On this page

Back to top

Going Green in Grad School: 5 Big Problems You Can Help Solve

College is the perfect time to adopt sustainability habits that help both you and the environment for the long term. This guide looks at some of the largest sustainability issues facing colleges and how students can contribute to the solution.

Author: Quinn Dannies

Editor: Staff Editor

As a citizen of the world and a graduate student, you’re likely aware of the global climate crisis. The expected outcome of this crisis is that young people alive today will live to see serious impacts on their food supply, economic structures, and security as a result of global warming. No single person can reverse climate change, but we can all do our part to help slow it down.

As a graduate student, your money might be tight and you may not have time to volunteer or participate in environmental activism. Still, there are ways you can help. As someone seeking an advanced degree, you are positioning yourself to apply your knowledge to the most pressing issues of the day, including sustainability. In the meantime, there are changes you can make in your daily life to reduce waste, influence others to take action, and promote sustainability in your community. Learn about the problems we face and some of the impactful ways you can make adjustments in your life to help solve these problems.

Problem #1: Single Use Plastics

Have you seen the photos of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Single use plastics make up a significant portion of this floating trash island. Avoiding single use plastics whenever possible is an easy way to do your part. It might feel like single use is the norm in restaurants, coffee shops, and grocery stores, but with just a bit of preparation, you can be ready to make sustainable choices wherever you go.

Solution #1 – Use a Reusable Water Bottle and Coffee Mug

By using the same cup and water bottle each day, you reduce a lot of waste. If you buy coffee or tea once a week, that’s 52 cups that end up in the trash per year. If you buy coffee daily, then, wow, that’s a lot of waste.

Not only are they better for the environment, but reusable bottles and mugs work better. Dual-walled stainless-steel bottles are popular because they keep hot drinks hotter and cold drinks colder for longer amounts of time. To be fair, these bottles can be expensive. Still, there are excellent hard plastic and even ceramic options out there. If you are really worried about your budget or already have one kicking around, there is nothing wrong with reusing a single use bottle over and over again.

In the long run, reusable bottles save you money. For example, many coffee shops offer a discount to customers who bring their own cups. And if you always have a water bottle with you, you won’t have to grab a bottle of something from the corner store every time you get thirsty.

Solution #2 – Reduce Takeout Waste

Do you have a junk drawer full of plastic forks, napkins, and sauce packets from takeout? Most people do, but with a bit of planning, you can prevent collecting any more of these plastic items.

Prepping meals at home ahead of time and storing them in reusable containers saves money, helps you eat healthily, and significantly reduces waste. Whether bringing lunch to school or meal prepping for the week, there are excellent durable containers to suit your needs. There is also nothing wrong with repurposing jars, yogurt containers, etc., into food storage devices.

Still, takeout is a fact of life.You can order in sustainably, though. When ordering out, request that the restaurant not include utensils and napkins. If you’re eating on campus, keep a set of silverware and a napkin in your bag. You can also bring your own bag when you go to pick up your food.

If you want to take it a step further, it is becoming more common for diners to bring their own reusable takeout containers for their food. Just make sure whatever you bring with is clean and correctly sized.

Solution #3: Reuse & Recycle as Much Plastic as Possible

Although the goal should always be to avoid single use plastic, sometimes it ends up in your home. When that occurs, make sure to recycle responsibly. A lot of people forget that the 2nd “R” in the recycling triangle stands for reuse. Before tossing something in the blue bin, consider if your packaging can be used for something else. The options for reusing plastics are truly endless. When it’s finally time to recycle, avoid “wish-cycling” and make sure you are only including items that can be recycled in your area.

Problem #2 – Fast Fashion

The way you dress is an integral part of your self-expression, and we all know how uncomfortable it can be when you feel forced into an outfit. Today, affordable “fast fashion” brands make it easier than ever to update your wardrobe. Keeping up with today’s trends might be fun, but it also generates massive waste. Some studies show that U.S. consumers alone throw out over 34 billion pounds of clothing each year. Consider these solutions to help you walk the line between fashionable and sustainable.

