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3 Ways to Live Sustainably on a College Campus

It's pretty easy to take small steps toward sustainable living on campus in three important areas: in transportation, in the residence hall, and in the dining hall.

Rebecca Kurnick had a quarter of a cow and half of a pig in her freezer. A large chest freezer, mind you. Kurnick and her roommate had purchased the freezer for only $100 on Craigslist in an effort to save some money—and maybe even the environment.

While other students were filling their mini fridges with cheap beer and frozen candy bars, Kurnick and her environmentally conscious roommate were stocking their chest freezer with spinach and kale and, in a frugal effort to purchase in bulk, frozen cow and pig, which lasted the two of them through the entire semester.

Kurnick with her frozen food isn’t the only one concerned with her impact on the world. Sixty-one percent of college applicants claim their university’s commitment to environmental issues influenced, or would have influenced, their decision to attend that school, according to a 2015 survey by The Princeton Review. But if you’re not ready to buy sustainably raised meat in bulk, that’s okay. You can still take small steps toward sustainable living on campus in three important areas: in your transportation, in the residence hall, and in the dining hall.

Sustainability in your campus transportation

Ditch the bus and borrow a bike. Universities are making it easy for students by introducing bike libraries and bike share programs. Such programs allow students, particularly those who cannot afford a bike or who cannot bring their bike to campus, to cut down on burning fossil fuels.

As the sustainability peer educator program coordinator at Indiana University, Dana Schroeder assists with Crimson Cruisers, the University’s bike library program that provides 12 students with a bike for the entire semester.

“A lot of the places that have a bike share now started with a bike library,” Schroeder says. “A bike library is sort of a first step.” A bike library program allows students to check out a bike for an entire semester, while a bike share program allows students to check out a bike for a day (or less).

“A benefit of both bike library and bike share programs is you give people the opportunity to try out biking on campus before they would have to invest in a bike of their own,” Schroeder added.

Justin Mog, the Assistant to the Provost for Sustainability Initiatives at the University of Louisville, assists with a bike share program that allows upward of 20 students to borrow a bike for a day. “Maybe they’ll start biking for the rest of their life and they’ll invest in their own bike and they’ll continue that practice, because it’s a great way to save money and stay healthy,” he says.

Mog also assists with the University’s Earn-A-Bike program. Though students originally exchanged their parking permits for a free bike, students now exchange their parking permits for $400 vouchers, which they can put toward a bike, repairs, parts, tools, or accessories.

“We soon found out that, like most things in sustainability, one size doesn’t fit all,” Mog says. “That’s especially true with bikes. Basically, everybody wants a different bike, because they have different needs and they have different comfort levels. And there are all kinds of bikes and all kinds of sizes of bikes. So we decided to make it more flexible by providing vouchers.”

Sustainability in the residence hall

Participate in school reuse and resale programs. For example, universities regularly collect used housewares from students. Depending on the school, these items are donated to local stores and organizations, or donated or sold to students, which funds further sustainability efforts.

The Hoosier to Hoosier community sale collects used housewares from students in the spring and sells the housewares back to students in the fall, funding sustainability efforts around Indiana University. “The Hoosier to Hoosier sale is trying to make our consumption of home goods more cyclical instead of linear,” says Schroeder, who also assists with the community sale.

First, a quick primer on the lifecycle of the stuff in your house. Housewares typically go through five stages: extraction, manufacturing, transportation, consumption, and disposal. While recycling only brings items from the disposal stage back to the manufacturing stage, reusing skips the manufacturing stage, bringing items from the disposal stage back to the consumption stage.

Schroeder says college campuses are the ideal location for such reuse programs.

“When you’ve got a new group of freshmen moving to campus every year and a group of seniors moving off campus every year, there’s a lot of turnover in the stuff that they use.”

Jane Diener, a University of Georgia Dawgs Ditch the Dumpster and Donate co-coordinator, says the goal of university reuse programs is to make donating more convenient than dumping. “Students don’t necessarily want to throw away these items, but at certain institutions, and previously at the University of Georgia, they didn’t really have an option, or at least from their perspective, they didn’t feel like had an option,” she says. “So this is giving them the option to do something great with an item they no longer have a need for.”

As the sustainability program coordinator at the University of Texas, Alyssa Halle-Schramm assists with the Trash to Treasure donation drive, which collects used housewares from students in the spring and, for only $1, sells the housewares (even used iPods) back to students throughout the following academic year, again funding sustainability efforts around the University of Texas. “It also helps the pocketbook of students, because you’re not going out to Target and buying a $15 lamp; you’re buying a $1 lamp at Trash to Treasure,” she says.

Sustainability in the dining hall

Opt for locally grown or raised food whenever possible. Universities are making it easy for students to do so by supporting local food festivals and sponsoring campus gardens.

Corporate farming lacks biodiversity, depletes soil, burns fossil fuels, and encourages the use of artificial fertilizers, says Schroeder, who also assists with local food initiatives. In response, Indiana University supports an annual local food festival, Big Red Eats Green. By bringing in local producers, Big Red Eats Green underscores the benefits of eating local food and highlights its availability.

“Big Red Eats Green is good because it’s right in the middle of campus, so people can walk by, and even if they didn’t plan on attending, they see this huge array of delicious, local, sustainable food and buy something that they wouldn’t buy normally and get hooked,” Schroeder says.

Indiana University also sponsors a campus garden, Hilltop Garden and Nature Center, where student volunteers grow food that supports campus events. “Community gardens are great ‘gateway drugs’ for sustainability,” Schroeder says. “Getting your hands in the dirt is such a contrast to going to Wal-Mart and buying an apple.”

As the Montana Made program manager, Rose Heider assists with local food initiatives at Montana State University, where each Monday a campus dining location provides a lunch prepared primarily, if not completely, with Montana-grown food. “Not only does it get people to eat things that are more fresh or more healthy or more sustainable, but it also really helps to support these producers,” she says.

Though students tend to believe that local food will break their budget, by buying in bulk and considering seasonality, they can stretch their wallets, Heider says. “It just takes a little bit of navigating to find the best ways to get that type of food into your budget.”

Even if that means stocking your chest freezer with half a cow and pig.

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