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College is difficult on its own, but trying to incorporate sustainable living or zero-waste practices while in school makes things that much harder. Between late-night study sessions, chaotic schedules, walking across campus in all types of weather, and eating at the dining hall it seems like the obstacles to a sustainable lifestyle are endless. But small steps forward are still steps forward, and younger generations (think Greta Thunberg) are pushing for eco-friendly futures. Whether you go all-in or find a few swaps, consider this your go-to zero-waste shopping list for the back-to-school season.
1. A reusable coffee cup
Credit: Reviewed / Betsey Goldwasser
You can fold the cup like an accordion when it's not in use.
I didn’t drink coffee until my junior year of college, but once I knew what the wonders of caffeine would do for me I couldn’t get enough. I frequented the campus cafes and local Starbucks often, and I wish I’d gotten a reusable cup sooner rather than later. Coffee cups are wasteful and aren’t typically recyclable, so having your own is a win-win. A good, insulated tumbler will keep your coffee or tea the temperature you like for hours. We tested and loved the reusable coffee cups from Stojo; I just got the 16-oz reusable coffee cup and it’s my new sidekick. I love that it folds up easily because it makes it easy to have at all times, even if I’m only carrying a small bag. It’s made of silicone so it’ll survive drops and comes with a straw for iced drinks.
Get the 16 oz cup from Stojo for $20
2. A versatile silicone bag
One Stasher bag can do it all: food, beauty, skincare,
We talk about Stasher bags a lot, but it’s because they’re worth the hype! While in school, you need to carry a lot: textbooks, notebooks, laptops, lunch, gym clothes, an umbrella… you get it. A Stasher bag will help you stay organized. You can pack snacks in the silicone bag, or you can pack your lunch in them. You can also use the bags to hold pens and pencils, jewelry at the gym, keys and IDs, flash drives and charging cables, and more. Stasher bags are so versatile and lightweight, and you can pop them in the dishwasher or rinse them by hand to keep them in good shape.
Get the Reusable Storage Bag from Amazon for $15.30
3. Dinnerware that doesn’t look like the dining hall
Credit: Our Place
Stacking bowls and plates keep shelves looking clean.
Even if you’re living in a dorm room, having dinnerware is important. Sure, you might be eating in dining halls or at library tables often, but being able to heat up your leftovers or enjoy a bowl of ice cream in bed shouldn’t be a luxury. That being said, you don’t want your dinnerware to take up much space since every square foot counts. Our Place, maker of the popular Always Pan, also makes dinnerware, which is just as beautiful and functional as the pan is itself. The side bowls are great for cereal and oatmeal, and they stack up neatly for a minimal countertop or pantry footprint. The Our Place plates are great as well, wide enough for a few slices of pizza yet thin and stackable. We tested (and loved) this dinnerware, so you won’t be disappointed if you set your table with both styles.
Get the Main Plates from Our Place for $50
Get the Side Bowls from Our Place for $45
4. A way to make your favorite cup of coffee
You can have your favorite coffee at home—then compost the grounds!
Grabbing coffee on-the-go can be a wonderful (and often necessary) detour, but making your own coffee is also pretty rad. Maybe you have a certain type of bean you like. Maybe you prefer the taste of a pour over to a drip coffee. Maybe you don’t have time to stop and wait in line. No matter your reason, a Chemex pour over might be the answer. It’s beautiful for one, but it’s also easy. You grind the beans, then you pour the water over. When we tested pour over coffee makers, we listed this model as the one that made the best cup of coffee. I’m also a big fan of using a reusable filter, like this cloth one, to reduce waste and keep the grounds out of your cup.
Get the Chemex 8-cup Pour Over from Amazon for $46.68
5. Natural cleaning sprays
Fill the spray bottle with water then drop a tablet in.
People will give you a lot of advice as you head off to school, but one of the best snippets is to avoid shopping during move-in week. Stores, especially ones like Target and Walmart, are packed with students and families trying to decorate dorms and purchase forgotten items. Avoid the crowds by coming prepared, which includes bringing cleaning supplies! Even if you’re only responsible for your individual room (or half of it) having all-purpose spray, a few microfiber cloths, and glass cleaner is important. Blueland makes cleaning easy and does it in a functional, zero-waste way. You can pack the bottle and tablets without fear of spills, and then make the cleaners by dropping the concentrated tablets in water once you’re settled in.
Get the Clean Essentials Kit from Blueland for $32
6. A reusable water bottle
Make sure you get a water bottle that can fit in your backpack side pocket.
Though I feel like everything on this list is essential, a water bottle of your own really is. We all need to hydrate, and you’ll be especially thankful to have your own to fill up when you’re running from class to class, at a crowded gym post-pandemic, and when you realize how much colleges will charge for a single water bottle. I love my Hydroflask—and our testers did too; it's one of the best water bottles you can buy. Metal, unlikes glass, silicone or plastic, won’t break and doesn’t get a mildew smell like some others do. Plus, they’re easy to clean!
Get the 40 oz Hydroflask from REI for $49.95
Get the Larq Self-Cleaning Water Bottle from Nordstrom for $75.90
7. Fully recyclable planners and notebooks
Credit: Wisdom Supply Co.
Now you can actually recycle your notebook after you ace the final.