Solution #1 – Shop at Thrift Stores and Second Hand

Did you hear that the ’90s are back in style? This is great news for sustainability. First, those baggy cargo pants and stretchy tops are super comfortable. Second, thrift stores are filled with used 90s garments that are on trend again. Shopping second-hand can be a fun, affordable way to blow off steam and update your wardrobe. You can often find high-end pieces for a fraction of the cost of their fast fashion equivalents.

If you’d rather avoid thrift store treasure hunts and surf the web, sites like Poshmark, ThreadUp, and eBay are great markets for lightly used modern and vintage clothing. Plus, you can often find good deals on luxury brands.

Solution #2 – Participate in or Organize a Clothing Swap

Clothing swap parties are having a moment. And for a good reason: They’re fun, they’re free, and you can go home with some new threads. As a busy grad student, you’ll find these parties can be a great way to combine socializing with your fundamental need to wear clothing.

It’s easy to plan a clothing swap. Start a group text and invite everyone to the party. Have them bring their wardrobe overflow and maybe a snack or drink. Consider including friends of friends, too. More participants mean more clothes to choose from. After everyone leaves with their closets refreshed, any leftovers can be dropped off at your local thrift shop (look for a local charity where the funds stay local as many large national charities end up sending unwanted donations overseas creating even more environmental problems.)

Solution #3 – Buy Less New Clothing

Have you ever heard the expression “buy once, cry once”? It’s good advice. When shopping for essentials like shoes, coats, bags, and basics, buy the best quality you can afford. Spending a few extra dollars on pieces you’ll use regularly and long-term means they will last longer and create less waste. Once you have the basics covered, you can mix in second-hand or thrift-store finds to keep things fresh

This is especially true for grad students trying to build their professional wardrobes. A well-made suit or dress can last you your whole life, while the fast fashion equivalents will be lucky to make it through the year.

Solution #4 – Repair and Wear as Long as Possible

The best way to avoid clothing waste is not to throw things out. With some basic sewing skills you can repair or refashion many items. For example, when your favorite jeans get a hole in the knee, you can try out the cool visible mending trend, or they can be cut off and live on as your new favorite jean shorts. You can do many repairs at home with very few tools or skills. Consider posting pictures to one of Reddit’s mending forums to get expert advice. Checkout local fabric stores or crafting spaces for basic hand-sewing classes if you want to learn this timeless skill.

And, if learning to sew isn’t in the plans right now, you still have options. Look for a local seamstress or tailor for bigger projects. Many dry cleaners keep someone on staff. These sewing magicians can also help you alter clothing to fit, reducing your chances of getting rid of it. Cobblers still exist too. If your quality shoes are starting to wear out, they can help. You might even know someone who can sew that would be willing to help you out in exchange for pay or barter. You can also head off repair issues at the pass by shopping responsibly. Many companies, such as Patagonia, offer to repair their products for free or at a reasonable price.

Problem #3 – Carbon Emissions

Increased carbon emissions are the primary cause of global warming. Currently, increased levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere result from energy production, transportation, agriculture, and many other industries that support our lifestyles.

While we can’t directly impact the carbon emissions of manufacturing or agriculture as a whole, we still have a part to play. Annually, 31% of carbon emissions can be traced to electricity and heat production. Another 15% of emissions are the result of transportation. Because you use electricity and transportation, you have the opportunity to live more sustainably by considering how you can reduce your carbon footprint.

Solution #1 – Walk or Ride a Bike Whenever Possible

Human-powered transportation is the greenest option out there. Once you get in the habit of commuting by foot or bike, you might be surprised how much you like it. In many cities, it can be faster to bike somewhere than to drive and spend time looking for parking. As a graduate student, you may consider whether the cost of living closer to campus is offset by the possibility to avoid driving to campus. As a busy and potentially very stressed-out student, you can reap the health benefits of biking or walking on your way to and from campus.

