programs — like those offered at University of Central Florida and Texas A&M University— combine engineering principles with foundational knowledge in soil science, geology, biology, physics, and/or chemistry. Environmental engineers design and develop systems and structures that address issues such as water and air pollution, waste disposal, and soil erosion in order to eliminate negative environmental effects on human health.
Renewable Energy Management
A degree in renewable energy management prepares graduates to enter management roles in the alternative and renewable energy industry. These programs, such as those at Unity Environmental University and Everglades University, combine general management concepts with courses exploring renewable energy production from various sources (solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower, bioenergy, and tidal), industry-specific equipment, industry regulations, and energy storage and safety matters.
Broadly, a degree in sustainability teaches students to analyze systems and their interconnectedness through an environmental lens. Graduates can apply their learning to a wide variety of careers as sustainability experts or in roles within sustainable businesses. Examples of possible jobs graduates might pursue include sustainability consultant, sustainability officer, and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) analyst. Many sustainability programs, such as the ones at Maryville University and Arizona State University, are also available online.
Renewable Energy Technology
Students who study renewable energy technology through programs like those at University of Michigan–Flint and the State University of New York–Morrisville learn how to design, develop, and improve integrated energy systems. They also gain immersive experience in energy generation, storage, and distribution. Graduates are qualified to pursue careers such as energy system designer, installation and maintenance technician, and quality control supervisor or project manager for renewable energy systems.
Natural Resources Degrees
Ecology programs — like those at University of North Texas and University of Georgia — teach students about the interactions of organisms with their environments and each other. Students also learn about factors that threaten the natural balance within ecosystems and study ways to protect and restore this natural order. There are many career options available to graduates who hold this degree, including park ranger, environmental field technician, college professor, and environmental planner.
According to the Society for Conservation Biology, the science of conservation biology is focused on protecting and restoring biodiversity — or the variety of life on earth. Action is a critical component of this science because those who work in this field are tasked with identifying and eliminating threats to the planet’s biodiversity. Common job titles for graduates include conservation grant writer, wildlife conservationist, and natural resources specialist. The University of Idaho and Missouri Southern State University both feature this degree.
The study of environmental science is interdisciplinary, encompassing the studies of biology, geology, meteorology, chemistry, physics, and ecology. Graduates of these programs — like those at The University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Chicago — are equipped to protect both humans and the environment from negative factors. Environmental scientists tackle problems including climate change, pollution, waste management, and more.
The study of sustainable agriculture views plant and animal production through a wide lens of interconnectedness with the surrounding environment and community. Hands-on programs like those at Washington State University and The Ohio State University offer students in-depth knowledge of innovative agricultural systems that produce food in ways that are ecologically sound and socially just. Possible careers for graduates include farm manager, agriculture educator, and agriculture certification agent.
Environmental Policy & Advocacy
As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explains, environmental economics is the application of the principles of economics to the development and management of environmental and natural resources. Essentially, students from programs like those at Colgate University and Oregon State University learn about use of natural resources as economic assets and their impact on the environment. Some of the positions graduates with this degree can pursue include environmental project manager, grant specialist, and environmental/economic consultant.
Environmental policy programs, such as those at Duke University and Everglades University, teach students to plan, analyze, design, and administer policies and programs that involve the environment. This area of study leads students to examine environmental challenges with consideration to law, economics, and society. Career paths for this degree include environmental lobbyist, environmental policy analyst, and environmental remediator.
An environmental lawyer’s main job is to advise clients (commonly large corporations) on possible environmental risks and consequences of pursuing various business actions and activities. They also counsel clients on regulatory concerns and legal responsibilities and defend them in the case of possible litigation. Two great examples of environmental law programs can be found at the University of Washington and Louisiana State University.
A degree in environmental journalism, such as the one offered at Point Park University, combines a foundation of solid journalistic training with knowledge of environmental science, biology, and data representation in order to prepare graduates to write environmentally focused pieces for a variety of nonfiction publications. Many programs offer an interdisciplinary approach through partnerships with on-campus programs/departments related to natural sciences or sustainability.
