The Green Life: How to Be Environmentally Conscious in College

Find out what you can do to lead the way in going green at your college and find out how it can pay off after graduation.

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EduMed Staff

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The editorial team at EduMed has more than 30 years of collective experience creating high-quality content in higher education. Our in-depth articles and guidebooks leverage primary source material and more than 120 subject matter experts to help our readers make informed college and career decisions.

Expert Review

Amy Spark

- Bio

Amy Spark is an environmental scientist (MSc) and advocate specializing in the intersection between ecological and mental health. She has worked as the Sustainability Coordinator at Bow Valley College in Calgary, Alberta, since 2017. Amy is currently a student in the Climate Action Leadership program at Royal Roads University. She loves backpacking, canoeing, and science fiction.  

last updated

Last Updated: 12/06/2021
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College is a time of discovery. If you’re like many students, you’re starting to understand the things you are truly passionate about. Whether it’s social justice or political change, college can be a great time to start making a difference. If you’re driven to make our planet a greener place, you don’t have to wait until graduation to start making a real impact. You can start advocating for environmental change right from your college campus. In big ways and in small ways, there are countless steps you can take to make your contribution to environmental conservation in college.

With more colleges doing their part to go green, you can even make a positive impact simply by enrolling. Between picking an environmentally friendly campus, educating others, and advocating for your cause, your little actions can make a big change. Learn what you can do to become a green student and find out how you can do your part to help slow climate change one day at a time.

Why Should Students Care About Being Green?

The days are gone when climate change was an abstract concept that wouldn’t impact you. From extreme weather to devastating forest fires, the effects of climate change are real, present, and costly. If you need a refresher on why environmental issues are significant, we’ve highlighted some below.

Extreme weather

Coinciding with the rise in global temperature is a noticeable uptick in extreme weather. Scientists have measured hotter and longer heatwaves, increased droughts, widespread wildfires, and intense rainfall.

How does this affect you? Aside from the growing discomfort and inconvenience of extreme weather, these changes can disrupt food chains and transportation, displace communities, and alter sensitive ecosystems.

Increased disease

According to the CDC, climate change may significantly influence human health. Public health professionals expect to see increases in respiratory diseases, water-borne illnesses, infectious diseases, and premature death due to extreme weather events. Plus, the uncertainty and instability brought on by a warming planet can take its toll on mental health as well. Slowing climate change is good for your long-term health!

Polluted air

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly seven million people die each year due to air pollution. Additionally, WHO estimates that the vast majority of people breathe air containing pollutants that exceed health guidelines. Common air pollutants include toxins such as mercury, lead, and benzene.

Along with potential health risks, air pollution is one of the leading causes of climate change. Carbon dioxide and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in the atmosphere lead to warming temperatures. You can do your part by riding your bike, walking, carpooling, driving fuel-efficient vehicles, and turning off lights and appliances when they’re not in use.

Disappearing coral reefs

According to recent research, climate change could spell the end for almost all of Earth’s coral reefs by the year 2100. While efforts to curb pollution can help the situation, the climate-associated rise in water temperatures and acidity are expected to wipe out vast expanses of coral reefs over the next 20 years.

Far more than a vacation experience of underwater psychedelic beauty, coral reefs provide food for more than one billion people around the globe. Additionally, reefs are essential to biodiversity and general ocean health. To do your part, choose sustainable seafood, conserve water, and if you’ll be in the water, use sunscreens that don’t harm marine life.

Loss of biodiversity

Biodiversity, the variety of life from cells to vast ecosystems, impacts basic needs such as food, shelter, and medicine. Biodiverse ecosystems allow for plant pollination, climate regulation, and air purification. Biodiversity also plays a critical role in combatting climate change and is inescapably linked to the world’s economy. However biodiversity is in decline, and one million species are at risk of extinction. Remember that recycling and seeking out sustainable products help keep species off that list.

Decreased food supply

Experts expect climate change to have a significant negative impact on global food supplies. Droughts, floods, and extreme weather have the potential to further increase the 10% of the world’s population that already faces food scarcity. Shifting from a meat-heavy diet and reducing food waste helps offset some of these current and future challenges.

