How to Go Zero Waste in College (2023)

zero waste in college

My interest in the zero-waste lifestyle started a good many years after college life. Eco friendly living wasn’t even on my radar at the time. Ten years later, I’ve had a lot of future college students asking me if I have any tips for trying to reduce waste in college, and I definitely think it’s possible!

I know sometimes it can feel like the idea of zero waste is overwhelming when living in a dorm with a limited budget. But remember, one of the principles of zero waste is to reduce what you use. You can make a bigger impact than you think by not falling in to the mindset that you need to buy brand new things for your zero waste lifestyle. I’m excited to share with some back to school tips for waste free life while living in a university dorm!

College girl Jessie in my dorm room, pre zero waste days 🙂

Bring Your Own Cup – Zero Waste Campus Life

The most simple but influential piece of advice I can give you is to bring your own cup. When you leave your dorm make it a daily habit to bring along a reusable water bottle and if you plan to get your caffeine fix on campus, don’t forget a reusable coffee cup.

You don’t need a fancy bottle. I have seen all sorts of reusable water bottles my local thrift store. I even found a Klean Kanteen bottle while thrifting once, major score!! You could even ask a friend if they have an extra cup they could share. You do not need to spend a lot of money on this one, promise. This is a simple way to avoid single-use plastics.

When I was in college, disposable coffee cups were my biggest non zero waste habit for sure. I would even drink a coffee in a to go cup while sitting at a coffee shop! *gasp* I always had a to go cup in my hand while on campus and didn’t give it another thought, tossing it into the trash can. I’m telling you, bringing your own cup, whether that be for coffee or water, is simple yet it will save heaps of plastic bottles and cups from going to the landfill!

Another thought, if you forget your water bottle at home, most college campuses have water fountains throughout the campus. You should be able to get by with using those rather than purchasing a single use plastic bottle. And if you don’t have your travel mug with you, opt to drink your coffee “for here” instead of taking it in a disposable cup.

You don’t need all the STUFF

I know a lot of you are starting college in the next few weeks, and your university has sent you a massive list of the things you “need” to bring for dorm life. Let me be the first to tell you that you do not need all the STUFF. Take a good look at your list and think:

“Is this something I will honestly use?”

“Is this something I already use regularly at home?”

“Can I contact my roommate to see if they are bringing one so we can share?”

“Do I have some things on the list that could serve a dual purpose?”

Here’s the thing. Once you get to school, if you decide after the first few weeks that you really did wish you had something on the dorm list that you didn’t bring, go get one!! It’s easy to add things as you need them rather than wasting money on unnecessary items and a bunch of plastic waste.

Shop Secondhand for Sustainable Dorm Essentials

When you do start organizing that list of dorm essentials, please remember to shop secondhand first! I currently live in a college town and at the end of each semester it is shocking to see all the stuff left behind by college students.

Your brother or cousin or best friend’s cousin has probably been to college already and has the supplies you will need. Before buying new, see if you can find that mini coffee maker or shower caddy secondhand. Not only is it zero waste, but it is cheaper y’all!! Do your wallet the favor and shop your friends’ closets and thrift shops before buying new.

As far as textbooks go, it seems like most textbooks are digital these days. But if not, see if you can also find your textbooks secondhand. That was one eco move I did make in college. I was the queen of used textbooks. Brand new school books are not cheap at all, so shopping the used book stores is key!

Zero Waste School Supplies

This goes along with shopping secondhand, but did you know you can even shop secondhand for most of your school supplies?? The key is visiting estate sales! I have been to so many estate sales in my town and there’s always an office in every home full of unused notebooks, pens, pencils, etc. You can find a treasure trove of supplies at estate sales or even consider checking local yard sales on the weekends. You will be surprised by what you can find “used” that hasn’t actually been used at all.

Stock Up on Reusables

I mentioned having a reusable water bottle and/or coffee cup on hand, but don’t forget other useful reusables. I like to keep a set of eating utensils and cloth napkin in my bag too.

Listen, you don’t have to buy a brand new set of bamboo utensils for zero waste on the go. A metal fork, spoon, and knife you snag from your mom’s kitchen will work just fine wrapped in a bandana. I’ve been able to find really cute cloth napkins at antique stores as well.

