Earth- and Money-Conscious College Shopping

Stores that sell college dorm "necessities" give out those lists every fall with tons of awesome gadgets, furniture, and other "essentials that every college student needs"! Of course, you want to be comfortable and have all the stuff you need for college so you can focus on getting good grades and having fun. But as a third year college student who thinks she might have finally gotten the system down, I'm here to tell you that while those lists can be great reminders for the things you really do need, you do not need to get those items new and you certainly don't need to buy all of the latest "dorm" accessories--if truth be told, you don't have room for all of those things in your dorm.
One of my boxes Green Gal brought to her first dorm room at UC Santa Cruz.
If you want to save money, reduce your environmental impact, and still have the stuff you need to be comfortable and happy as you study and enjoy college, you first have to take the time to think about what you truly need in your life at college. Find lists online and start compiling a list on your computer, thinking of anything and everything you might want. Give it a few days, then sit back down and delete those items from your list that you don't really need. Highlight the items you don't already own or will need to get more of and then sort them by where or how you plan to get them. Food lists obviously are separate since most of it will be new--although I raided my mom's pantry and got some spices, crackers, and other random things that she wasn't using, so don't think you can't get your food "used"! Once you've got your lists down to essentials and must-haves for you, start by asking friends, then shop the thrift stores in your area, and finally, find those stores where you can get the most environmentally friendly option for that product.

Getting Things from Friends and Family
Chances are, many people you know have and no longer use many of the things you need for college. When you're compiling your list of things you need, don't forget to send it out to your aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbors, and friends to ask if any of them have anything on the list that they don't use or are planning to get rid of. Particularly with kitchen things, people sometimes just have these items lying around that they're replaced with newer versions and haven't had the time to bring them to goodwill.
A whole box of kitchen stuff that my dad and stepmom gave me for my first college apartment. They had them lying around and weren't being used.
Buying Used
Most of the things you'll need can be purchased used from garage sales or thrift stores. It's important to give yourself plenty of time to visit these places and to remember not to get frustrated when you don't find the perfect thing at the first place you look. Patience with looking for used items is a valuable, necessary skill if you want to live an environmentally conscious and less wasteful lifestyle. Not only does buying used reduce the need for new materials to be processed into products, which saves energy and resources, but buying used requires no packaging. Most things you buy new have some kind of packaging around them, often made of plastic, so by buying used, you eliminate that waste.
Some of the things I got for only $2 from a garage sale! It just takes some planning and patience to find stuff you need used and for a great price.
Facebook and Craigslist specific to your school
While Facebook can suck your life away, it does have its uses. My school has a Facebook Groups page, and most schools have this. You access it by verifying your .edu email address. Within the groups page, there are tons of different kinds of groups, but one that relates to this post is the Free/For Sale group, where students post things they need and other student post things they're selling. Find out if your school has one because this is where you'll find appliances, furniture, and anything else that other college students are selling. You can arrange to pick up the item once you're in town, so you don't have to transport it all the way from home. Also, be sure to check the Craigslist for the town where your school is located because college students living there will likely post their items there, as well. It reduces how far you have to transport heavy appliances and furniture, which reduces the carbon emissions (the heavier your car, the more gas it takes for your car to get places). A third option is Freecycle, which is, well, free.
An example of some postings on the UCSC Free & For Sale group.
Buying New
For those items that you cannot buy used, think about things like packaging and ingredients to choose the least harmful and least wasteful products.

Here are some categories that I use when packing for school each fall and where I looked for these items. For each category, I've tried to give some ideas of a few truly essential things and how you can make an environmentally conscious choice when purchasing them.