Live Green in College On- or Off-Campus
To have a fully green mindset, you must consider your personal environmental impact in every aspect of your daily life. And while you’re probably already doing the reduce-reuse-recycle basics, you can take other steps toward a more truly sustainable lifestyle. Read through the following list to gather some ideas you might not have considered yet.
Choose reusable non-plastic containers
Whenever possible, buy reusable containers and use them consistently. For example, instead of single-use plastic water bottles, you can buy a reusable water bottle and fill it at water fountains. Instead of buying fast food packaged in Styrofoam, paper, and plastic, bring your lunch in a bento box, and use metal flatware and reusable snack and sandwich bags. Some places, like Starbucks, will even allow you to bring your own cup to be filled upon ordering.
Buy used whenever possible
Buying used items such as textbooks, clothing, furniture, and electronics reduces the energy use and pollution associated with producing new items. To illustrate this point, 40 of 41 studies reviewed in the Journal of Cleaner Production concluded that extending the useful life of an article of clothing reduced its environmental impact. Furthermore, when you buy a secondhand item, you are keeping it out of the landfill.
Avoid fast fashion
Much of the clothing produced nowadays can be considered “fast fashion,” which is a term that refers to clothing that is cheap, poorly made, and quickly mass produced. Aside from the incredible amount of such items that end up in landfills, fast fashion also uses a lot of polyester; this synthetic material takes more than 200 years to decompose and 70 million barrels of oil per year to produce. Instead, aim to make sustainable clothing decisions like buying fewer new clothes, opting for higher-quality, longer-lasting items, repairing damaged clothing, and purchasing clothing made of natural, biodegradable fibers such as cotton, linen, or wool.
Become a conscious consumer
It’s easy to be swayed to buy when confronted with flashy advertising convincing us that new products will make our lives better — only to subsequently discover that we have no use for this latest and greatest item, and now we must find a way to dispose of it. Instead of participating in this wasteful cycle, carefully consider every purchase and try to avoid buying on impulse. And, when you do find that you need to purchase an item, try to purchase from green companies that produce goods responsibly.
Watch out for packaging
Avoid individually packaged items and opt for buying from bulk bins whenever possible. This type of shopping allows you to fill your own reusable containers with the consumable goods you want to purchase. Furthermore, shopping at local farms or farmers markets means you can avoid packaging altogether (including packaging used for shipping) and purchase directly from the source.
Reduce your water and energy use
There are many things you can do in your everyday routine to reduce your water and energy consumption. For example, turn off the water while you brush your teeth, take shorter showers and turn off the water between lathering and rinsing, and turn off unnecessary lights. The EPA also has several additional tips for conserving water and energy, including fixing water leaks, using a fully-loaded dishwasher instead of hand-washing dishes, lowering the temperature on your water heater, and increasing use of natural light.
Live with like-minded students or individuals
Let’s face it — living a sustainable lifestyle is not always easy. However, it becomes a lot easier when you have support from the people with whom you spend the most time. In fact, since people tend to share the social behaviors of their peers, seeking out a living arrangement with like-minded, eco-conscious individuals can make your convictions even stronger and help you persevere in living a green lifestyle.
Switch to greener products
No one wants to live in a dirty house (it’s gross and bad for your health), but some commercial cleaning products can be toxic to your body and the environment. So ditch these harmful substances in favor of a natural cleaning kit complete with white vinegar, baking soda, borax, dish soap, and hydrogen peroxide — these items will take care of almost any cleaning or disinfection job. If you must purchase cleaning products, look for natural and non-toxic options. Other cleaning essentials, such as biodegradable trash bags, are also a smart choice.
Walk or ride a bike when possible
According to NASA, 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree that global warming is being caused by human activities. And as the EPA explains, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel-burning transportation is one of the main causes of this concerning trend. When you can, walking or riding a bike is an excellent way to both reduce your personal contribution to these problematic emissions and live more sustainably.
Live more simply
Believe it or not, having and wanting less are powerful ways to reduce your negative impact on the environment. In our world of rampant overconsumption — clicking a button on Amazon can deliver virtually any product to your doorstep within days — it’s easy to think we always need new and better things. But this way of life is wasteful and costly, for your wallet and the planet. It contributes to pollution and social injustice, and it does not make you happier in the end.