How Can Colleges Make a Difference? 10 Steps Towards Change

With academic resources, funding, and student commitment, colleges can be leaders in the shift toward a more sustainable, environmentally friendly world. Many forward-looking institutions make environmental concerns a top priority, from seemingly inconsequential shifts towards a paperless campus to large-scale, LEED-approved building projects. Keep reading to see how these schools institute green policies.

STEP 1

Trading in printouts for PDFs

We live in a digital world, and printing countless pages for students is no longer necessary. While environmentally conscious professors might already avoid printing materials, there’s an added incentive: reducing printed materials also reduces costs. Providing digital documents allows students to pick and choose which documents (if any) need printing.

STEP 2

Offering local, organic food

While not all organic foods are environmentally friendly, schools that get their produce from local farmers end up providing food that is healthier and better tasting. Schools promoting a veg-heavy diet can help offset the toll that meat production takes on the environment.

STEP 3

Installing water refill stations

Encouraging students to fill their water bottles reduces tons of waste. But changes like this do more than just that: the environmental costs of bottled water involve a life cycle from manufacturing and shipping to refrigeration and waste. Cutting bottled beverages also saves schools and students serious cash.

STEP 4

Campus recycling

Recycling on college campuses not only helps the environment but can also benefit a college’s bottom line. Recycling is just one way that schools can reduce waste that’s bound for the landfill, cutting down on fees related to waste removal.

STEP 5

Environmental degree programs

Offering environmental degree programs allows students to tackle academic content that leads to careers studying environmental issues. By promoting degrees and coursework that highlight environmental issues, colleges, and universities positively impact the environment for many years to come.

STEP 6

LEED-certified buildings

Colleges and universities boasting LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings utilize cutting-edge, cost-saving technology to create healthy campus buildings while boosting efficiency and reducing carbon emissions. LEED-certified spaces provide improved indoor air quality, reduce pollution, conserve water, and provide a sustainable framework to save money.

STEP 7

Alternative transportation

Providing students with alternative transportation options is another great way schools can help reduce emissions. Whether it’s free public transportation, bike rentals, school shuttles, or carsharing, colleges and universities reduce the need for student vehicles and cut vehicle emissions.

STEP 8

Incentive programs

Colleges and universities can also take advantage of federal, state, and local environmental sustainability initiatives. Schools receive tax rebates, grants, and generous tax credits for utilizing solar power, reducing fossil fuel consumption, and installing energy-efficient fixtures.

STEP 9

Campus farms and gardens

Whether a school is growing produce or utilizing sustainable landscaping methods, these practices reduce upkeep, save money, and promote biodiversity on campus. Schools even grow food-producing plants and trees, lending a new beauty to the campus and potentially saving on food costs.

STEP 10

Adopting green energy sources

Many schools boast extensive sustainability initiatives. For example, schools like the University of Louisville utilize green roofs, LEED buildings, and renewable energy programs. Additionally, the school purchases low-emission landscaping equipment, promotes an information technology energy-saving program, and ensures that suppliers meet the school’s sustainable code of conduct.

How Can Students Shrink Their Environmental Footprint?

Doing your part to minimize your environmental footprint doesn’t mean completely upending your life. Small, thoughtful changes in the things you buy, the way you travel, and what you consume can dramatically alter your impact on the environment. Additionally, you’ll find that many of these changes also save you money. Keep reading to see how.

On Campus

Actionable steps like these positively impact the environment and the people around you.

Opt for motorless transportation

Especially for students in an urban environment, leaving the car at home is a great way to reduce their environmental impact while saving money on gas. If most of what you need is within close range, biking or walking is a healthy option that minimizes your carbon footprint. If those options don’t work, public transportation is a great choice.

Go digital with textbooks

Sure, there may be times when you’ll want printed materials, but that doesn’t mean you should print everything. Imagine if every student across the country only printed essential documents—the reduction of waste and energy would be significant.

Enroll in online courses

While online programs aren’t for everyone, distance learning can have a positive impact on the environment. You’ll save money and reduce emissions when not driving to class. Plus online classes decrease the need for expensive and energy-intensive on-campus resources, from parking garages to huge lecture halls.

Think about biking on campus

Ditching the car and grabbing a bike is another practical way to reduce emissions while saving money on pricey parking passes. Biking can make it easier to get to class while cutting down the time you spend searching for that elusive parking spot.

