Zero Waste University: How to practice zero waste in college

When you start college, everyone tells you that it will be some of the best years of your life. What they don't tell you is it is that college is also going to introduce you to some of the most environmentally sustainable ways that you can live. Sharing a building and resources with a thousand other people and only taking up 180 square feet in a shared dorm is about as sustainable as it gets (aside from the occasional late night takeout or red solo cup).

For me, college is where I discovered what it meant to live a low waste lifestyle. I was already used to sustainable bamboo toothbrushes, shampoo bars, and skipping grocery store plastic bags as much as one can, but now I was out on my own. All my groceries and meals, school supplies, clothing and décor, and everyday necessities were up to me and my budget.

Finding Community

In the beginning, the thought of being zero waste was intimidating. As an environmental studies major at UW, I was constantly surrounded by the best of the best in terms of sustainability. Some of my friends wouldn't even purchase a dining hall burrito because of its saran wrapped packaging, but having this community of people also inspired me. Coming from a conservative and rather un-environmentally focused town, moving to Seattle meant access to new stores, environmental groups, and opportunities. One day, my classmate recommended her eco-friendly Kaweco refillable pen, which led me to Eco Collective. I would highly recommend finding this kind of community to anyone starting their zero waste journey. Whether it’s an on-campus environmental club, Seattle Sunrise Movement Chapter, or simply seeking out zero waste people to talk to, being zero waste with friends makes the transition much less nerve-racking and much more fun. Honestly, if you ever want to chat about it, just come into the store - the girls and I would love to talk to you about all things zero waste lifestyle. And remember, being zero waste doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. You can buy that burrito every now and then!


One of the biggest plastic offenders in college, and anywhere for that matter, is food packaging. From plastic-wrapped broccoli to those pesky plastic bags of nutritional yeast, those clear little casings are hard to avoid. However, there's a few tips and tricks to get around these.

Bulk: If you’ve never shopped in bulk before, it is going to be your new best friend. There are bulk stores all over the city with options in places like Fred Meyers, PCC, QFC, and much more, plus all your bulk skincare, haircare, and home cleaning needs able to be found right here at Eco Collective ;). If you’re a UW student like me, we have our own mini on-campus bulk store called the Bean Basket located in the HUB! And Scoop Marketplace in Kirkland is a great option for the Seattle local.
Bulk stores will typically allow you to bring your own bags or jars, which allows you to weigh out and subtract the tare (weight of your jar), and only pay for the product inside. With COVID conditions, some stores won’t allow this currently, so I’m always a proponent for snagging the brown paper bags in the mushroom section to use for bulk.

Alternative Packaging: For products that don’t have a bulk option, keep your eyes peeled for alternative packing from plastic such as spices that come in glass or noodles that come in cardboard. Sticking to glass, tins, aluminum, paper, and cardboard will be the easiest ways to garner a more sustainable pantry, (or drawer which fits in a dorm.)

Dining Hall: If you’re purchasing food in the dining hall itself you’ll likely encounter plastic here too. This is where bringing your own containers for food fill-ups or leftovers, carrying around some bamboo utensils or chopsticks, or keeping a slab of beeswax wrap on hand can really come in handy.

Clothing: It's important to avoid over consumption, but sometimes shopping for clothing is inevitable. However, in my opinion, Seattle is home to some of the best thrift, vintage, and antique stores you’ll ever find. Don’t believe me? One stop in the Fremont Vintage Mall will change your mind right around. A fun way to build your low waste community of friends on campus is to invite people to go thrifting; it's also a great way to explore a new city if you’re from out of town. Not only will you be able to find unique pieces no one else will have, you are reducing the need for fast fashion, plastic materials in clothes, and looking stylish while you're at it.

School Supplies

The supplies you use to get through those late night papers and early morning exams can be sustainable and also bring you joy in some rather tumultuous times. Some of my favorite sustainable swaps have been refillable pens, compostable washi tape, decomposition notebooks (or more often, standard notebooks made with recycled paper because decomp notebooks can get a bit spendy $). These are great for taking notes in class and for writing those letters home your mom has been asking for. My newest personal favorite sustainable swap is a bamboo wood besk (also called a bed-desk)! It's perfect for rolling over to turn on that 8:30am zoom class, and you can watch from under the covers. Keep searching for the things that are sustainable and bring you joy, whether it be a colorful paper to-do list or mushroom printed planner. At Eco Collective, we have quite a few! In my experience, if something is fun to use, it is sure to motivate me to get things done, and I'll feel good while I'm doing them.

Reuse, Reuse, Reuse

Some of the most fun to be had in going zero waste comes from finding funky ways to reuse products, particularly when it comes in plastic. Doing this also adds to the zero waste home aesthetic if you’re into that sort of thing. When you do buy something in plastic, or even a glass jar or paper box, consider ways you could give it a second life. I’ve found that hummus containers are great for keeping garlic cloves, my pesto container is perfect for storing avocado halves, and an enchilada sauce bottle is the perfect shape to propagate an avocado seed. I save Trader Joe’s bags for Christmas wrapping and you’ll never see me toss a good used candle jar that could hold q-tips or beach glass. Food bags with plastic seals can be rinsed and replace the need for any new Ziplocks, or of course you can switch to silicone Stasher bags if you want a more minimalist look. These simple plastic reducing swaps will save items from the landfill and also save in that college budget.

In the end, it’s important to remember not to put too much pressure on yourself to be perfect. This goes for the zero waste lifestye and your college courses. Sticking within a budget sometimes means forgoing the most sustainable items as they are oftentimes coupled with a higher price tag which isn't always an option in say, the weekly grocery budget. Zero waste is a journey, and no matter how many mason jars full of trash you may see online, that's not always realistic - in fact it almost never is. Find your community, find your people, and choose your sustainable swaps where you can. Remind yourself that any small steps are good ones, and we are so proud of you. Good luck with exams!