Zero Waste in College


Is zero waste living possible for the busy and frugal college student on the go? Here’s a how-to guide describing my  going zero waste process while transferring from community college to universriy:

            Before starting this project, my two-person household produced a full 13-gallon trash bag of waste every two to three days. This was largely thrown out food packages, old food, and a massive amount of paper towels that were used for everything from cleaning surfaces to hand drying. Aluminum cans, paper or plastic milk cartons, and various plastic materials were recycled when possible, and the unrecyclable materials were tossed with the rest of the trash. Buying individually packaged products meant my recycling was excessive, filling a 35-gallon recycling bin every week. My apartment unit did not provide a method for compost collection, which was highly problematic for my zero waste goals and would somehow have to be overcome.

            Thinking outside the box, I considered many methods for possible ways to compost, not limited to walking into the woods under the cover of darkness and digging a hole to loosely bury fruit and vegetable peelings. Luckily, it did not have to come to “free-lance composting,” a term I have coined for this ridiculous idea. While researching various compostable materials, I discovered that paper towels, the material taking up the bulk of my trash, was a compostable item.[1] This discovery served dual purposes. Not only could I virtually eliminate 40% of my trash, I had a very persuasive argument to present the owner of the veterinary clinic I am employed at. As they pay a substantial amount for commercial waste pickup, presenting the fact that if we composted, not only could we consider ourselves more environmentally friendly, we could save money in the process by paying less for our garbage haul.

            Paper towels would be replaced with reusable, washable dishrags and my trashcan was transformed into my new 4-gallon recycling bin, and I got rid of the need for a trash can all together. Though I previously considered myself to be budgeting my groceries efficiently, I was unnecessarily overspending and producing an exorbitant amount of food-related waste. According to my calculations, I was spending approximately $270 a week on groceries alone (See Figure A). Of these items, almost 100% were purchased in packages, and of that, 48% of my purchases were not recyclable and were trashed, at the time this included compostable items. To tackle the issue of eliminating packaging, a few cotton bags were reused as totes for various flours/powders, produce, and other loose or bulk items. I found that shopping in the bulk aisles of whole food stores was considerably less expensive than buying packaged food at your standard grocery store.

Additionally, I had been constantly spending money on new make-up products, lotions, soaps and cleaning solutions under the impression that I needed a unique, individual product to remedy each need when in fact one or two ingredients can be used for innumerable purposes. For example, bottles of dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent, hand soap, dog shampoo and all-purpose spray cleaners could be replaced with one bottle of Castile soap, diluted at different concentrations for each application. For the many lotions, oils and moisturizers I had purchased, they could all be replaced with Shea butter, which left my skin feeling even healthier than commercial products, with no packaging required if bought in bulk.

            After a month of shopping as close to zero waste as possible, the money I was saving was not expected to be so extreme. My hypothesis was that after a few initial bulk purchases, which I assumed would be quite costly to initiate, the average spending would eventually be less than my previous lifestyle spending on average. Though my first few purchases were nominally pricier, the savings I calculated were immediate. Where I was previously spending a total of approximately $1080 a month, my new zero waste budget was reduced to just $509 a month (See Figure B), a savings of about 48%! Additionally, I was recycling approximately 124 items and throwing away 117 items in the trash a month. Now, I recycle less than 20 items a month and trash only fruit stickers unavoidably placed on produce. Every other item was reused or composted.

I confirmed through my research that not only was zero waste living achievable for a college student, but that it is an economical and enlightening process that opened my eyes to the amount of waste I was unconsciously producing. Though I considered myself to be a very earth-conscious individual, I needed more education to understand the true cost of landfilling and the inefficiencies of recycling. Change starts in the home. If we wholeheartedly want to be a zero waste city in less than three years, we need to act fast and these changes need to be permanent. If we agreed as a county to purchase our groceries with the notion that nothing can ever reach a landfill, we can deliver an unprecedented statement to the rest of the world that large-scale change is possible, affordable, and vital to save our planet.

Works Cited

[1] “How to Recycle and Compost in San Francisco.” – Our Home. Our City. Our Planet. N.p., 14 Apr. 2017. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.


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