Did you know most notebooks, planners, and folders cannot be recycled? The spiral binding in many notebooks makes it hard for the different materials (metal and paper) to be separated in recycling centers. Most binders and folders contain plastic covers and coating, so they end up in the trash too. Instead, opt for fully recyclable paper goods from Wisdom Supply Co. The notebooks are around $5 each, which is cheaper than many you’d find in stores. There are blank pages, grid pages, college- and wide-ruled options, as well as bullet-journal styles. There’s also a planner made for students!
Get the Zero-Waste Student Weekly Planner from Wisdom Supply Co. for $12
Get the No-Waste Notebooks from Wisdom Supply Co. for $5.75
8. On-the go-utensils
Credit: W&P Design
I like when utensil sets come in a case, especially a washable one like this.
You never know when you’re going to need a set of silverware. If you don’t keep a set in your dorm and bring home takeout food, you’ll need it. If you pack lunch on the go, you’ll need it. If you’re at a student org meeting and they provide food, you’ll need it. So be prepared with a compact set that’s also cute. This set is functional and aesthetically pleasing, especially the terrazzo designs. I prefer stainless steel silverware sets as opposed to bamboo, plastic, and other materials because they’re weighty enough to actually hold a forkful of food and super easy to clean.
Get the Porter Utensil Set from W&P Design for $15
9. Waste-free shampoo and conditioner bars
I swear by HiBar solid shampoo bars.
Shampoo bars are a solid form of haircare, typically highly concentrated and long-lasting. For reference, I’ve been using a single Hibar shampoo bar for over three months. I love my Hibar because it cleans and moisturizes my hair without making it frizzy and allows the natural waviness to come through. Though it’s likely you may share a bathroom while at school, shampoo and conditioner bars are compact, so using them actually provides you more space in your shower caddy or shower rack. I recommend a breathable case for each bar if you’re toting it to and from the shower.
Get the HiBar Shampoo and Conditioner Bars from Amazon for $26.50
10. A countertop compost bin
Transform your food scraps into soil.
Composting is a great way to redirect waste from landfills. It’s also really interesting and fun, so much so that you could probably write a paper or base a project on your at-home compost bin. I’ve truly tested many types of bins, and the best indoor bin is wonderful for small kitchens because it doesn’t take up much space, keeps any smells inside, and cleans up well. If you want something a bit cuter, the Bamboozle bin is also great, though I recommend a darker color because the inside can get stained.
Get the Epic Stainless Steel Compost Bin from Amazon for $22.45
Get the Bamboozle Compost Bin from QVC for $40
11. Plantable pencils
Grow a garden of herbs or wildflowers when you're writing is done.
You may have heard the fact that every toothbrush you’ve ever used still exists on the planet because plastic doesn’t break down. The same is true for every pen and marker you’ve used. Instead of contributing to more and more plastic waste piling up in landfills and polluting water ecosystems, opt for a plantable pencil instead. Sprout pencils work just like other pencils, and they have no plastic in them or their packaging. When the pencil gets too short to use, you can flip it upside down in a pot of soil and a plant or flower will grow. I’ve used several of the pencils, and the plants that grow afterward are absolutely adorable.
Get the Sprout Plantable Pencils from Amazon for $11.80
12. A compact reusable bag
There's a bag for everyone.
You’ll carry a lot of stuff around while in school, from books to meals to a case of beer on gamedays. Always having a reusable bag handy can make it easier to trek across campus without having to juggle items. I love Baggu items because they’re durable and personable; the Standard Baggu bag comes in dozens of prints and colors to match your personality or your outfit of the day. You never know exactly when you’ll need it, but you’ll be glad you have it with you.
Get the Standard Baggu from Baggu for $12
13. A microwaveable dish for leftovers
Credit: W&P Design
You'll want a reliable (and seal-tight) bowl for leftovers.
Metal is great for your water bottle and silverware, but I found myself using random microwaves in student lounges when I was in school. This seal-tight to-go container is made of glass and silicone, so it’s safe to microwave as well as carry around in your backpack or purse. You can fit 24 oz of food, which could be a light snack, the last of your takeout from the night before, or whatever you manage to fit from the dining hall. Pack this along with your silverware and you’ll be set.
Get the Porter Seal Tight Bowl from Nordstrom for $30
Get the Porter Ceramic Portable Bowl from Nordstrom for $40
14. Laundry detergent that doesn’t take up much space
Credit: Tru Earth
Don't forget your laundry!
In both dorm rooms and apartments, storage space is minimal and laundry isn’t always provided. So, having a compact yet powerful laundry detergent can save you space and many awkward elevator or bus rides to the laundromat. Tru Earth laundry strips are really easy to use; you take a flat strip and place it in the washer with your clothing. Bam, that’s it. We tested the strips ourselves and found that they clean clothing well and are eco-friendly as they claim to be. While they’re a bit expensive at just under $2 per load, they are a standout plastic-free alternative that you can store and carry with ease.
Get the Laundry Detergent Sheets from Amazon for $16.95
15. Worn wear
Patagonia's clothing lasts a long time, and now even longer.
Patagonia is a well-known outdoor brand, but I recently discovered it also has a sub-section called Worn Wear that operates as a second-hand online shop exclusively for Patagonia clothing. Since the brand created the original items, it’s able to repair rips or issues well and then sells it at a discounted rate. Buying secondhand increases the clothing’s life as well as shrinks the footprint since the item already exists. I recommend checking out what Worn Wear has to offer if you’re preparing for a new climate, study abroad trips, weekend hikes, really any activity where you want to stay warm and comfortable. Because Worn Wear has items for resale, things aren’t always in multiple sizes or colors, so check back often to find something that is right for you.
Shop Worn Wear from Patagonia
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