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10 tips for being an eco-friendly student

Post-secondary school ranges from one to four (plus) years, so it’s good practice to start establishing eco-friendly habits from the get-go. From recycling takeout cafeteria containers to printing double-sided, there are lots of little, simple ways to be more environmentally friendly every day while you’re at school. 

1. Avoid wasting food

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Having a meal plan at school often means you can eat what you want without really thinking about the cost. But food waste is a big issue (nearly one-third of all food produced in the world is wasted!), as so much of it ends up in landfills, overflowing them and polluting the air. Plus, not everyone gets three meals a day, so we shouldn’t waste what we have. 

Food waste is a problem because:

If you toss your food in the garbage bin (this is a big no-no!) it will go to the landfill, where it rots and emits methane gas (hello, greenhouse gas!)

It wastes a ton of water (that went into growing it)

• It’s also a giant waste of money

It takes a massive amount of land (meaning deforestation, species pushed out of their homes, indigenous population moved, and soil degraded) to produce food that we just throw away

Ask for less food at the cafeteria, share meals, get a mini fridge and store food so you can eat it later, shop smarter, and plan ahead. There are lots of steps you can take to ensure you’re wasting less food. 

2. Reduce and reuse when possible

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Reducing means using less materials in the first place. To do this, we need to be thoughtful about what we’re consuming and whether it’s something we actually need. 

For example, we can reduce the amount of plastic water bottles we use by purchasing a reusable water bottle.

We can also reduce the amount of waste we produce by packing snacks and lunches instead of eating out. 

o If you have a meal plan, plan ahead so that you can eat in the cafeteria and use reusable dishes rather than getting takeout on-the-go. 

Reusing means saying “no” to single-use waste and using materials more than once. 

If you do buy a plastic water bottle, fill it up and use it again. Better yet, buy a reusable water bottle (and coffee cup) and take it everywhere.

If you happen to print an extra copy, save it for another student or use it for scratch notes.

If you get takeout and it’s in a plastic container, wash it and use it again.

Read more about the three R’s (or four – “refuse”) in this post, under tip #2.

3. Do your best to save paper

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Printing double-sided? Simple. Ensuring you don’t press “print” until you’ve done a couple rounds of edits on your essay? A bit trickier after you’ve stared at it for hours on end. 

If you do hit ‘print’ and then spot a mistake – don’t throw the paper away. Recycle it or use the blank spots for rough notes. 

With notebooks, write on both sides of the paper and use them up until they’re done. And when your semester is over (hooray!), recycle the notes you won’t need later. Taking notes electronically is another option (and you’ll always have them with you).

Lastly, holiday and valentine’s cards are cute – but ecards are, too. 

4. Become a plant parent

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Getting a plant will help reduce stress, add colour to your dorm décor, and clean the air in your room. Plus, you’re usually not allowed pets (including fish, we know – sad). But plant pets? Totally a thing and definitely allowed.

5. Reduce the energy you’re using

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Sure, you don’t pay for utilities while living in a dorm, but that doesn’t mean you should use more power than you normally would. Shut off your lights, unplug your laptop when it’s fully charged, and don’t blast your heat when your windows are open. Simple things can make a difference. 

Why should you care about your electricity use while at school? 

Producing and using electricity means more fuel needed to generate it, and more greenhouse gases and air pollution

Burning of coal is the world’s largest source of electricity – burning coal releases CO2 into the atmosphere and pollutes the air

Practicing using less electricity at school will come in handy when you move to a home or apartment (and start paying utility bills), as you’ll have already formed those habits!

6. Go with e-copies 

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When you’re wondering whether to buy textbooks in hardcopy or online, go for the e-versions (electronic)! Here’s why:

1. They’re cheaper (by a mile)

2. They use less paper (i.e. none at all) 

3. They’re lighter (less weight on your back, literally)

4. You won’t forget them (they’re always on your laptop!)

5. They’re more efficient (hello, control-F!)

Of course, if you prefer studying from hard copies, that’s totally fine. Two options to make buying hard copies better: 

1. Buy used – almost every school has a used textbook section (plus, Facebook is great for that)

2. Print off specific chapters that you need from the e-book (overall, still less paper!)

7. Need new clothes? Hello, thrift shopping

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Having a “new year, new me!” attitude is a great thing. School is a time when your style is forming and will likely change a bit from year-to-year.

However, if you learn to thrift shop like a pro, you’ll spend (way) less money, find unique and stylish pieces that nobody else has, and you’ll master the “reuse” R in the three R’s of recycling. 

8. Take public transit, walk or bike

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Going shopping or out at night? There’s nothing wrong with public transit, even if you just take it one way. While ordering an Uber is uber easy these days, keep in mind you’re spending more money and increasing your carbon footprint.

And if you need groceries or a shopping trip, ask friends to carpool or go along for a walk or bike ride. Plus, at schools like Western or Ryerson where traffic is crazy, it’s easier to bike, transit or walk anyway.

9. Support good brands

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You’re on your own now, making your own purchases and deciding what to spend your money on. It’s the perfect time to start paying attention to what brands you’re buying, in addition to supporting local businesses.