Become a Green Activist
At this point, you have a handle on nearly everything it takes to live a green lifestyle in college — choosing a green school, a green degree, and making green choices in your everyday life. However, if you are looking for even more ways to actively make a difference, consider becoming a green advocate or activist. Here are a few ideas about how to get your hands a little dirty by joining like-minded individuals in a tangible effort.
Join a green student organization or initiative
Most colleges that are concerned with sustainability have excellent organizations that empower students to get involved in all sorts of environmental causes. For example, Columbia University’s student groups include the Columbia EcoReps, who work to make the campus greener, and Build It Green, a group that focuses on innovations in sustainable design. Another college with an impressive variety of student organizations is UCLA, which features groups such as Access Clean Water Anywhere (ACWA), LEED Lab, and the Renewable Energy Association.
Apply for a green internship
An internship as a professional learning experience that provides hands-on, practical work related to your academic focus or career interests. So why not pursue a green internship? The University of Arizona, for example, has current internships focused on sustainability and environmental initiatives that include positions with campus organizations, federal agencies, nonprofits, state and local governments, private industries, and more.
Volunteer for a green organization
Although there are innumerable green organizations that do great work, they cannot meet their goals without volunteers. Donating your time and labor to one or more of them is a great way to directly contribute to a positive collective effort and serve organizations with values that align with yours. A few examples of such organizations include Keep America Beautiful and EarthX. If you have trouble locating the right opportunity, check out volunteer opportunities on sites like Climate Volunteering.
Participate in a campus or community clean-up day
The main task on any specified clean-up day is collecting and removing litter, but it can also include activities such as pulling weeds, mulching plant beds, removing old flyers, and touching up damaged paint. This type of hands-on activity has a direct and visible impact on the beautification, cleanliness, and safety of campuses and communities.
Take the lead
When you view the world around you through a lens of sustainability, you might see pressing needs and concerns that no one else is addressing. If that is the case, don’t hesitate to step out on your own and get the ball rolling. You never know — your efforts may very well plant the small seed that leads to a flourishing, fruitful solution.
Start a “buy nothing” group for your school
One of the fundamental concepts in sustainability is reusing items to avoid waste. Creating a “buy nothing” group on social media allows people to post items they no longer need or are willing to share at no cost; similarly, people can also post when they are in need of something that someone else might be able to loan or give. Starting a group that is specifically for your school is a great way to experience the payoff of your efforts.
Get politically active
The greatest hope for change often lies in policy. Fortunately, you have a voice, and you can use it to influence those policies for the better. Vote, write your representatives, join protests, start and sign petitions, and show up in support of other activists to amplify their voices. You can also get involved with an organization such as the Citizens’ Climate Lobby that organizes specific lobbying efforts.
Additional Resources for Eco-Minded Students
Because there is so much information out there that aims to help you live a greener lifestyle, it can be difficult to know where to begin. However, to get you started on your search for additional knowledge, we have curated some excellent articles, podcasts, tools, and more below. Check them out to see which type of resource you find the most helpful in accomplishing your sustainability goals.
- 10 Ways College Students Can Live More Sustainably—Helpful, compact article from The Years Project, a multimedia education effort committed to fighting climate change.
- 15 Tips for Green Living in College—Article from the Princeton Review with practical tips for college students who are interested in living a more sustainable lifestyle without making radical lifestyle changes.
- Earth911—Website featuring the largest recycling database in the nation, informative articles, educational resources, a podcast, and action initiatives such as the eWaste for Trees program.
- EPA’s Household Carbon Footprint Calculator—Comprehensive calculator that utilizes factors such as transportation, electricity use, and waste disposal. Also includes sections that demonstrate the effect of possible emissions-reducing steps on your overall total.
- How to Buy Clothes That Are Built to Last —New York Times article that guides consumers through a series of questions to ask themselves when buying clothing. Considering these factors ensures that clothing purchases are high quality and sustainable.
- How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint—Comprehensive resource from Carbon Offsets to Alleviate Poverty (COTAP). Discusses carbon-emission sources such as driving, air travel, home energy, food, and more.