Buy second hand

Many cost-conscious students purchase their books second hand, but why stop there? From home goods to clothing, perfectly good items are widely available at super-discount prices. Thrift stores, eBay, and Facebook Marketplace are all great places to find high-quality used goods.

Degrees with a Positive Environmental Impact

If you want to take your passion for the environment beyond campus activities and into a career, plenty of degrees exist that will help you make a positive impact. Check out these degrees and careers.

Degrees for Careers in Climate Change

Environmental Studies

Environmental studies degrees provide holistic education on environmental topics, making this a great choice for students who want to work as generalists in the field. A wide variety of jobs exist, including those as eco-tourism guides, community sustainability coordinators, and alternative food systems analysts.

Climatology

Pursuing this degree provides an in-depth look at historic weather patterns that can be used to understand climate shifts and long-term weather trends. Many graduates go on to work for environmental and governmental organizations, while others work in academia or research.

Environmental Engineering

With an environmental engineering degree, you’ll learn to use the principles of engineering to address environmental challenges. Whether working on air pollution or waste disposal, environmental engineers make a real difference when it comes to climate change.

Degrees for Careers in Renewable Energy

Urban Planning and Development

Whether designing a new planned community or dreaming up the newest LEED-certified skyscraper, urban planners and developers can create sustainable designs prioritizing alternative and renewable energy sources. Some urban planners work for local, state, and federal agencies, while others focus on careers in architecture.

Sustainable Energy

These open-ended degrees provide the foundational skills to work in a variety of industries and roles. Some graduates work in sustainable transportation to develop vehicles that run on renewable energy; others focus on renewable electricity generation using sources such as wind, water, and solar.

Geosciences

A geosciences degree provides the training to understand the Earth’s resources and how to use them responsibly and safely. Graduates often help companies, government agencies, and nonprofits identify renewable energy sources and how to harness them responsibly.

Degrees for Careers in Ocean Conservation

Marine Biology

Marine biology focuses on how marine organisms behave and interact with their environments. By understanding these fundamentals, graduates can work to preserve and improve environments to create healthier organisms. Jobs for graduates include marine biologist, aquatic scientist, and research biologist.

Ocean and Coastal Engineering

These degrees lead to a wide variety of careers. Some graduates work to design, construct, and maintain the engineered aspects that keep coastal communities and harbors safe for underwater life and residents. Others consult on offshore developments to ensure they don’t pollute surrounding waters.

Aquaculture

Think of aquaculture as underwater farming. Many jobs exist in this realm and focus on breeding, raising, and harvesting underwater food sources in sustainable ways. Graduates work as hatchery managers, aquaculture managers, or aqua-biotechnologists.

Degrees for Careers Fighting Deforestation

Animal Conservation

If you want to fight against deforestation and forest degradation that harms wildlife, an animal conservation degree may offer the right pathway. These programs emphasize the factors at play when dealing with wildlife hazards, including the loss of natural habitat. Some common jobs for graduates include wildlife educator, public educator and outreach specialist, and wildlife law enforcement officer.

Forestry

Forestry students take a deep dive on all things trees, including studies in physiology, ecology, hydrology, and taxonomy. Pursuing this popular degree provides the training and qualifications needed to work as a forest and conservation technician, tree surgeon, silviculturist, or harvesting forester.

Conservation Science

Conservation science degrees provide the training to address conservation issues in forestry, emphasizing sustainable growth patterns, addressing invasive species, and planting appropriate types of trees. Graduates work as conservation scientists and technicians, hydrologists, and conservation data scientists.

Degrees for Careers Helping Global Health

Public Health

Public health degrees focus on community-based answers to illnesses and diseases. Many of these degrees offer concentrations in global health for individuals looking to use their skills and talents in developing countries. Common job titles for graduates of an online master’s in public health include global health consultant, epidemiologist, and global health educator.

Nursing

Completing an online BSN nursing programs or an online MSN program provides the training to become a registered nurse or nurse practitioner. Nurses who want to use their skills to help global populations seek roles as travel nurses, nurses on military bases, or nurses with organizations such as Mercy Ships.

