How I'm Starting A Zero-Waste Lifestyle As A College Dormer

These simple practices, when done consistently, end up being worth a lot.
by Anya Nellas   |  Jan 20, 2020
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One of the things I’ve noticed about my living habits as a dormer is the alarming amount of waste I produce. My roommates and I can’t go more than four days without our waste bin overflowing with papers, disposable cups, product packaging, and so on. With the new semester just around the corner, I thought it might be a great time to start rethinking my dorm lifestyle in terms of reducing my personal waste, and so I listed down personal tips to get me started on my eco-mission:

Be realistic.

First of all, it’s important to remember that you can’t go zero-waste in a snap. As a college student who’s always in a rush and on a budget, I know that the change involved isn’t always affordable, accessible, or convenient. And even for many who practice the lifestyle, “zero-waste” doesn’t always mean totally ZERO, and that’s okay. Start small, list down the activities you do that produce the most waste, and work from there. Do a lot of shopping? Use one of your totes as a reusable shopping bag. Take a lot of school notes? See if you have old notebooks you can reuse or try exploring digital options if they work for you. Assess your resources and know that you don’t need to make drastic changes right away.

Save up for zero-waste swaps (that you actually need).

With the whole eco-consciousness movement on the rise, it’s easy to find shops that sell sustainable alternatives for your day-to-day items. From toiletries like bamboo toothbrushes and bar soaps, to school supplies like plantable pencils, the possibilities are endless.

But let’s face it, swapping your stuff all at once might get pricey, and you don’t always need all of them. When buying these zero-waste alternatives, it’s important to consider: Will this be something I’ll regularly use? Do I already have a similar item lying around than I can use instead? When moving into your dorm, bring as many reusable things as you can from home like a tumbler, lunchbox, and utensils, so that you won’t have to get brand new ones (no matter how cute they look online).


Try to be consistent.

One of my personal challenges with maintaining a zero-waste lifestyle is sticking to a habit. I always end up leaving my metal straw and shopping bag home thinking that I won’t need it (until a friend invites me on a sudden coffee date or I end up needing to do a quick grocery run). As a college student, we’ve always got a lot on our plates, so it may help to set personal goals ahead and find a self-reminder system that works for you. Whether it’s putting your reusable tote near your toiletry rack so you’ll always remember to bring it, or sticking a giant “Don’t forget your tumbler” sign on your corkboard, these simple practices, when done consistently, end up being worth a lot.


Going back to the idea of being realistic, I know that there are a lot of zero-waste practices I won’t be able to do routinely, like buying unpackaged food, composting all my food waste, or going paperless. As a college dormer, my instinct’s first considerations always end up being convenience and affordability. But someone recently introduced to me the concept of “trade-offs.” If you can’t do one thing, make up for it by doing something else. If you have a class that requires you to print all your readings physically, switch to full-on digital notes with two other classes that allow it. If you ended up with too much waste from all your fast food deliveries over the weekend, spend the next week getting food from the school caf where they have reusable plates and utensils. It’s all about the little things, like donating your old clothes instead of throwing them away or asking the cashier not to put the school supplies you bought in a plastic.

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Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Many college students have started to subscribe to a zero-waste lifestyle, and some have been consistently practicing it successfully. There are so many people you can ask help or advice from, and sometimes they can give such insightful tips that you’ll never find on any online zero-waste article. Don’t be afraid to ask people about their sustainable practices or where they bought the eco-friendly stuff they use, because these people will always be happy to help those who want to be more environmentally-conscious. Branch out to fellow students or even dormers who live in the same situation as you, in order to get the appropriate and applicable zero-waste advice you may need.

I’ll admit, starting this lifestyle may seem daunting at first, especially when you’ve become so accustomed to your existing habits and convenient living practices. But knowing yourself and your lifestyle well, and the realistic ways in which you can start the change, is already a great place to start. After all, as Kathryn Kellogg—founder of the Going Zero Waste online platform—always says, “It’s not about perfection, it’s about making better choices.”


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Anya Nellas
Candy Correspondent
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