- How to Save a Planet Podcast—Show about climate change that strives to help listeners avoid overwhelm and leave feeling energized and hopeful about possibilities for solutions to the problems facing our planet. Includes recommended actions for listeners.
- r/enviroaction subreddit—Forum dedicated to environmental action such as petitions, fundraisers, and events. Content is searchable, so new users can preview relevant content and find ways to get involved.
- Six Best College Majors for a Green Career—Article from the Student Conservation Association with guidance on majors (some that’ll surprise you!) that can lead to sustainability-focused careers.
- TILclimate Podcast—Podcast produced by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative that breaks down the ins and outs of climate change, including the science, technologies, and policies associated with it. Gives listeners guidance on actions they can take.
Interview With Sustainability Expert
During your time as a student, there are often a lot of adjustments to make such as living in a new city, living with strangers, having a busy social and study calendar and taking care of yourself. We are also at climate tipping points due to anthropogenic reasons, and having more responsibility ties in perfectly with making sustainable lifestyle changes which help to save the planet.
What steps can students take to minimize energy consumption and conserve resources in their living spaces?
It’s difficult in shared and rented accommodation as students sometimes have little control over general energy consumption. The general advice would be to have the boiler on a few degrees cooler and to set the timed heating a few degrees cooler. We avoid turning the heating on until winter and before it gets chilly inside we put on thick jumpers. Another way of conserving gas/electricity is sharing meals, heated at one time rather than all cooking something different or heating the same thing time and time again. Realistically, with tight study schedules and different food tastes, this one is more difficult to do.
How can college students make environmentally conscious transportation choices, both on and off campus?
There’s no need to own a car at this point in your life. Enjoy less responsibility and take public transport. Or if possible, pick up a bike as your main form of transport. If you do use a car or are conscious about being a big polluter, look at doing individual carbon offsetting.
What are some ways students can support sustainable and ethical food practices while in college?
These all depend on your budget. It’s worth eating less meat or no meat; daily meat consumption is hugely associated with a high carbon footprint. One super easy swap is swapping cow’s milk (which has high emissions) to oat milk. You could make things easier by centering your part-time work around a sustainable eatery or grocery.
What advice do you have for students who are managing eco-anxiety?
Stay positive and be proactive about saving the planet through actions such as scientific research or working in sustainability rather than just activism. Activism has been used as a great tool for awareness in democracy but needs to be balanced out with other positive actions. Continue to communicate your feelings and knowledge humbly. Additionally, stay emphatic with your peers. Influence government policy, uncover a greenwash and raise awareness in your constituencies or on your campus.
Are there any research or academic opportunities related to sustainability that students can explore during their college years?
Consider starting or being a member of a sustainability or environment society at your institution. Take up summer paid internships in NGOs and similar to gain experiences. Align your thesis with sustainability and be a role model for others to adopt sustainable practices.
How can students promote sustainable fashion choices and reduce the environmental impact of their clothing consumption?
Consider starting or being a member of a sustainability or environment society at your institution. Take up summer paid internships in NGOs and similar to gain experiences. Align your thesis with sustainability and be a role model for others to adopt sustainable practices.
How can college students take their passion for green living and sustainability beyond graduation and into their future careers?
It is important to adapt and be resilient to loss and damage from climate change. So, seek an internship or volunteering experience which you are passionate about that focuses on sustainability. Whilst you are a student, make yourself attractive to this market by relevant student group volunteering in this space. Network with professionals by attending seminars and conferences. As a coach, I have always enjoyed networking and helping others. Your network or a coach or a mentor can help you work out different career paths and create a future vision.
For more information, get in touch with Katherine Moore, Sustainable Lifestyle Coach.
Expert Bio: Katherine is a sustainability lifestyle coach passionate about helping others to achieve their sustainability goals. Her aim is to spread the word about how to be more sustainable and support individuals via 1:1 sessions on their journey towards a sustainable lifestyle. Topics people have covered with Katherine are carbon footprint, carbon offsetting sustainable travel, sustainable home wear and interiors and much more. She also shares a blog which is regularly updated with sustainable material. Katherine has a strong love for the environment, an environmental science degree, Cambridge business and sustainability management qualification and seven years in the environment and ecology industry.