Health Informatics

An online master’s in health informatics brings together studies in healthcare, data management, and information science to create better patient outcomes. By analyzing large amounts of patient data, health informatics graduates look for patterns that lead to new discoveries and ways of providing care. Job titles include health informatics manager, global medical informatics director, and international healthcare informatics supervisor.

Degrees for Careers Improving Air Quality

Air Pollution Management and Control

While somewhat new, these programs are popping up more and look to address damages to vegetation, human health, and ecosystems due to air pollution. Some graduates work in consulting roles for environmental organizations or government agencies, while others work as air quality analysts.

Environmental Health

Environmental health functions under the public health umbrella and looks at how environmental factors impact human health. Students interested in addressing air pollution issues that cause illness and disease often pursue this degree and work toward jobs as air quality assurance coordinators, environmental planners, and air quality laboratory technicians.

Air Quality Engineering

Geared for students who want to design systems that improve air quality, these degrees provide the training to understand the components and behaviors of major airborne pollutants and how to mitigate them. Some jobs available to graduates include air quality engineer, air quality consultant, and pollution control technician.

7 Green Volunteer Opportunities for College Students

Whether or not you’re pursuing a degree focusing on the environment or sustainability, green volunteer opportunities provide resume-boosting experiences that positively impact your community. Check out these popular, environmentally focused volunteer opportunities.

Plastic Clean Up

Even though you don’t use straws, you carry your own reusable bottle, and you never use plastic bags, plastic waste is everywhere. As a result, plastic clean-up opportunities are readily available. Many environmental groups even allow individuals to create their own plastic cleanup events.

Ocean Conservation

Ocean conservation volunteer opportunities not only have a positive impact on fragile ecosystems, but students also have the chance to travel to locations around the world, including Madagascar, Australia, and Costa Rica. Opportunities include coastal cleanups, data collection, and sea turtle conservation.

Organic Agriculture Support

For students who want to get their hands dirty, there are ample volunteer opportunities at organic farms. In addition to gaining experience, students learn about sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and food systems. Volunteer tasks include planting, harvesting, and weeding.

Forest Preservation

Volunteers help keep the wheels in motion for organizations focusing on preservation, helping with park recreation programs, forest cleanup, and trail maintenance. Additionally, the National Park Service and the USDA’s Forest Service offer internships.

Self-Sustaining Eco Farms

Volunteer work at self-sustaining eco farms introduces students to the world of sustainable farming while gaining first-hand experience with the agricultural element of food systems. Volunteers tackle various farm tasks including weeding, planting, and harvesting. Internships may also be available, depending on the operation.

Renewable Energy Initiatives

Another option for those looking to have a global impact, students who volunteer with renewable energy initiatives help develop sustainable energy technology, conduct research, tackle solar installations, and assist with the administrative tasks of renewable energy organizations. An especially great option for students considering renewable energy careers, these volunteer opportunities help with both networking and your resume.

Environmental Education Teacher

Whether you’re studying to be a teacher or an environmental scientist, many volunteer opportunities exist to provide your community with knowledge and experiences involving nature, the environment, and sustainability. Students lead hikes, serve as nature museum docents, and teach classes on environmental sustainability.

Expert Insight into Being Green

Amy Spark is an environmental scientist (MSc) and advocate specializing in the intersection between ecological and mental health. She has worked as the Sustainability Coordinator at Bow Valley College in Calgary, Alberta, since 2017. Amy is currently a student in the Climate Action Leadership program at Royal Roads University. She loves backpacking, canoeing, and science fiction.  

Q: What is the best piece of advice you could provide students hoping to go green?

A: There are many things that first-generation college students may not understand when it comes to navigating the landscape of a college campus. These students may not understand the true definition of credit hours, the myriad of loan options, and the challenges this population may or may not experience at home

Q: If you could give these learners one piece of advice, what would it be?

A: I would encourage first-generation college students to be active and not afraid to ask questions about anything. Please visit the Financial Aid and Student Accounts office as soon as you arrive on campus. Ask them to talk with you about your bill and any aid you are receiving. Ask them to talk with you about various loan options (subsidized and unsubsidized). Additionally, seek external grants and scholarships. Do everything you can do to bring the cost of attendance down if possible.