Solution #2 – Rideshare or Take Public Transit

If walking or biking isn’t feasible, your next best option is to put as many people in a vehicle as possible. Of course, when you carpool, join a rideshare, or take public transit, you still contribute to carbon emissions. By reducing the number of cars on the road, you make your commute more energy efficient and sustainable. Also, public transit can be an affordable alternative to driving. Many transit systems offer free or discounted fares for students.

Solution #3 – Take Online Classes to Reduce or Avoid a Commute

When it comes to reducing your transportation emissions, another approach is to avoid driving whenever you can. When you take classes online, you can work from wherever you are located. At the very least, this means you can reduce emissions by not commuting to campus daily. If you are considering a program in another state, you can avoid the emissions created by moving and traveling back to visit home.

Solution #4 – Do a Household Energy Audit

Not all vampires sleep in coffins. You probably have a few vampire appliances in your house that siphon off energy even when they are not turned on. When you do a household energy audit, you can identify these items and put them on timers or power strips to prevent wasted electricity. You can also replace lightbulbs, update your thermostat, and weatherproof doors to save even more energy. If DIY isn’t your style, check with your local energy provider. Many of them offer complimentary energy assessments and even free upgrades on common energy wasters.

Even if you weren’t concerned about sustainability, an energy audit would still be a smart move. Utilities cost money, so wasting heat and energy in your home is basically throwing money away.

Problem #4 – Excessive Waste

In the broadest sense, excessive waste is at the heart of the climate crisis. Reducing our consumption, whether it be of transportation, consumer goods, or natural resources, is the surest way to minimize our personal impact on the climate.

It’s okay if you’re not ready to cut out trash entirely. But being thoughtful about what you buy and what you throw away can help you make greener choices. Don’t forget that reducing excessive waste also prevents wasteful spending. So, thoughtful consumption benefits your wallet too.

Solution #1 – Reduce Food Waste

We’ve all been there: You have healthy food at home that needs to be eaten before it spoils, but takeout pizza is calling your name. It is not always easy or possible to prioritize those leftovers, so the best way to reduce food waste is to be realistic. If you get tired of eating the same food and ditch leftovers after a few days, maybe the meal-prepping trend isn’t for you. If you’re on a health kick but struggle with consistency, consider frozen fruits and veggies that have a longer shelf life.

Another underrated opportunity to reduce waste in food production is to shop local. Make a trip to your local farmer’s market or farmstand part of your routine. Good quality, locally grown, fresh produce is often cheaper than you think. And many of these places accept SNAP benefits. By supporting local farmers, you cut back on the emissions created by moving produce across the country and contribute to your community’s food security.

When it is time to say goodbye to your food trash, compost when you can, and be sure to clean and recycle packaging. If the food is still good, consider re-homing it. Offer leftovers or unwanted ingredients to friends. Or depending on what you have, local non-profits may appreciate food donations.

Solution #2 – Reduce Packaging Waste

Whether in your grocery bags or the result of online shopping, excessive packaging can really add up in your trash can. To cut back on packaging waste, consider how to reuse the packaging you already have. For example, Carboard boxes can make great drawer organizers. And we already mentioned that food containers can be washed and reused quite a few times.

If you order products online for convenience, consider which of these might be available locally. Sure, it is a bit more of a hassle, but when you bring your own bag and avoid shipping products, you cut back significantly on cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, and plastic mailers that often end up in the landfill.

Solution #3 – Buy in Bulk Whenever Possible

When you think of buying in bulk, you might imagine gallon-sized ketchup containers and 50-pound bags of rice. If that works for you, great. But most of us don’t have the space or appetite to deal with that. Fortunately, there is a middle ground. Buying a larger version of long-lasting products like pasta or sugar cuts back on packaging overall. Plus, although the larger containers are more expensive up front, they often cost less per serving.

Alternatively, seek out stores with bulk bins. These setups allow you to buy exactly the amount you want of an item. In addition, if you bring your own cloth bags, or reuse containers and bags you already have, you’ll be able to stock up on essentials without creating any new waste.

