—By Leah Simmons, a rising junior at Cochise College in Southern Arizona
After another crazy summer, it’s that time once again for college kids to shake it off and head back to campus to hit the books (and, um, parties). Yes, the new school year is full of promise—for making better grades, crazier memories, and, you guessed it, greener choices.
With roughly 22 million students enrolled in colleges and universities across the country, we’re a pretty major demographic, who can together make a big difference in the environment with a few simple adjustments to our routines.
So, for everyone out there who wants to help green their school, here are some simple ways to do it, from decorating your room with repurposed art to navigating the dining hall like an eco-pro.
Go Green…in Your Dorm Room
Your dorm room is your home away from home (except for when it’s actually your home, but that’s another story). The point is, you’ll be spending a ton of time here studying, sleeping, and hanging out, so why not make it as eco-fab as possible?
→ Get creative: Save money by decorating your room with unique art and furniture from local thrift shops. For a look that’s all your own, turn old décor items into a new masterpiece—here’s a two minute tutorial on Repurposing Thrift Store Art. Or try re-using scrap wood to make shelving units and using vintage fabric or clothing to upholster a funky chair. Eco-cred: Buying used instead of new saves the resources needed for new production, and helps keep stuff out of landfills.
→ Share with your roomie: One super-easy way to green your dorm room is simply to talk with your roommate about what you do or don’t need. No need to have two coffee pots, right? And when neither of you already has something clutch, like an iPod speaker, opt for one of the eco-friendly options out there, like these super-cool iPod speakers made from recycled material. Also, since free is better than cheap for most of us, be sure to check websites such as Freecycle and the “free” section on Craigslist to pick up local items for no cost. Eco-cred: Sharing one item instead of buying two saves energy needed to produce new goods.
→ Grow some green: You can improve air quality and score a calm environment for studying by planting a local, low-maintenance plant in a pot or window box. Look for plants that need minimal water like aloe and cacti. Eco-cred: Growing native flowers in a window box supports local pollinators.
→ Bright idea: Use natural lighting whenever possible and, when new you need a new light bulb, go with Energy Star certified CFL options to save 75 percent of the energy and 75 percent of the heat loss associated with traditional incandescents. Want mood-lighting? Try LED Christmas lights, which also use less energy than incandescents. Eco-cred: Using efficient lighting saves energy. Bonus: Some schools offer FREE Energy Star light bulbs. If yours does, enjoy it—and tell your peeps to pick one up, too!
Go Green…in the Bathroom and Laundry Room
Ah, the joys of communal dorm bathrooms. Good news is you can help save the environment simply by spending less time in them—from turning off the water while you brush your teeth to taking shorter showers. You can also help keep toxic chems out of waterways (not to mention your own body) by opting for green cleaning and laundry products.
→ Cut showers short: According to the EPA, the average shower lasts eight minutes and uses about 18 gallons of water. By cutting your shower time in half you could save above 60 gallons of water a week…heck, even shaving one minute off your shower time will save a lot over time. Eco-cred: A shorter shower saves water as well as the energy needed to heat it.
→ Green your laundry cycle: Washing laundry in cold water gets clothes clean and saves energy on heating the water. You can also make for a planet-friendlier wash cycle by opting for plant-based detergents like Seventh Generation laundry packs. Eco-cred: Heating water accounts for 90 percent of a washing machine’s energy use, which you can easily save by switching to a cold cycle.
→ Pass on sketchy chems: Avoid shampoos, deodorants, and soaps that contain contaminants like parabens and triclosan, and instead discover the wonderful world of earth-friendly products. I’m a big fan of Nature’s Gate for its variety and its relatively cheaper price point. And the ultimate cheap/green cleaning solution? Vinegar is a glorious product that you can use as an all-purpose cleaner around your room. Just mix with water in a spray bottle, and voila, clean green living. Eco-cred: Opting for products like paraben-free shampoo and natural cleaning products keeps more contaminants from polluting our waterways.
Go Green…in the Dining Hall
Love it or loathe it, the cafeteria is a place most of us are gonna spend a good amount of time. While the fact that you’re not cooking may make it seem like the green quotient is out of your hands, there are actually some pretty major ways you can green things up the dining hall—and back in your room when off-hour hunger strikes, too.
→ Refill it: Bring a reusable mug and fill it up before leaving the cafeteria, so you can carry coffee/tea/what-have-you out to class. This’ll save you from having to fork over cash for another cuppa joe at a coffee shop—and help cut down on single-use cup waste. Back in your room, skip the bottled water hype and keep your reusable water bottle full of filtered tap water. Eco-cred: Skipping single-use beverage containers like coffee cups and plastic water bottles helps keep stuff out of landfills, and helps reduce the energy needed to produce ’em in the first place.
→ Skip the tray (it’s awkward anyway): Let’s face it—there’s just something awkward about standing in the middle of a cafeteria with both hands gripping a tray. Sure, sometimes you really do need a tray to carry everything, but plenty of other times you can get away with one plate and one cup. When you need seconds or dessert, just jump up and go get it—ideally using the same plate, too. Eco-cred: Every tray or dish we keep out of use can save the water needed to wash it.
→ Speak your mind: Many dining halls have great organic, locally grown, and vegetarian/vegan options. Tell the cafeteria cooks that you appreciate those options so they see it’s popular section and try to bring more to the mix. Does your cafeteria feel like an organic-free zone? Write a letter to the cafeteria management. Eco-cred: Chowing on organic, locally grown food helps reduce pesticide use, and eating meatless (at least on Mondays) helps save the giant amount of water needed for meat production.
→ Snack attack: What to do when hunger strikes after hours? If your dorm has a communal kitchen, plan to use that rather than hauling in your own mini-fridge and/or microwave. Shared kitchens can make for an easy way to meet fun new neighbors. If you do find you need your own fridge, look for an Energy Star certified product—like this cool one with a wipe board. Eco-cred: One communal appliance is more energy efficient than dozens of individual units.
There are some basic rules of green thumbs that you can apply anywhere on campus, from a generic classroom to the library to the student union.
→ Turn stuff off: In the spirit of keeping things easy…just remember to turn stuff off when not in use, from faucets to lights to iPods. Did you know many electrical products still draw energy even when they’re off? Using a power strip makes it easy to turn things on or off to save energy—and it helps reduce cord clutter. Eco-cred: Turning stuff off saves energy and water waste…which, after all, is not an ideal form of getting wasted.
→ Get social: The chance to make new friends and learn new things outside of class is one of the best parts of the college experience, whether you join an existing environmental club or nature club, or decide to start something new and unique like a nature poetry slam or glamping club or something. Eco-cred: Getting together with others to appreciate nature helps make the whole campus greener, one conversation or activity at a time.
→ Bike or walk: If you’re one of the roughly half of U.S. college students who have brought a car to campus, save yourself the headache of parking by walking or biking whenever possible. Eco-cred: Saving gas by walking conserves resources and greenhouse gas emissions—plus you get easy exercise and have a better chance of running into that cute classmate you’ve been seeing around…
These are just some of the easy ways you can move to the head of the class, environmentally speaking. Got other ideas for good green campus moves? Please share ’em on Twitter or Facebook with hashtag #greencampus101.