5 Unique Ways to Go Green if You're Living in a Dorm

Besides turning the lights off, there are dorm competitions, smarter shopping, and even data tracking.

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College is often termed the best years of your life. Now, recent trends suggest that it is also becoming pretty green. A growing number of colleges and universities are seeking ways to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, many with energy-efficient facilities and construction projects. A wind turbine at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, for example, provides 33 percent of campus electricity and saves more than $250,000 annually in utility costs. Richard Stockton College in New Jersey is heated and cooled using one of the country's largest closed-loop geothermal systems, and students living in a new green-themed dorm at Dartmouth College use, on average, about 60 percent less energy than other students on campus. Plans for the dorm, named the Sustainable Living Center, call for it to be a waste-free, energy-neutral student residence. 

[Slide show: 10 Schools With Green Dorms

"Colleges are really leading the parade as far as committing to green building on campuses," says Judy Marks, director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. There even is a pledge, called the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, that more than 600 college presidents have signed to incorporate climate and sustainability into the educational experience of all students.

But what if you don't go to a particularly tree-huggy school or you don't live in a snazzy green dorm or your president did not sign the pledge? Don't worry: College faculty and students say there are many things you can do, in addition to turning off lights or using refillable drinking containers, to reduce your impact on the environment. 

1. Become an informed consumer. Turning off appliances and lights when you're not using them or using a smart strip—a power strip that shuts computer peripherals off when your computer goes into sleep mode—are good habits. But the next time you go shopping for dorm supplies, think about buying products that are green from the get-go. Compact fluorescent light bulbs, for instance, last 10 times longer than standard light bulbs and use 75 percent less electricity. And appliances that are Energy Star rated, such as lamps, computers and printers, and minifridges, can reduce your energy use by up to 50 percent. A list of such products can be found at www.energystar.gov. You can also use the Electronic Product Environment Assessment Tool at www.epeat.net, which lets you evaluate and compare different computers based on their environmental attributes.

Laura Fieselman, the sustainability coordinator (a campus job title that is becoming more and more popular) at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., says to shop local and to buy secondhand at consignment, vintage, and thrift stores. "Gently used furniture pieces and accessories save both money and resources and reduce waste," she says. You can also buy (and sell) bedding, clothing, and all sorts of housewares—all handmade—on the online marketplace Etsy, and the proceeds help support a local craftsman.

Also, be sure to look for eco-friendly bath and cleaning products, such as those made by the brand Seventh Generation. "Only buy products labeled as nontoxic, biodegradable, dye free, chlorine free, phosphate free, nonpetroleum based, vegetable based, or fragrance free," says Kathy Straub, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa. Some colleges, such as Worcester Polytechnic Institute, even provide resources to students to teach them how to make their own green cleaning products using supplies like baking soda and vinegar. If your school does not have such resources, the green living website Care2 features a comprehensive guide to making nontoxic cleaning kits.

And when the term's over, think about selling your wares through sites like Craigslist or eBay instead of leaving them in front of the dumpster. Many schools, such as Clark University and Lafayette College, also have relationships with donor centers and set up on-campus donation sites so you can give those pesky futons and air conditioners to a new home when it's move-out time.