Problem #5 – Water Use & Pollution

If you live in a place where you can drink water straight out of the tap, it might be hard to imagine that nearly half a million U.S. families do not have access to safe drinking water in their homes. Water is in high demand, and many parts of the country face severe droughts and water scarcity.

Water use is not only about what is coming from the shower head. It also matters what is going down the drain. In most places, used water goes to a treatment center and is released back into a local body of water. However, when people pour chemicals, oils, and other products down the drain, these products cannot be filtered out. So, these toxic chemicals end up in the environment. By reducing the water you use, you help preserve the availability of clean water in your community.

In the name of living more sustainably, it’s time for us all to take a hard look at how much water we use and what we do with it.

Solution #1 – Reduce Water Use Overall

The less water you use, the better. Don’t skimp on hydration, but consider how long the tap is running in other areas of your life. The shower is a great place to start. At a minimum, consider taking shorter showers. Use a shower timer to limit your time, or turn off the shower while lathering up and turn it back on to rinse. Another easy swap is to invest in a lower-flow showerhead. Water-efficient showerheads are affordable and can reduce water use by as much as six gallons per minute.

Don’t stop there, though. Think about your sink, too. Do you leave the tap running while you brush your teeth, wash your hands, or clean your face? Turning the water off until you need it to rinse can save a ton of water over time.

Solution #2 – Use Less Water to do Laundry or Dishes

Keeping your clothes and dishes clean can use up a lot of water, but it doesn’t have to.

As far as laundry goes, make sure you are running full loads every time. Hold off on running a load until you have enough stuff to top off the machine. During the week, consider whether something really needs to be washed. That sweatshirt you wore for a few hours while studying? It can probably skip the laundry basket for now. You can also save energy by using cooler water. Clothes last longer when washed with cold water, and most of the time, hot water isn’t needed to get things clean.

It can be harder to be water-conscious with dishes because washing dishes isn’t fun, and we want to get it done as quickly as possible. But, it turns out, you can save water and still do the dishes quickly and painlessly. If you are hand washing, having the right tools and sticking to a good method is essential. Make sure you are scraping plates down, your scrubber is in good shape, and you have a dish bin to hold water while cleaning.

Dishwashers sometimes get pegged as energy wasters, but that’s not the case. If you run a full load, even older dishwashers will use less water than if you hand wash. If you are lucky enough to have an energy-star-certified washer, doing your dishes by machine can use as little as three gallons of water per load.

Solution #3 – Use Non-Toxic Household and Personal Products

Remember all that wastewater we talked about earlier? Keeping it as chemical-free as possible is essential to preventing water pollution. In a perfect world, our wastewater treatment centers would pull out all toxic chemicals and return clean water to the environment. However, not all pollutants are removed by treatment centers. Plus, sometimes pipes burst, drains overflow, and untreated water runs into the environment.

By opting for non-toxic household products, you can help ensure that our wastewater is as clean as possible. If you want to take it a step further, many effective cleaners can be made with everyday ingredients. Choosing to DIY your household products protects our wastewater, reduces packaging waste, and can save you money.

Why Should You Care About Going Green?

We’ve talked about choices you can make to live more sustainably, but you might be wondering why green living matters. It can be hard to connect the small changes we make in our day-to-day lives and the global issues of global warming and pollution.

The cars we drive, the food we eat (or don’t), and the clothes we buy all contribute to carbon emissions. Similarly, our water usage, use of single use plastics, and purchases of fast fashion all impact pollution levels worldwide.

Consider the statistics below to see what climate change and pollution look like in action and why you should care.

Climate Change

If you’ve listened to coverage of a historic weather event, you may have noticed a reporter hesitate to attribute the storm to climate change. This doesn’t mean that global warming doesn’t play a role in these events. Rather, climate scientists gauge climate change based on environmental trends. Here are just a few well-documented trends attributed to climate change.

Excess Trash

Excess consumption and trash are key contributors to the climate crisis. These are a few of the most pressing impacts of pollution we are dealing with today.