A few Stasher bags could be useful too. And don’t forget a handful of reusable bags so you can avoid plastic bags at the grocery store when you pick up snacks! Having a few reusable bags is always a good idea.

Sustainable living doesn’t have to mean all new zero waste supplies. Try to use what you already have! Also, be sure to stock up on reusable containers for to go food. Again, you don’t have to buy brand new glass reusable food containers; ask your mom if you can borrow some Tupperwares from her or you can simply use a mason jar. The mason jar for leftovers is a personal fave, because it seconds as a reusable cup/coffee mug.

Remembering to bring your reusables to campus may take some getting used to but eventually it will become second nature!

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Zero Waste Bathroom Essentials

I know trying to go zero waste when surrounded by others that aren’t mindful of their own waste can be a struggle, but one place you can shine during dorm life is with your zero waste bathroom essentials. Impress your dorm mates with your shower caddy full of plastic free bathroom essentials. You can find just about everything you need in the Tiny Yellow Bungalow shop including bamboo toothbrushes, plastic free deodorant, conditioner bars, zero waste laundry detergent etc. Here are a few of the essentials:

zero waste deodorant
Zero Waste Deodorant
single bamboo toothbrush
Bamboo Toothbrush
Agave Nectar Aloe
Shampoo Bar
Japanese Citrus Chamomile
Soap Bar for Body & Face
Long Handled Double Edge Safety Razor
Safety Razor

There are lots of other zero waste swaps you can make but let’s remember we are on a college budget. Stick to the necessities and try some DIY recipes for the rest. There are tons of zero waste tooth paste and body butter recipes out there you could try out.


This tip is my favorite, because it doesn’t require any thrifting, purchasing, organizing, etc… just say no. That’s it. When you’re on campus and organizations are passing out freebies and flyers, just kindly refuse. You don’t need that trash! It’s just going to eventually end up in the garbage can any way because most of those on-campus freebies are cheaply made and not worth keeping to be honest.

Composting on Campus

Usually students that live in campus dorms are on the university’s meal plan. You probably won’t have a lot of food packaging waste since you won’t be doing much cooking. If you are in need of some dorm room snacks, shoot for healthy snacks like fresh fruit which you can find packaging free.

There’s a good chance you’ll have some food scraps like fruit peels and coffee grounds that need composting. Check and see if your campus has a composting facility. You might have to do a little hunting but ask around at your school’s office of sustainability, school of ag, dining halls, or meal services office to see what options your campus has.

Does your school have a campus greenhouse or community garden? That might be a good place to start. If your campus doesn’t have a composting facility, start one!! That’s right, see if you can get your campus to start a composting program. You really just need a place where students can drop off their organic waste.

I think the best way to compost when you don’t have a compost bin is to share your scraps with a friend! Ask around to see if you have any off campus friends, maybe someone from your church, who has a compost system at home. Ask if they’d mind if you dropped off your compost at their place weekly. This is what my little sister does with her compost. She fills up her bucket throughout the week, keeps it in the freezer, and each week brings her scraps to my house to use my compost tumbler.

You can even check with your local farmer’s market and see if someone there will take your scraps. Most farmers would love some fresh scraps to add to their compost pile. See if someone at the market would let you bring your scraps by weekly.

Get Involved in Eco Student Organizations

Sometimes it feels like you can’t make a huge impact when you’re a student and you don’t have a lot of money. But look, it’s not about the money. You can definitely make a difference by telling others why you aren’t buying unnecessary junk and why you’re choosing to live intentionally.

You have access to a huge student body in your dormitory and all around campus. Reach out to other incoming students. Start a conversation and introduce someone else to the idea of sustainability, zero waste, and eco friendly living.

Get involved in environmental student organizations or even your university’s gardening club. This is a great opportunity to meet other students who also interested in environmental issues and reducing their carbon footprint. You could even start a zero waste program of your own.

These small changes you are making help reduce your environmental impact. These small steps matter. Keep up the good work!

Living more sustainably in college IS possible! What has your experience been with zero waste in college?? Do you have any tips to share??

Update: This post was originally created in August 2018 but we’ve since updated our content and want to share it with our new readers.

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zero waste in college
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