Additionally, I would encourage you to visit and engage with two people in Student Affairs. One, meet your Residential Advisor (RA) and let them know who you are. Ask your RA about how you can become engaged in campus activities. Two, talk with someone that specializes in student involvement. It may be a daunting task for a first-generation college student to understand how to get involved. However, there are people on college campuses that specialize in getting students connected to campus resources and activities. 

Q: What are the best on- and off-campus resources for first-generation learners?

A: Be strategic about where you put your time and energy. Often people focus on or stress about small actions that don’t have a large impact in the grand scheme of things (for example, buying reusable straws, turning off the lights, etc.). These actions are helpful, but focusing on these small actions can suck up mental energy and time that could be spent focusing on the things that have a larger impact. For example, contact your local utility and see if you can pay a small fee to ensure your electricity is coming from renewable sources. Try eating more plant-based meals. Volunteer for a local park cleanup. Contact your politicians and show them you care about environmental issues (such as water quality, climate change, etc.).

Q: Where might students stumble in their efforts to go green, and how can they get back on track?

A: I see a trend of “consumer activism,” where we fall into the trap of believing that the biggest impact we can have is buying green items or purchasing from sustainable brands. Don’t forget that you are a person—a member of society—not just a consumer. Purchasing is one way of enacting change, but only one way among many. I believe your time, talents and skills are much more valuable than the contents of your pocketbook.

Q: What advice would you give to students considering a career in sustainability?

A: Often people believe they need an educational background in sustainability to work in the sector. However, organizations in the sustainability sector need a variety of professionals, not just scientists or sustainability specialists. These organizations need HR professionals, accountants, graphic designers, fundraisers, business strategists, and more. Sustainability is a broad field that requires skills from hundreds of professions; I guarantee you can find your niche.

If you do have training in sustainability specifically, I recommend reading a wide variety of material. Get your head out of the sustainability space every once in a while; read content on language, culture, humor, history, etc. Watch nonenvironmental documentaries. I love to read nonfiction, but I tend to read books that have nothing to do with my career. Some of my most profound learning has come when I wasn’t trying to learn about sustainability. The sustainability sector benefits from a wide variety of ideas. Besides, sustainability professionals need to recharge just like everyone else. Leave space in your life for other interests to flourish.

Q: What resources would you suggest for students looking to learn more about sustainability and going green?

A: I recommend checking out Indigenous Climate Action, the International Institute for Sustainable Development , and Project Drawdown. There may even be a local Drawdown chapter where you live.

Green Resources

Brookings—Planet Policy

The Brookings Institution offers a public resource for policy issues at the heart of energy and climate. Students can access expert-driven, cutting-edge news, policy, and research.

CleanTechnica

A great resource for all things clean energy, this site covers topics such as clean transportation, solar power, energy efficiency, and renewable energy.

The Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts

For students in the arts interested in exploring the intersection between art and sustainability, this think tank tackles policy issues including social equity, economic stability, and cultural infrastructure.

The Ecological Society of America (ESA)

Founded in 1915, the ESA is a nonprofit organization that promotes ecological science and utilizes experts in the field to address policy issues. Areas of particular interest include biotechnology, natural resource management, and ecological restoration.

Energy Star

Energy Star supplies consumers with information on the energy efficiency of various products and appliances. Energy Star advocates for consumers and provides government-backed efficiency standards for products, buildings, and various industrial plants.

Environmental Health News

The news arm of the Environmental Health Sciences, this site is an excellent resource for coverage of areas like environmental justice, climate change, and biodiversity.

Greentech Media

Focusing largely on global energy issues, this site provides readers with articles, data, and research on various green energy topics.

Grist

This independent media group primarily focuses on storytelling that promotes environmental justice, while also relentlessly covering climate change news.

Inhabitat

A leader in promoting green lifestyle and design, Inhabitat is a useful source for students pursuing environmentally friendly approaches. Coverage includes news, design, and lifestyle.

Recycle Coach

This blog offers practical steps on how to reduce your footprint, diminish waste, and repurpose goods. Recent posts include ways to recycle greeting cards, reduce plastic waste, and avoid e-waste.

Soil and Water Conservation Societ

This professional organization advances natural resource conservation through advocacy, education, and research.