Do your research – look for beauty and cleaning products that have healthy and eco-friendly production, operations and disposing practices. 

o How can you tell? Learn about how to look for eco-conscious brands by doing some research.

Read the labels – tested on animals? No thanks. Cruelty-free? Yes please. Energy Star? Definitely!

o Here are some labels and logos to watch for to ensure you’re being a smart consumer.

Shop local – shopping local helps you learn about and explore your community, meet new people and support their businesses, and reduces the carbon footprint it would have taken to ship food and products from across the country.

10. Know what to recycle vs. throw away

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Why is it important to recycle? First of all, it isn’t hard to do. Once you know what to recycle and what not to recycle, the rest is simple. If you’re stuck, take out that handy dandy phone and google it. Here are some reasons not to ignore recycling: 

It conserves resources: Recycling = materials reused and made into new things

It saves energy: Using recycled materials uses less energy in the manufacturing process than with new or raw materials

It protects the environment: New materials need extracting, refining and processing – creating air and water pollution and increasing greenhouse gas emissions

It reduces landfill: Materials that go into recycling don’t go to the landfill – meaning less junk at the dump and reduced methane emissions (a powerful greenhouse gas)

To make it easier, we’ve got some (general*) student lists of what to recycle vs. toss vs. donate.

*Keep in mind that recycling regulations change by the city and province – the below list is based on Toronto’s Waste Wizard. Specifically for items like plastic straws and coffee cups, check with your city’s rules.

What should you TOSS? 

Beer bottle caps (steel) – TOSS 

Clothes hangers (plastic) – TOSS

o Plastic hangers are made out of a harder, industrial plastic and can’t be recycled. If you have metal hangers from a drycleaner, consider returning them to be used again

Coffee cups (paper + polyethylene) – TOSS 

o Most single-use cups are lined with polyethylene, which is difficult and expensive to reprocess. 

o Starbucks is starting trials for recyclable and compostable cups. Until something is successful, they should unfortunately be tossed. 

Coffee pods (Keurig, Nespresso, Tassimo, and K-cups) – TOSS 

Dirty paper towels (paper) – TOSS

o Sopping wet paper towel from a big spill doesn’t contain any reusable fibres anymore. If it’s dry and not completely covered in substance, compost it!

Packing or wrapping materials (bubble wrap or aluminum foil) – TOSS

o Aluminum cans? Recycle. Aluminum foil? Toss. 

Pizza and takeout boxes (cardboard) – TOSS

o Pizza boxes, contrary to popular belief, are not recyclable because of the grease and food residue that coats the cardboard. 

Potato chip bags (because of the inner coating) – TOSS 

Red solo cups (plastic) – TOSS

o Red solo cups are actually terrible for the environment and can take up to 450 years to break down. They’re made of a very difficult plastic to break down, that when heated, can release dangerous chemicals. 

o Red solo cups can be recycled at specific facilities that can handle the tough plastic and dangerous chemicals. Overall, it’s better to toss them if you aren’t sure.

Straws (plastic) – TOSS 

o We should do our best not to use plastic straws – the plastic is so thin that it’s essentially garbage. 

Water bottle caps (high density polyethylene) – TOSS 

What should you RECYCLE?

Beer bottles (glass) – RECYCLE 

Coffee lids (plastic) – RECYCLE

o Disposable coffee lids are accepted in recycling as long as they’re not black or compostable plastic – brown lids (like Tim Horton’s) can be recycled.

o Starbucks’ plastic lids can be recycled.

Coffee sleeves (cardboard) – RECYCLE 

Food wrappers, plastic takeout containers and packaging for your toothbrush, charging cord, or other miscellaneous items (plastic) – RECYCLE 

o Important to note: When there’s food or liquid on plastic packaging, wash it off or throw it away. You can’t recycle plastic if there’s substance left on it (sadly).

Magazines, notebooks, and printouts (paper of any kind) – RECYCLE

Pop/beer/wine cans and bottles (aluminum or glass) – RECYCLE

o Psst: It doesn’t matter what colour the glass is (clear or coloured), it’s recyclable.

Water or pop bottles (plastic) – RECYCLE 

What you should DONATE or deal with in another way: 

Pens, markers and highlighters – SPECIAL*

o *These can’t be recycled as they’re made of many parts, but they can be recycled through companies like Staples, Crayola, or Terracycle.  

Broken charging cords, batteries or cell phones (electronics) – SPECIAL*

o *This is a trickier one – but don’t recycle old electronics and accessories. If you don’t want to toss these, they might have special bins at school. Otherwise, go to an electronics store like Best Buy, and they’ll usually have bins for recycling electronics. 

Damaged clothing – TOSS or DONATE 

o If you’re purging your closet or spill something that won’t come out, donate them or toss them! FYI – you can’t recycle clothes.

If you have questions about what to toss, recycle or donate and you can’t find answers online, feel free to tweet or message us and we’ll ask our sustainability team – they’re experts on this stuff! 

With these easy tips we know you’ll be well on your way to becoming a more environmentally friendly student. Don’t forget, you’re a role model now! And you can help others understand how they can do better for our planet, too.