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Ten easy plastic-free swaps for college students

Whether you are a new college student moving into a dorm or a returning one settling into your first apartment, you know that moving into a new place can create a lot of plastic waste. Living on your own can lead you to choose convenience products, but you can limit the amount of waste you create by buying secondhand, swapping disposable items for reusables, and choosing eco-friendly options whenever possible.

Ten easy plastic-free swaps

In order to reduce waste, an easy place to start is by replacing disposables with reusables. Throwaway products may feel convenient, but continually replacing and disposing of them can cost a lot of time and money!

Paper coffee cups and plastic bottlesReusable water bottle, coffee mug, Tupperware, silverware, and napkin

Use instead: Reusable coffee and water bottles

Paper coffee cups usually have a plastic coating that makes them unacceptable for organics recycling, and the #6 plastic lid isn’t great for recycling either because it's a low-value plastic. Remember to bring a reusable coffee mug when you get takeout coffee. Choose refillable metal water bottles over water in plastic bottles. Your investment in reusable bottles will last you many years!

Plastic grocery bags

Use instead: Reusable bags

Instead of going through countless bags each month and worrying about where to store and take them for recycling, keep a few reusable bags near the door or in your backpack so you always have them when you need them.

Plastic produce and bulk food bagsMultiple reusable bags and jars for grocery shopping

Use instead: Reusable containers or mesh bags

If your grocery store accepts tare weights, you can use any container for your produce and bulk goods. Just remember to write down the weight before using them. You can also use a mesh bag for produce to avoid the single-use plastic produce bag.

Single use coffee pods

Use instead: Reusable pods

Single serve coffee makers create a lot of waste with no recycling option. You can pull apart the little cup and compost the grounds, but no area recyclers accept the plastic or foil lid. If you already have a machine, try using reusable pods instead, which are now widely available in stores and online.

Plastic wrap and plastic baggiesBowl with beeswax cover

Use instead: Reusable containers or cloth bags

Store foods in reusable lidded containers, place a plate over a bowl in the refrigerator, use a cloth snack bag, or try an option like beeswax cloth to wrap over the top of your containers.

Takeout food containers

Use instead: Reusable takeout containers

When dining out, choose sit-down restaurants that are more likely to serve their food on reusable dishes, and bring your own containers for leftovers to avoid taking unwanted packaging waste home with you. When ordering food for delivery, ask the restaurant to skip the utensils and the bag if possible. Some restaurants have a comments section where you can make this request.

SnacksReusable snack bags

Use instead: Bulk snacks in reusable containers

Amid the hecticness of juggling school, friends and your job, single-serve, plastic-wrapped snacks might be something you grab to refuel and save time. You can reduce the waste you generate by snacking on unpackaged fruits and veggies, or prepping your own portions in reusable containers. You can even keep some easy-to-store, long-lasting snacks like nuts, granola or dried fruit in your backpack as a backup for when hunger hits unexpectedly. There are lots of alternatives to packaged convenience foods that are lower cost, lower waste and often healthier.

Laundry detergent

Use instead: Concentrated detergents or special laundry sheets

Reduce packaging in the laundry room by purchasing concentrated laundry detergent in liquid or powder form. Reuse containers by buying laundry soap from bulk dispensers at the stores mentioned above. You can also skip the plastic container altogether and buy laundry sheets like these ones from Earth Breeze instead of liquid or powder. They come in a paper envelope and dissolve in the laundry. Very easy to use!

Dryer sheets

Use instead: Reusable dryer balls or hang dry

Skip dryer sheets or swap them for reusable dryer balls. You can also avoid static (and save money on laundry) by hanging your clothes to dry. If you like your clothes to have a scent, you can use pieces of cloth soaked in vinegar and essential oil as a dryer sheet replacement. They are easily stored in a glass jar to soak before and after the load of laundry is done drying. Just run them with a load and then put them back in the jar to be ready for the next use.

Soaps and shampoosShampoo bars and jars of soap and shampoo in shower

Use instead: Refillable containers

Buy soaps and shampoos in bar form or in refillable containers. Some stores such as Tare Market, Zeroish Co. and co-op grocers have refilling stations where you can bring your empty, reusable containers. You can also avoid excess packaging of your toiletries if you learn how to make your own products, including scrubs, moisturizers, and even deodorant.

Find used items rather than buying new

There are many ways to avoid or reduce plastic waste and be sustainable when moving into your dorm or apartment. In addition to making the swaps above, always do your best to keep reusable goods out of the trash! Make thoughtful decisions when purchasing items, check thrift stores, garage sales and online exchanges for gently used goods, and remember to pass them on to someone else for reuse when you are done with them.

Closeup of hands sewing zipperWhen stocking up for school or moving into a new dorm or apartment, purchasing secondhand items is a great way to save money and reduce the number of usable items that enter the waste stream. Find new-to-you goods at local reuse retailers, local thrift stores or community garage sales. Read our budget-friendly sustainable living guide for college students to find a reuse retailer near you.

If items break, see if you can extend their life through repair instead of throwing them out. Hennepin County’s free Fix-It Clinics are a great option to get free help to fix your things. When you do have to buy something brand new, always look for durable items that can be used for many years to come.

Celebrate your hard work

Working to reduce the plastic in your life is a difficult and ongoing process. It is important to celebrate your successes, no matter how small! By taking steps to limit the purchase of new convenience products you buy, choosing secondhand and durable items, and adopting a low-waste mindset, you can limit the amount of plastic waste you create. Read our article about how to be sustainable when moving in and out of your dorm for more tips.