Shower and Bath
  • Shower caddy: A college dorm essential, unless you like juggling ten things every time to go to the hall bathroom. Every college student gets one, and once the person graduates, those things must end up somewhere, so why not reuse them? Check local thrift stores and garage sales, or contact friends who've recently graduated from college. If you're going to buy new, go with metal instead of plastic because plastic never biodegrades and at least metal can be recycled or repurposed and doesn't leach toxins.
  • Towels: Check with family and friends to see if they have any bath towels that they no longer use. Avoid thrift stores unless you're really a trooper because you never know what they were used for if you don't know their previous owner. Either way, you're in college--you don't need luxury bath towels.  I do, however, understand that some people enjoy lush, fresh bath towels, so in that case, go for organic cotton bath towels. Important: Be sure to bring your own hand towels and remember to use them when you go to the bathroom. Paper towels are such an enormous source of waste on college campuses because they're stocked in the dorm bathrooms and people use them up like craaaazy. Read about an initiative taking place on my campus to eliminate paper towels from the dorm bathrooms here.
  • Toothpaste: You can't really get toothpaste used, so either purchase an environmentally friendly brand like Tom's of Maine or read about some alternatives to conventional toothpaste here. There are tons of other links online about making your own toothpaste (and deodorant and hair cleaning product, and more!)
  • Shampoo: College is a time for change and trying new things, so why not go no shampoo? If you're interested in learning more, check out how to do so here. College is also a time to make new friends, which might be difficult if you haven't washed your hair and you're still in the transitional stages of the no 'poo process, in which case try to buy shampoo that can be refilled by buying in bulk. You can buy the bulk size bottle and get smaller bottles to fill up and bring with you to the shower. Using shampoo with the fewest chemicals means fewer chemicals being absorbed by your college student brain! Gotta keep those brains chemical-free! But once you've made those friends and you know they like you for who you are and not how your hair looks, try going no shampoo!
  • Toothbrush: Just gonna leave this one up to Beth Terry at My Plastic Free Life since she has full-on reviews and details about toothbrushes, and why reinvent the wheel?
  • Loofah: Most women (and I'm sure men, too) love those plastic loofah things that make soap all foamy and awesome, and I must say that I feel lost without mine. But did you know that loofas are based on an actual thing from nature that comes from the ocean? I'm switching to a natural loofah this year, which doesn't make as much foamy soap, but which does scrub your skin better than a washcloth. Buy this one new, though... Of course, the best option is to go without any kind of loofah. It's unnecessary, really, but if you're used to it and aren't willing to make that change just yet, opt for natural over plastic.
Kitchen/Food Stuff (* Indicates this is only necessary if you're moving into an apartment with a kitchen. Everything else is for dorm life in which you're relying on dining hall food for most meals.)
  • Reusable water bottle: If you're still drinking single use plastic water bottles, just stop doing so right now. I can't imagine having to store those things in my dorm room... but regardless of storage, they are simply a nuisance to the environment and a burden on your wallet. If no one has managed to convince you why yet, please visit the Food & Watch Watch website to learn more. In terms of what kind to get, let's get some advice from Beth Terry at My Plastic-Free Life since she's more of an expert than I am on the subject:  "Get a reusable stainless steel bottle (Klean Kanteen has just come out with a completely plastic-free water bottle — no plastic on the cap at all!) or stainless steel travel mug, fill it up with tap water before leaving the house, and refill it wherever you happen to be. I don’t recommend reusable plastic or aluminum bottles. Plastic may leach chemicals into the water and aluminum bottles are lined with an epoxy resin, some of which has also found to leach into water depending on the brand. Why take a chance?"
  • Appliances (microwave, fridge, coffee maker, rice cooker*, blender*, etc.): First, ask around for these appliances among friends and family. Next, check your school's Facebook groups' For Sale page or Craigslist for people selling gently used appliances. Make sure they show you they work before you buy them. The fridges are especially easy to find because so many students buy them. However, mini fridges use a ton of energy, so if you don't find a relatively new one to buy used, go for a new one that's energy star rated... or go without a fridge. Be sure to unplug these appliances when they aren't being used in your dorm to save energy. In looking for a source about the energy use of mini fridges, I came across this Green Living Guide from Oberlin College. If you're interested in learning more beyond this blog post's suggestions, check it out! Also, your college might have guides for sustainable purchasing in your area--if you find a particularly awesome one, I'd love to see it!
Be sure to plug your appliances into a power strip so you can turn them off when they aren't in use. I usually plug everything but the fridge into power strip or leave everything but the fridge unplugged unless I'm using that particular appliance.
  • All the kitchen "stuff" you'll need in an apartment: I'm moving into my first apartment this month, so I spent some time browsing online and going through my mom's kitchen drawers to figure out just what items I really will need. I decided to buy as few of these things new as possible, and so far I've succeeded. I asked my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles if anyone had any kitchen stuff they no longer used. I got so many great things just from the people I know! Next, I went on Craiglist one Friday evening and made a list of all of the garage sales taking place the next morning and then inputted them to Google Maps, rerouted the map so that it would make sense to drive the route, and set out the next morning with a list of things I needed for the kitchen. A really diligent person might have rode their bike with baskets and a backpack, but I was on a time frame and knew that biking to 10 garage sales would take longer than an hour. So learn from my mistake and 1) Plan ahead so you have time and 2) Ride your bike! As it turned out, I only stopped at 2 or 3 of them and found most of the things I needed. One woman gave me an electric mixer, 2 glass mixing bowls, a pyrex pan, a spatula, oven mitts, salad tongs, and a cheese grater for $2! I told her that I was in college and moving into my first apartment and once she knew that, she said to choose anything I needed and it was mine. People can be so nice, and if I had gone to the store, I would have easily spent $50 on the things I got at her garage sale. Thank you, garage sale owner lady!
The $2 mixer--which ended up being a little rusty so be sure you check out the stuff you're getting thoroughly!--and a set of adorable plates that I got for $10 at a garage sale.
  • Cloth napkins, dishtowels, and rags for cleaning: Even if you're living in the dorms, it's totally manageable to use dishtowels and cloth napkins rather than paper napkins and paper towels. It's probably a good idea to have at least one roll of paper towels on hand for emergencies, but having cloth on hand for most things is a way to reduce your waste generation. Once they're grimy or ready to be washed, just throw them in with your regular wash. I often used my dishtowel interchangeably as a hand towel for the restroom and I just make sure to wash it often. Ask your parents if they have an old set of handtowels or cloth napkins. As with bath towels, you might not want to get used dishtowels from people you don't know unless you plan on using them as rags only for cleaning with cleaning products. You just never know what they were used for...
Clothing and Accessories
  • My advice for all things related to clothes and accessories is to look around thrift stores and second hand stores whenever you have the chance. Often, you'll find great stuff when you aren't even looking for something in particular. There are of course going to be times when you need a specific thing like a warm coat and you just can't find it in a reasonable amount of time. But if you really want to save money when it comes to clothes and purses and shoes and those kinds of things, pay attention to when friends donate clothes and be on the lookout at thrift stores whenever you have a chance. I honestly cannot remember the last time I shopped in a mall for clothing, jeans, or purses. I get all my clothes from family friends or thrift stores, and from the occasional thing my mom or aunt buys for me for Christmas. It just takes practice and patience to find the clothing you want at a reasonable price used.
Yes, Green Gal has a plastic shower caddy... Plastic is icky, though, so if you can avoid plastic, do so!
School Stuff
  • Textbooks: Once you get your course list, go online and find out if any of your books are on Project Gutenberg (free e-books!). If you're the kind of person who can read and truly engage with material when it's on a computer, that's awesome and you should take advantage of e-books and Project Gutenberg (Green Gal is not one of those people and only uses online books occasionally... I just love paper books). Next step would be to check Amazon for used copies of the books you need for class. You can also rent or borrow from people you know. The Facebook groups thing comes in handy with books, too. Your last resort should be purchasing the books new, particularly if they're not specific textbooks but are literature books, novels, or other kinds of books that are easily found used.
Green Gal brought too much stuff her first year, but packing and living in dorms is certainly a learning process.
  • Notebooks and paper: Seriously, check thrift stores. I found 5 unused notebooks, each 99 cents, at a thrift store once. I haven't bought paper or notebooks since... my goal is to use up all the unused paper (including the backs of 1-sided used paper) I have now before I even think about buying more... and I mean ALL of it. If you can't find them second hand like that, go for recycled content or find out if you already have paper and notebooks lying around your house.
  • Pens & pencils: Go for durability. I got a 7 Year Pen from my aunt, and it will supposedly last for 7 years. It's been quite a few months and it's still working perfectly. When getting pencils, go for actual wooden pencils and not mechanical ones. Mechanical pencils are made of plastic, which never breaks down. You can also now found refillable pens, both writing pens and white erase board pens. I haven't tried any of them out myself yet, but I've heard that they work, so just search around online and read some reviews.
Certainly, this list does not contain many important things you'll need, but I trust you to be able to evaluate your purchasing decisions by following the model of these suggestions above. If you have particular questions about products or want to know if I think something is necessary or even useful to have in college, I would love to hear from you. You can email me here or post on my Facebook wall here:

Look at how many things in this picture of my desk last year are made of plastic. That needs to change. You can make that change in your life before you start college by not buying things made of plastic. Easily remedied: no candy bags, wooden pencils, refillable pens, stainless steel water bottle, no cell phone, no printer (use campus printing services)... The list goes on depending on how much you're willing to change. But hey, it's college--it's a time for change anyway!
The 3rd Year Student Wisdom and Advice Portion of this Post
To those of you starting your first year of college, have fun, pay attention in class, and get involved in some on-campus organizations--but don't overcommit yourself. Explore, learn, and give yourself room to simply be yourself for awhile before cementing your identity with a particular organization or major, for that matter.

To those of you who are returning for your second, third, fourth, or even fifth year (here's to you, second year seniors!), continue to enjoy your college experience and don't forget that you are at college to learn, so even though your classes don't have that shiny newness that they might have had your first year, be open to learning new things and getting the most out of your classes. Try something you've never done before this year, find your niche if you haven't already, and if you aren't enjoying what you're doing, find something that makes you come alive and that makes life full of that shiny newness.

To everyone, have fun being creative with sustainable purchasing and finding things used. Garage sale hunting is seriously so fun--bring your friends! Your parents will love you for saving them money if they support you financially, and if you buy your own stuff, well it just makes so much more sense to save money while you're saving the planet at the same time!

I need to go finish packing now...

Thanks for reading!
Green Gal


  1. Great tips...and very comprehensive! These are not just good for the environment, but would save loads of money too. And thanks for sharing the info on the 7 Year Pen!

  2. Thanks for this great advice for college students. It's wonderful to see unused household items come out from dark cupboards and be used they way they were intended. Best of luck with the coming semester!


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