What Can Colleges and Universities Do to Help?

As a college student, you can and should hold your school responsible for offsetting its environmental impact and promoting sustainability on campus. You have the power to organize with other students, student government, or your graduate student union to push the administration to do their part. If you’re unsure where your school can start, here are a few steps campuses can take to be greener.

On Campus Recycling and Composting Bins

It’s probably pretty easy to find a trash can on campus, but do you know where the closest recycling bin is? Unfortunately, outside of dining halls, they can be tough to locate. As a result, many students resort to throwing recyclable items in the trash. If you want to take it a step further, look into what composting services are available in your area. It may be easier than you think to add some compost bins in dining areas or dorms.

Work Towards Using Green Energy and Green Certified Buildings

Most campuses have one or two areas under renovation or a new facility in the works. Your school can make a statement about sustainability and invest in the environment by working toward LEED certification on all new projects. LEED standards ensure that new constructions are efficient and environmentally friendly. Contact someone from your school’s building and grounds department to see if there are buildings on campus that are LEED certified or if any are planned for the future.

Expand Offerings of Environmental Focused Degrees

Perhaps the most crucial thing colleges can do long term for the environment is to prepare college students to apply principles of environmentalism in their future careers. Many schools offer environmentally focused degrees such as sustainable development. But schools can also incorporate green themes into other programs by offering courses like sustainable design for architecture students.

Use Less Water by Xeriscaping

Campuses across the nation strive to make their campuses visually appealing. For most schools, this means lots of grassy areas. That may be okay in areas that get a lot of rain, but schools in drier regions end up using tons of unnecessary water to keep their lawns healthy. More sustainable options for landscaping reduce the need for irrigation. By replacing grass with native plants, schools can reduce their water consumption and protect their local ecology. If your school insists on keeping the grass, maybe you can sell them on some rainwater collection barrels.

Offer Green Campus Learning Opportunities and Events

Colleges can also foster learning outside of their course catalog. Supporting on-campus environmental groups, bringing in guest speakers, and investing in resources for students can help promote sustainability. The College of Charleston’s Sustainability Literacy Institute is an excellent example of this type of program.

Offer More Online Classes

You know that online classes can be a greener option than commuting to campus, but make sure your university knows, too. Online classes are in high demand because they are a convenient way to study, but schools should be embracing them as well as a way to reduce their carbon footprints.

Reduce Campus Food Waste

However your school’s dining is set up, there are probably some easy ways to reduce food waste. This could include reducing the amount of “grab and go” food available each day or sourcing ingredients locally. If composting in dining areas isn’t feasible, your school’s kitchens might still be able to compost food scraps.

Have Water Refill Stations on Campus and Get Rid of Single-Use Plastics

Increasing access to water on campus will go a long way to reducing students’ need for single use plastics. Your school can consider swapping out vending machines for water fountains, upgrading existing fountains to include a bottle filling station, distributing reusable bottles to students, and even banning the sale of single use bottles on campus.

Green Student Resources

We’ve provided dozens of way you can raise the sustainability practices in your own life and at your school, but there are hundreds more ways you can help solve the climate and environmental challenges we face. These high-quality resources can help you read up on the issues, get involved, and make a difference.

