back to school sustainability

How Do I Go Back to School Sustainably? 4 Ways

Rachel Lark - September 9, 2022

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A sustainable lifestyle is one that doesn’t cause harm to the environment. Unfortunately, many aspects of the typical modern lifestyle aren’t sustainable. Plastic packaging, fast fashion and chemical-laden personal care products are all examples of unsustainable practices. These products negatively impact the environment from their production to disposal. 

If you’re a student who wants to live more sustainably, heading back to school can feel daunting. Many lifestyle choices like dining options, transportation and class requirements may feel out of your control. No one is perfect, but there’s a lot you can do to live more sustainably at school. Here are four ways students can go back to school sustainably. 

  1. Use What You Already Have

The first rule of sustainability is to use what you already have. Your own home is the cheapest secondhand store you’ll ever find. Most people have so many items of clothing, accessories and personal care products that it’s easy to forget what they already own. Go through your closets and bins and see what you can repurpose. 

For back-to-school items, look for old pens, pencils and half-filled notebooks. While these items may not feel cute or fresh, they’re much better for the environment than brand-new items. You can spruce up old notebooks and ring binders by adding eco-friendly stickers. If your backpack is still going strong, keep using it. 

As you’re packing for school, resist the urge to buy a whole new wardrobe. How can you reuse the clothing items you already have to create a new look that feels fresh? What beauty and self-care products do you already have? Using plastic Tupperware you already own is more sustainable than buying an all-new set of glass containers. 

Creating new items takes a lot of resources, including water, natural materials and fuel for transportation. You can skip all that and extend the life of existing items by reusing what you already have. Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule – if your backpack has horrible back support or your shoes have holes in them, it might be time to invest in something new. 

  1. Shop Sustainably for New Items

If there is something you truly need, there is nothing wrong with buying it. However, you can make your shopping more sustainable by starting at a thrift store. Many everyday items like clothing, kitchenware, decor, books and even electronics can be found second hand. Thrifted items are typically less expensive and better for the planet than new items. 

In addition to physical thrift stores, there are many online thrifting options. A little research can go a long way in helping you to live more sustainably. Make a list of the things you really need and be willing to think creatively about how to find them. Thankfully, more thrifting options are available now that more people are concerned about the environment. 


Some items simply can’t be thrifted – think underwear, period products or something you need but can’t find in time for the school year. If you need to buy something brand new, partner with sustainable brands that are intentional about their impact on the environment. View new items as an investment and choose styles you can use for a long time. 

Part of learning how to go back to school sustainably is learning to be more minimal with what you own. Think about the difference between what you want and what you really need – many modern shoppers make impulsive purchases that they regret later. You can save money and help the planet by becoming more intentional with your shopping habits. 

  1. Sort Through Your Trash

If you want to reduce your waste while at school, you can start by going through your trash can. This sounds gross, but you can’t change what you don’t know. Most people’s trash consists of food packaging, product packaging and food scraps. Make a list of what you find in your trash can for a week or two. 

Now that you know what you throw away, start finding ways to reduce buying those items in the first place. Avoid getting food with plastic packaging by shopping at farmer’s markets or buying in bulk. If you can’t do that now, that’s okay – even small changes like bringing your own cup to a coffee shop can make a difference. 

If you can’t avoid buying certain things, try to recycle them. You can store glass bottles and other containers until you have access to a recycling center. Another option is to start a compost bin to reuse food scraps, old paper and cardboard. Be creative about what you can do with the resources you have and remember that any current limitations won’t last forever. 

An easy way to avoid packaging is to make things yourself. Cooking is a perfect example – the more food you can make yourself, the less packaging you’ll need to use. You can also consider making your own self-care and cleaning products. Home-made products are less expensive and use natural ingredients that are better for your body and the environment. 

  1. Think About Your Habits

Sustainability requires you to rethink the things you do on a daily basis. Changing your habits can have a huge impact on your life because habits happen often. These actions are also often mindless, which means they can help you automate sustainable choices so you put your brainpower elsewhere. 

For example, think about your morning routine at school. What personal care items could you replace with more sustainable options? How much water do you use on a daily basis and how could you reduce that? Do you blow-dry or flat-iron your hair every day? How could you use less energy? 

Many students go to coffee shops and eat out on a daily basis. You can reduce a lot of waste by investing in a reusable cup and carrying washable cutlery with you. To avoid using styrofoam or plastic containers, get reusable food containers and washable food bags. It’s a good idea to live on campus for a week or so before you purchase items so you know exactly what you’ll need. 

You may not have the means or ability to live as sustainably as you want to while at school. For example, transportation is often limited and your budget may be tight. However, small progress is still progress. Take as many small steps as you can toward living a more sustainable lifestyle – as long as you keep moving forward, you’ll eventually reach your goals. 

Be Kind to Yourself

Remember that living sustainably is a process. You won’t get this perfect right away and that’s okay. The important thing is that you’re taking steps to align your lifestyle with your personal convictions. This will make you a happier, healthier and more sustainable person in the long run. 

Being a student means you may face certain limitations to living sustainably. Creating sustainable habits and planning ahead are two of the best tools you have to live sustainably as a student. However, don’t beat yourself up if you buy processed food because you’re in a hurry or have to thrift plastic when you wanted glass. Allow sustainability to be a process and be kind to yourself along the way.  


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About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of Environment.co. A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.