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.
2. Reduce paper waste. Everyone knows it's better to use hand towels and cloths instead of paper towels, but see if you can take it one step further. It might be more expensive, but consider buying a small set of dishes, bowls, and silverware instead of paper goods for in-room dining, says Amanda Navarroli, manager of sustainability at Bentley University. Recycled and reusable cutlery and plates can be purchased online at Preserve or at retail giants like Target or Walmart. Most grocery stores also sell recycled napkins and tissues. "But if you want to get fancy, try organic hand towels and bamboo cutlery," says Tara Holste, the recycling coordinator at Washington College in Chestertown, Md.
And use your printer wisely, too. Ask your professors if it's OK to submit papers and reports via E-mail, and set your computer to default to double-sided printing. If you don't have a double-sided printer, reuse paper that has been printed on one side for draft printing or scratch paper. Matt Shaw, a junior at Maine's College of the Atlantic who has worked with the campus committee for sustainability, says that students there have such a green mentality that when they need to print something, they'll grab some used paper out of the nearest recycling bin.
And try to condense your mail lists so only interested parties are included, says Straub of Susquehanna University. You can block unwanted catalogs and unwanted mail by going to www.cataloguechoice.org, and you can also get rid of junk mail by sending a letter to Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, PO Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY 11735.
Straub also recommends making your own notepads out of recycled paper and using online banking, which is now offered by practically all of the major banking companies and credit unions, to reduce the number of paper bills you receive.
3. Data awareness. Here's how you can score major points for creativity. If you really want to make an impact where it will matter the most, find out exactly how much water, electricity, and gas you are consuming in your dorm, says Rocco Calandruccio, a senior and the residential sustainability coordinator at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. The information is critical for accountability as well as tracking progress toward living greener, he says, and most colleges have it and will make it available to you if you ask. Officials at Sewanee, for instance, are currently working on a system that will make the data available to students in real time.
Emily Wright of Colorado College's Office of Sustainability agrees that giving students the tools to audit and calculate the carbon footprint of their own spaces, whether it's a single dorm room or an entire building, is important. An on-campus deli at the Colorado Springs liberal arts college even has a new educational program to track food miles associated with products so that students can make informed decisions about what they consume. This interactive website created by the sustainability office at the University of New Hampshire shows you how to reduce energy consumption for various items you probably already have in your room. Regardless of the information that you get from your school, always challenge yourself to take shorter showers, use cold water to do your laundry, and try hanging your clothes on a clothes rack to dry instead of tossing them in the dryer.
4. Recycle. This might not sound like anything new, but it applies to both recycling the things that you use and purchasing items made from recycled material: When you shop, look for recycled items that were made using post-consumer waste. Most retail chains now sell recycled umbrellas, vases, doormats, and even journals and stationery made from elephant dung. "The fact is that a lot more things can be recycled these days," says Susquehanna University's Straub. Start by learning what can be recycled on your campus, and then make sure there's a recycling bin next to your trash can. Liz Davis, a graduate student at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, says she is able to recycle cereal and pasta boxes and the plastic wrapping around toilet paper in addition to the usual items like soup cans and bottles. "Anything that you do not recycle goes straight to the landfill," she says.
Brian Chapp, a senior at Lehigh University and the student coordinator for the school's green-themed student house, says to pay close attention when recycling and not to leave food waste in the container. For example, "wash out those yogurt containers really well," he says. "Food waste can minimize the amount of material that can be recycled." And if your school has a composting program, request a bin to compost any food scraps, says Heather Ellis, the sustainability coordinator at St. Michael's College near Burlington, Vt.
The EPA Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery also provides a wealth of information on source reduction, recycling, and disposal by state.
5. Get involved. Talking with others about being sustainable and launching a special project to spread the word on campus could be effective ways to spark change on a larger scale. "Some colleges have appointed eco-reps for each dorm whose job it is to put on educational programs for students on how to use less energy," says Keith Whitworth, professor of sociology at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.St. Michael's University's Ellis recommends creating a sustainability commitment statement and having your floor or entire hall pledge to adhere to sustainable living practices.
More and more schools are also sponsoring challenges between dorms to see which can use the least amount of energy. Worcester Polytechnic Institute held one such competition in November and had two freshman residence halls participate in a 10-day event to conserve energy. Director of Residential Services Naomi Carton says the best thing about it was when the engineering students pondered whether it was possible to adjust the timers on the vending machines that controlled the fans to cool the soda. "That's a testament to our students," she says. "For them to say, 'It could be the Coke machine that's going to make us not win.' "
At Bentley University, the entire month of February is "Blackout Challenge," and the student-run Green Society will host a campuswide competition to challenge dorms to reduce their electricity output. Various events will also be held throughout the month, such as screenings of Wall-E and Planet Earth, as well as a board-game night and other activities that can be done with minimal electricity.
Some college-goers say it's important for those forms of programming to put the onus on the student. "The university can make changes and try to foster a greener attitude, but it all comes down to the students," says Emily Williams, a senior at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. Matt Shaw at the College of the Atlantic says that if you want to start a group or activity, you should get your research done and have clear objectives before bringing the proposal before an administrative body at the university. "Be adamant, and don't give up on the issue," he says.
And still a lot of students view their efforts as a starting point for green living in the future. Says Rocco Calandruccio at the University of the South, "The greatest work we can do today is to become accountable for our impact on the environment and translate our behavior to the communities we inhabit after college."