A Broke College Student's Guide to the Zero Waste Lifestyle

Recently, I have received a lot of questions from students in college, or recent college graduates about how to stay zero waste when you have LITTLE MONEY. The life of a college student is also a life where you totally lack expendable income. Zero-waste living may seem expensive, thanks to Instagram and advertisements. But, honestly, it's not as difficult as you may think. I graduated from college 18 months ago and I believe that the zero waste lifestyle has allowed me to be more financially free.

Here are my tips on how you too can live a life of more freedom and possibilities with less worry and stress:

1. Don't Let Anyone Intimidate You! You Are Doing Your Best!

I am starting off with this one because this is something that I tell myself every morning. Recently, on a Facebook group, someone asked if they should continue purchasing tea in compostable packaging, or if it was worth a 2 hour drive to their local bulk store to purchase bulk tea. Many people jumped on how they should have a bulk tea place near them because they are "EVERYWHERE". I immediately replied with, "my local health food stores has a very limited section of bulk items, and I have never been able to find bulk tea near me. I also swear by compostable tea because they are going right back into the earth.”

At the end of the day don't let anyone make you feel like your impact isn't good enough. Not everyone can find all of their items package free and put them in aesthetically pleasing mason jars. YOU ARE DOING YOUR BEST AND THAT IS ENOUGH!

2. Try to Find as Much as You Can in BULK!

Now, I understand that you can't find everything in the bulk section, but that doesn't mean you should always rely on plastic packaging. My local health food store has a huge area full of package free fruits and produce that I can put in my own bags! They also sell package free rice, beans, dried fruit, and granola that I eat on a regular basis! By purchasing these times in bulk, I am letting them know that I prefer these items to those that have a ton of plastic packaging. My choice to “vote with my dollars” influences their decision to expand their bulk section.

That being said, it's also completely okay if you can't afford some of the bulk items. Think about buying items with a decent shelf-life in larger quantities. It’s better to get one plastic bag for 4lbs than 4 plastic bags of 1lb quantities. This, of course, doesn’t help if the food expires/goes stale before you can eat it. Think about this in terms of foods you can freeze, or items that are shelf-stable.

3. There are a TON of Items that Come in Compostable Packaging!!!

Just last month, I purchased some coffee in paper packaging! This is the most ideal kind of packaging because I am able to put it right back into the earth. I understand that many of you may not have a composting system in your dorm room or house. I know that it may seem as if plastic packaging is everywhere, but just look around and read some labels, you will be surprised to see what you can find!

4. Reduce, Refuse, Reuse, and Recycle!

For many of you who live in a dorm or at home, where you may not be able to compost, there are other ways to reduce your trash! By reducing, refusing, and reusing your packaging, you are also limiting a ton of plastic and other types of packaging from ending up in the landfill.

However, recycling is one of the most controversial topics within the zero waste lifestyle.

Many believe that sending things to the recycling center is just as bad, since it take a lot of energy to repurpose the items into new products. While, others believe that recycling is a great option for those who don't have a ton of bulk or package free items available to them. That being said, no one really shares how much they are actually sending to the recycling center. Until now: go check out Jane_and_Simple, an awesome zero waste blog run by a women named Jane. Every month she explains every item that she will be sending to recycle and landfill and why. These posts are informative and allow you to think about your own personal choices a lot more.

Try to find items you can reuse over recycling, if there’s an option.

5. Bring your Own Containers and Bags When You Are Eating Out or Getting Take Away!

I have found that many still feel a bit weird about doing this, but I have never been treated negatively for doing so. As a matter of fact, every restaurant that I have been to compliments me for bringing my own containers and some even reduce a certain percentage of my bill. You are saving them money by refusing their plastic to-go containers and plastic bags.

Whenever, I go to a coffee shop to do some work, I always bring a cup in case they don't have normal coffee mugs available. I have also been able to put bagels, donuts, and other items in my own bags as well. It's awesome what people will do when you ask!

6. You Don’t Have To Explain Yourself!

When I first started my zero waste journey and a person asked me if I wanted a plastic to go container, I would try to reply with "I am allergic to plastic and can't use your containers." This is a trick that many have used from Bea Johnson's book the Zero Waste Home and it may never fail, however it is lying. Do you want to go through life lying to others. Over the past 2 years, I have learned that it is better to just say “No, I have my own container.” You may get some weird looks, but don't worry about it as long as you get what you want! As far as I know, using your own containers doesn't violate any health codes or violations because you aren't asking them to clean or store your containers, just put your items into them.


You may or may not have a full time job that probably pays you $40,000 a year at the most. You are probably paying off loans, rent, bills, and other important items that your money should go towards. Fast fashion items aren't manufactured or constructed well and are marketed for people who always want to be fashionable. Those items have a closet lifespan of about 4 months before they’re tossed to a thrift store or worse, a landfill. By purchasing items from thrift stores you are giving them a second life and promoting a circular economy. You are also not placing your dollars into the hands of corporations that are promoting unethical practices, and lack of environmental responsibility.

8. SPEND Your Money on Adventures and Memories, Instead of Items!

This has been a weird subject on Facebook. Many have begun asking, how do I talk my family into not getting me any gifts when they are so materialistic?

Many respond with, "Don't get them anything because people who are materialistic are shit heads" or my personal favorite, "Why would anyone ask that question?" As a result of years and years of marketing and influencing, our society has become largely materialistic.

Now, we all agree that this does have to stop; but that also doesn't mean that everyone who doesn't agree with this idea are "shit heads who don't deserve anything.” Instead I recommend writing them a list of activities that you would like to do with them as presents!

This allows them to still think that they are purchasing you something, while also spending time with you! The adventures and memories that I make with family and friends are more important to me than any items that I have been given. When I was in college, I enjoyed taking trips, hosting parties, and having fun with my friend's far more than getting lots of presents on my birthday and other holidays.

9. Forget about the TRASH Jar!

I know that everyone wants to be like Lauren Singer, who claims that she hasn't produced any trash in the last 4 years or so. That idea isn't exactly realistic for everyone (or anyone)! Especially when it comes to college students and recent grads who are concentrating too much on trying to find a job, a place to live, paying off their loans, and a bunch of more important things.

However, that shouldn't be a reason for someone to give up on trying to be zero waste! Even Lauren Singer withholds items from her trash jar, that are trash. Many people who promote a trash jar don’t put in items they are accidentally given (they say no straw, the waiter brings a straw), medicine, moving materials, etc. More so, a trash jar doesn’t show that there is plastic behind the scenes. In our beloved bulk bins, those package free items we joyously buy most likely arrived at the store in a large plastic bag.


If Lauren Singer was the perfect zero waster, than she wouldn't have a single item of trash or carbon footprint. She wouldn’t fly or drive. She wouldn’t use non-renewable energy sources like electricity. Her store would be 100% clean energy powered, etc. There is still a ton of waste that goes on behind the scenes, especially in New York City.

You shouldn't stress out about not being perfect either! It's amazing when you join a community full of people who believe in what you are trying to do and want to make the world a better place. I love that this lifestyle brings people together, instead of dividing them! It makes people want to do more and be better. It creates conversation and helps us all think about our actions!

You aren't perfect, but you are doing the best you can for now. Maybe in a few years, you can do more. Maybe not. Don’t freak out about it! We are all in this together, and together we can bring about positive change.

TransitionLindsay Guarnieri