The University Network

A Student Guide To Sustainable Living

With a garbage patch twice the size of Texas sitting in the Pacific Ocean and less than 11 years left to prevent climate change from irreversibly damaging our planet, the Earth needs all the help it can get. 

It’s true, the most effective way to save the planet comes through governmental action and international law. But we individuals have a big role to play, too. Each one of our choices, whether it’s what we buy, what we eat or how we travel, truly makes a difference

And there is a lot that you students can do, on and off campus, to limit your individual environmental footprints and contribute to the health of our planet. 

1. Lobby school administrators

Now, as a student — especially if you’re still living in a dorm — there are some things that are beyond your control. It’s not like you personally can modify your campus’s energy systems to be more eco-friendly or start a compost pile in your closet. 

But you can encourage your school’s administrators to make changes. 

And if carried through, those changes have a chance to make a much bigger impact than what your individual choices would, explains Julian Dautremont, director of programs at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. 

“Because, one, it affects everybody. And, two, it’s changing a system, rather than an individual use of that system,” he adds. 

Say, for example, your goal is to minimize the amount of waste you produce.  

“You can try to compost on your own,” says Dautremont. “But you still need a place to take it and all that. But if the institution offers composting and has a contract with a waste-hauler who has a compost facility, then you can compost. And that’s going to have a significant impact on the amount of waste that you produce.”

I get it. Lobbying your school administrators is easier said than done. 

But if you’re serious about making a change, you should join or create a campus group, pick up a goal and start talking to the relevant decision makers at your university. 

Sometimes, making change will be difficult, Dautremont warns. It may require research, petitions and rallies. But other times, “it is just as easy as spending time and helping that person understand the benefits.”

Dautremont says there are also a number of outside groups that can step in and help you accomplish your goals, if need be. One is Environment America. Currently, the organization is campaigning to have U.S. campuses shift to 100-percent renewable energy. 

“They’ve got the resources and tools to help you and the mentors and individuals that can guide you through the process,” says Dautremont. 

And if your goal is to reduce waste, there’s the Post Landfill Action Network. And another group, Sunrise Movement, supports students who are trying to get more engaged in the political process, Dautremont explains. 

2. Cut the red meat and dairy

For you cheeseburger-lovers and milkshake-drinkers, eliminating your red meat and dairy consumption may be the most challenging step towards reducing your environmental footprint, but it’s also the most impactful

Despite only accounting for 18 percent of the calories and 37 percent of the protein humans consume, meat and dairy take up 83 percent of the world’s farmland and are responsible for 60 percent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

“Dietary choices are huge,” says Dautremont. 

I know campus dining halls aren’t always conducive to a climate-friendly diet, but colleges are increasingly making a conscious effort to change this. 

Harvard University, the University of Maryland (UMD) and the University of Pittsburgh have gone as far as to join the Cool Food Pledge, an initiative of the World Resources Institute to put more climate-friendly foods on the menus of cafeterias and dining halls at schools, hospitals, companies and more, all around the world.

But if your dining hall has yet to make a change, a general rule of thumb is: if it’s good for you, it’s likely good for the environment too. 

3. Use eco-friendly transportation

Collectively, vehicles are the United States’ biggest emitters of carbon dioxide. So, if you’re serious about minimizing your environmental impact, you must consider how you get around. 

“Do you drive alone to school, do you bike, do you take the bus, do you walk?,” Dautremont asks. “Certainly walking and biking are going to be preferable from a carbon footprint perspective and health perspective too.”

Spurred by student interest, colleges and universities across the United States have recently put a lot of time and effort into making their campuses more bike-friendly. Some have gone as far as to build connected infrastructure and offer bike maintenance and storage options, theft-prevention programs, biking skills classes, and social events and staff to support better biking.

Every year, the League of American Bicyclists ranks the best campuses for biking through its Bicycle Friendly University awards. To see if your school made this year’s list, check here

4. Minimize your purchases

We hear and read a lot about sustainable products. 

At this point, almost every product has a sustainable alternative. There are dozens and dozens of sustainable fashion brands to choose from, organic bedding options, tons of reusable water bottles, compostable to-go containers, bamboo toothbrushes and even environmentally friendly laptops, among other things. 

But, if possible, the best option for the environment is to buy nothing at all. 

“I hesitate to promote green consumption because the answer is often less consumption,” says Dautremont. “But, there are a bunch of things that you’re going to be buying as a college student. So when you’re buying, looking for those opportunities to put your money in the sustainability economy is pretty important.” 

Dautremont also says that, when possible, you should try to buy clothing and other products that have already been used, meaning from thrift stores and second-hand shops. 

5. Consider the little things

There are also, of course, the little things to consider. And the United Nations does a good job at listing all of these small actions and separating them by levels. 

Level 1 includes the “things you can do from your couch.” 

They are: plugging appliances into a power strip and turning it off when you’re away or not using them; shutting off the lights when you don’t need them; switching from paper bank statements to electronic ones; and sharing social media posts about climate change, among other things. 

Level 2 includes the “things you can do from home.”

They are: letting your hair and clothes air dry instead of using a machine; taking short showers; freezing your produce and leftovers before they go bad; recycling; buying food and goods without bulk packaging; plugging air leaks in windows and doors; and, lastly, getting a rug, as rugs and carpets can help keep your room warm during the winter months. 

6. Convince your friends and family

In the fight against climate change and environmental degradation, collective action is extremely important. So it’s crucial to convince your friends, classmates and family to jump on board and also move towards a more sustainable lifestyle. 

“Peer-to-peer contact and education is one of the most powerful forms of learning,” says Dautremont.

But, as you may know, people are stubborn. And motivating is no simple task. 

So, the first thing to do is model the sustainable lifestyle, Dautremont explains. “It’s hard to ask someone to do something if you don’t do it yourself.”

The second thing you should do is talk about it, says Dautremont.

“You don’t have to try to make a big thing about it. I think sometimes there is a danger in, sort of, presenting yourself as holier-than-thou. It really turns people away, so I wouldn’t do that. But bring it up in regular conversation about things you’re working on so that people know about it — not to suggest that you’re better, just as part of the conversation.”

7. Take a course (or four) in sustainability 

You’re in college and, since you’re reading this article, you’re also clearly concerned about the environment. So why wouldn’t you take a course in sustainability? Not only would it help you develop a better understanding of what it means to think and act sustainably, but it may also help you in the job market. 

“Today’s students are going to graduate into a world that is profoundly shaped by climate change, resource depletion and a variety of other sustainability challenges,” says Dautremont. “And so, if we’re trying to graduate students to be responsible citizens, informed and able to solve those challenges, they need to have some background. They need to have some grounding in what’s going on in the world.”

And employers are increasingly looking for applicants with backgrounds in sustainability. “Having some of that background can actually help prepare people for career success as well,” says Dautremont. 


Transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle isn’t easy or convenient. But, it’s necessary. 

Around the globe — from the islands disappearing in Tuvalu to the worldwide megafires — we are already seeing the impact of climate change and environmental degradation. 

And if change isn’t made, things will only get worse. Biodiversity loss could accelerate, the Earth’s coastlines and island nations may disappear, our food and water supplies will decrease, and increased global heat could even lead to more diseases and mental health problems.

Individual choices, on their own, can’t save the Earth. For that, we need governmental action. But individual actions do make a difference. And every single person has a role to play.