  • 13 Majors to Help You Combat Climate Change. As a student, applying your degree to climate solutions is one of the best opportunities to generate change. This rundown from the University of California – Davis offers an excellent overview of some of the most valuable majors to consider if you’d like to work on behalf of the environment.
  • 50 Simple Ways to Make Your Life Greener. If you want more suggestions on changes you can make to live more sustainably, this article from the Guardian should be your first stop. The authors consult credible research and sustainability experts to offer practical and effective opportunities to go green.
  • Ask NASA Climate. NASA’s climate change blog hosts excellent explainers on the science of global warming. If you’re looking for thorough and accessible resources on the physics of climate change, this site can be a great resource.
  • Climate Change Indicators in the United States. If you’re interested in global warming-related climate trends, including wildfire severity, storm intensity, and average temperature changes, this site can help. Here, the Environmental Protection Agency collects data on various indicators to illustrate the rate and intensity of climate change.
  • Climate Science & Policy Watch. If you’re having trouble separating climate facts from climate fiction, this initiative from the Government Accountability Project can help you out. This site assesses how climate science is used in policy and political discourse to fight misinformation.
  • Grist. This news outlet takes an intersectional approach to topics in sustainability by incorporating content about class, race, and other factors. Articles range from inspirational to detail oriented to arts and culture.
  • Hot Mess. This web series from PBS consists of short videos of around 10 minutes each covering scientific, social, and psychological topics around climate change. Although the issues are heavy, each episode also digs into possible solutions or actions you can take.
  • Nature Climate Change. This site is run by the prestigious academic journal Nature. This journal compiles scholarly articles related to climate change and hosts editorial articles from top climate scientists. This should be your first stop if you want to read up on high-quality academic content.
  • Planet Forward at GW. George Washington University’s School of Media & Public Affairs maintains this site as a hub for new research, case studies, activist profiles, and action opportunities.
  • Recycle Coach. Not sure whether something is trash or not? Recycle Coach can help. This site helps you figure out what goes in which bin and offers other ideas on reducing waste and living greener.

A Green Living Expert Weighs in


Dave Vuono is an environmental microbiologist and environmental engineer. He’s interested in understanding how microorganisms today were shaped by environmental stress in Earth’s past. He believes that understanding the evolutionary history of a microbe and its biochemical machinery can help give us context into how microbes function in nature. This can help us to design and manage systems that improve soil fertility, water reclamation, and resource recovery.

What is your personal and academic relationship to sustainability?

I chose to study biology because I loved everything about the environment I was living in. After earning my BS, I worked on a dairy farm in Vermont that converted manure into natural gas. I thought that was the coolest thing ever because you are using microbes to take what is considered a waste product and turn it into something valuable. That experience led me to pursue advanced engineering and microbiology degrees to explore other ways to manage waste.

How does your work contribute to environmental action?

My Ph.D. project was all about getting microbes to retain nutrients in wastewater so that you could reuse the water for irrigation without having to add new fertilizer. So, you don’t have to spend energy to reduce the nutrients. Instead, you can reuse the water and recover nutrients. I still do that work and have been expanding my research on the potential for microbes to address other pollution issues.

Do the students you work with share your commitment to environmental protection?

I try to instill the values of conservation into my research assistants and their work. I push them to think about how they can apply scientific principles to waste reduction. We explore how chemistry, microbiology, and engineering processes can work together to address pollution and protect the environment. The students I work with typically start by assisting in my own research and then go on to apply the tools they learn to their own questions about conservation.

What do you do in your own life to practice sustainability?

I try to not eat as much meat. I drive a fuel-efficient vehicle. I reuse plastic bags and water bottles. I try not to buy products that are intended to recycle. I buy items that are designed for reuse because it’s less wasteful. And I heat my house with a pellet stove. I think a lot about my carbon footprint and try to change whatever I can to be more environmentally focused.

As faculty, how do you think students can advocate on campus for sustainability in schools?

Combining your voices is a good place to start. Organize into clubs or groups to advocate for environmentally conscious decisions by universities. Advocate for water reuse for irrigation. Advocate for public transportation within the community to reduce the number of cars on the road. Advocate for affordable housing in the area of the university to reduce commuting. Advocate for pedestrian and bicycle-friendly infrastructure. Whenever you see an opportunity, make sure your voice is heard.

Outreach to other students is important to raise awareness and build support for sustainable practices. But you also need to engage directly with the administration to push for change.

Do you think a personal awareness of sustainability and doing what you can do helps students move towards sustainable careers?

Yes. Quitting single-use plastics, for example, is not the end of the story. It encourages you to think more broadly and big picture about things like who you vote for, what companies you support, and what kind of work you want to do. Thinking like this leads some to make their entire career about environmental protection.