8 ways to live sustainably on a college budget

A photo of peppers for sale at the farmers market.

(Photo by Lauren Justice / UW-Madison)

Happy Earth Day! The celebration of Earth Day is an annual global event that supports environmental protection and was started by UW-Madison alumnus and Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. To celebrate Earth Day this year, we’re focusing on how to support your wellbeing by protecting your environment.

One of the seven aspects of your wellbeing is safety. This means knowing you’re safe from physical and psychological harm in your environment—your home, your workspace, and your planet. Building sustainable choices into your lifestyle is a simple start to protecting the spaces around you and boosting your own wellbeing.

A common misconception about living a sustainable lifestyle is that it has to be expensive. In reality, making these lifestyle changes reduces your resource usage and spending habits, so they can be attainable on a college budget. Read on for eight ways to build sustainable habits into your lifestyle.

  1. Unplug. When you’re not using chargers and small appliances, unplug them. Even when not in use, these gadgets suck up energy on standby. This will reduce your electric bill and your carbon footprint. Another handy tip is to use a power strip and flip the switch off when it’s not in use.
  2. Paper or plastic? Cloth. When going on your grocery run, remember to bring your own bags. Even if you don’t own reusable grocery bags specifically, a tote or backpack will do the job. Currently, due to COVID-19, some stores aren’t allowing reusable bags, but this is a good habit to form after this time. If you happen to forget your bag, carry your groceries if you can or opt for paper rather than plastic. Plastic bags break down into “microplastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment.
  3. Vintage is in. Rather than ordering a new pair of jeans, try something at a local or online thrift shop. Chances are you’ll save a buck and find a style unique to you. While shopping for new clothes is fun, fast and cheap trends lead to negative environmental impacts. Creating one pair of jeans requires 1,800 gallons of water – that’s the equivalent of 104 showers
  4. Shop local. One of the forgotten demons of consumerism is the transportation of goods. Even if a product is made of sustainable resources, the transportation of the product may outweigh the pros. Shopping local in Madison is part of a statewide tradition: the Dane County Farmers’ Market. Here you’ll find fresh produce, baked goods, meats, and cheeses grow, raised, and produced in Wisconsin. If you’re still living in the Madison area, check out their pick-up options near the Alliant Energy Center. 
  5. Remember the long haul. When buying a new product, think about the product’s timeline. Will this be a “use once and toss” situation, or is this something durable that can last through many uses? The fewer single-use products you use, the less garbage ends up in landfills. Plus switching to reusable products can save money in the long-run. Try bringing your own mug to coffee shops and using a reusable water bottle.
  6. Conserve water. Reducing your water use protects the environment because there is a limited amount of fresh water on Earth. A few simple ways to reduce your water usage is to take shorter showers and turn off the faucet when you’re brushing your teeth, washing your face, and shaving. These changes will also cut down your water bill!
  7. Play with your proteins. While meal planning, try to vary your proteins and reduce your consumption of beef. Some plant-based protein substitutes include beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains. These options still provide protein content and other nutritional benefits that animal proteins have. If you’re looking to still eat meat, opt for chicken or fish rather than beef. Not only are chicken and fish lower in saturated fats than beef, which can lower your blood cholesterol and lessen your risk of heart disease, but these proteins also have a lower environmental impact than beef. Producing animal protein takes more land, energy, and water to produce than plant protein, and beef has a larger environmental impact because cows give off methane, a strong greenhouse gas.
  8. Walk or bike. Walk or bike around campus as often as possible rather than relying on a car or the bus system. Walking reduces your emissions while saving you gas money and getting some exercise in. Try taking your headphones out while you walk to decompress after class or work.

Making these lifestyle changes is an excellent start to protecting the Earth while promoting your wellbeing. If you want to engage with other UW-Madison students around these topics, there are many student organizations on campus that focus on protecting the environment. Find them on WIN