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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Frequent and intense drought. Many areas in the western U.S. are experiencing extreme, long-term drought. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the U.S. has experienced nine droughts since 2011. Each one caused upwards of $1 billion. In turn, these droughts prevent our landscapes from storing carbon dioxide, in effect increasing CO2 emissions. If that weren’t enough, these droughts also increase the risk of wildfires that displace people, destroy forests, and impact air quality nationwide.
- Storms. Climate scientists agree that global warming has increased the frequency and severity of hurricanes and tropical storms. For example, 2020 was one of the most active recorded hurricane seasons, and researchers estimate that hourly rainfall was, on average, 8-11% higher than in previous years. In turn, these more destructive storms cause flooding and infrastructure damage when they make landfall.
- Heat waves. Over the past 60 years, the Environmental Protection Agency has documented a steady increase in the length, frequency, and intensity of heat waves nationwide. In response, Americans are running air conditioners, fans, and other cooling appliances longer and more often. This, in turn, creates more demand for energy, which means more carbon emissions.
- Rising sea levels. As global warming progresses, the ocean warms up and sea levels rise. While that might not seem like a big deal in the abstract, the consequences can be severe. For example, “nuisance flooding” (routine flooding that is not harmful but causes significant property damage) in the U.S. coastal cities is between 300% and 900% more common than it was in 1970. If sea levels continue to rise, many of our biggest cities will be underwater in the foreseeable future.
- Melting glaciers. Even if you have no interest in visiting a glacier, they are essential to your health and safety as the climate crisis progresses. Global warming has caused the world’s glaciers to melt at an alarming rate. In turn, this causes the sea levels to rise. That’s not the end, though. Glacial melt also impacts weather patterns, contributing to storms’ increased frequency and intensity.
- Warming oceans. Warming oceans contribute to glacial melt and rising sea levels and cause other problems as well. The ocean is the most significant carbon sink in the world, which means that seawater absorbs and contains CO2 that would otherwise be in the atmosphere. However, rising water temperatures prevent oceans from storing that carbon dioxide, causing it to be released into the air.
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.
- Habitat and animal impacts. Pollution can dramatically impact wildlife’s ability to survive and thrive. This can include air pollution from nearby cities or factories, water and soil pollution, or actual trash in an environment. In 2018, The World Wildlife Foundation estimated that the world’s population of animals decreased by more than 50% over the past 50 years. Yet, we can do our part to protect biodiversity by thinking carefully about what we throw away.
- Chemical pollution. In 2022, a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology proclaimed that “chemical pollution has passed [a] safe limit for humanity”. Preventing further chemical pollution is of the utmost importance. Choosing non-toxic and environmentally safe products helps prevent chemical pollution and decreases demand for environmentally damaging alternatives.
- Biological impact. One of the significant biological impacts of pollution is the proliferation of microplastics. These tiny particles have been found on the ocean floor, on the summit of Mount Everest, and in human blood samples. It is too soon to predict the consequences of long-term worldwide exposure to these particles. You can reduce the production of microplastics by avoiding single use plastics whenever possible.
- Human impact. When we talk about pollution in terms of animals and the environment, we sometimes skip over the effects of pollution on humans worldwide. You may remember the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where contaminated water harmed the health of an entire community. And the harms of pollution aren’t strictly local either. For example, air pollution from across the globe can affect your air quality, putting you at higher risk for lung conditions like asthma.
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.