Crash Course in Going Green at College Guide to Sustainable, Eco-Friendly College Campuses

Going green has never mattered as much as it does today. From smog hovering over our biggest cities to icecaps melting at an alarming rate, it might seem like anything we do is simply a drop in an impossibly big bucket. But if everyone contributes, change happens. Colleges and universities around the nation have recognized the need for going green as a way to make the world a better place, both today and tomorrow – and they are going about it in grand style. Those who care about the environment can look to these colleges as shining examples of what can happen when a student community comes together for the greater good.

Meet the Expert
Matthew Derr
Matthew Derr Read More
Mona Becker
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How Colleges Are Showing Their Green

Going green in college usually isn’t a solitary pursuit; there are plenty of other students who have the same goals, and most colleges have begun focusing on helping the environment. When choosing the right school to help meet those admirable goals, focus on the following possibilities:


Some colleges have dorms that are dedicated to sustainability and green living, complete with rain barrels, solar panels, passive lighting and reclaimed wood. Other colleges spread their efforts out among all housing; for instance, they might not have gray water systems, but every dorm has a solar panel or two.

Sustainable curricula

Many large colleges offer degrees related to sustainability, but eco-aware colleges might also offer electives that focus on the environment. So even though a student is seeking out a degree in food service management, they can take electives that focus on sustainable foods, or those who are seeking a degree in human resources can take electives in organic practices.

Campuses closed to cars

Transportation is responsible for a full 26 percent of all greenhouse emissions in the United States each year, according to the EPA. Why not reduce that by looking for a campus that restricts how many vehicles are allowed there? Students might find that these colleges actually keep them healthier as well, because walking to class – and everywhere else – is a must.

Energy supply

Where does the college get the electricity to run all the buildings and services? Look to a college that supplements their electricity through solar power, wind power or even water power. Though you can’t expect to find an off-grid college, you can definitely find those that do their part to create their own power for a variety of buildings and housing units.

Organic farming for food on campus

Many colleges have enormous areas of beautiful green space. Those that are serious about going green are turning much of that green space into large gardens or farmland, and using the yield from those fields in the dining hall. Look for college campuses that encourage organic gardening and offer spaces where students can participate in creating their own healthy meals.

Environmental degrees

Being good environmental stewards might also mean teaching students to carry the torch long after their education is over. Environmental degrees, such as environmental humanities, sustainable agriculture, and natural resources conservation are unique degree programs that can be found at some colleges.

Green buildings

Earning a LEED rating is an important step in proving that a college is serious about the environment, but not all green buildings earn the distinction. It is more important to look for the efforts, such as implementation of gray water systems, solar panels and faculty-led initiatives to cut down on water or electricity usage.

Shuttle buses

To make up for the lack of vehicles, many colleges turn to shuttle buses and carpools to get students where they need to be outside of the college campus. Better yet, many of these shuttle buses run on biodiesel or other fuels that are kinder to the environment.

Recycling and composting programs

In 2013, Americans recycled 87 million tons of trash, or about 34 percent of all waste. A college that is serious about sustainability will also have a serious recycling program, as well as opportunities for composting. These programs should extend further than the food service kitchens, and be encouraged for all students across campus.

Reimbursements for going green

Some colleges go the extra mile by encouraging students to do their part in protecting the environment. An example might be offering a small reimbursement on cafeteria costs if students bring their own utensils, or offering discounts on purchases of recycled paper products at the bookstore.

Place to refill water bottles

Only one out of every five plastic water bottles is sent to the recycling bin, which means that 80 percent of all those bottles go – where? Back into the environment, where they create a variety of hazards. Colleges recognize the problem and offer incentives for students to carry their own reusable water bottles, which can be refilled at filtered water stations throughout the campus.

What is Stars?

The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System is a self-reporting platform where colleges and universities can track their progress in going green. Students who want to attend a college that takes sustainability seriously can search through schools that are making great strides toward environmental stewardship, and can make informed choices on which colleges suit their personal green goals.

Learn the Lingo: Glossary for Going Green in College

So what does all this mean about going green? Understanding the lingo can help students make informed decisions about what they will be experiencing in college. These are some of the more common terms that might be tossed around when discussing environmental issues on campus.


Something is sustainable if it can be used to meet present needs but not compromise the resource for future generations. For example, bamboo grows so quickly that by the time today’s products need to be replaced, the bamboo has regenerated, meaning that it is ready for future generations.


This green-building certification program stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The LEED designation – certified, silver, gold or platinum – denotes the credits a particular building has earned in important categories, such as water efficiency or indoor air quality.

Carbon Footprint

This is a measure of the total amount of greenhouse-gas emissions, including carbon dioxide, produced by a single building, business, person or other entity. The goal is to have a smaller carbon footprint, and therefore contribute less to global warming.


These fuels are created from sustainable resources or those resources that would be otherwise harm the environment; an example is biodiesel, which is fuel created from used vegetable oils that can be used to power diesel engines.


Organic matter, including anything from bits of food waste to old newspapers, can decompose quickly under aerobic conditions, thus creating a rich kind of soil that is then used for gardening or similar uses.

Energy Efficient

A product is energy-efficient if it does that same job as its conventional counterpart, but uses less energy to do so. For instance, an energy-efficient washer cleans the clothes just as well, but uses much less water and detergent to do so.

Gray Water

This is water that does not contain harmful pollutants and can be used for other applications. An example is recycling wastewater from dishwashing and laundry to wash the car or water the plants.


Organic food or fibers are understood to be created without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers; livestock that is considered organic is raised without antibiotics, hormones or chemicals.

Slow Food

A healthy alternative to fast food, this is a movement that focuses on eating food that has derived from local and natural sources, including eating what is in season and focusing on foods that are simple, with no preservatives.


A sister to recycling, this is the act of using an item that would otherwise be recycled or go to the landfill to create something new and different. An example might be milk cartons used as planters for starting seeds, or empty glass food jars to hold office supplies.

From the Expert

Mona Becker of McDaniel College offered great advice for students who want to go green on campus.
What are some ways individual students can do their part in going green?

Students can join an environmental group on campus or form one if it doesn’t exist! Here at McDaniel, our Green Life club has sparked interest in environmental issues on campus and even started a “turn it off Tuesday” campaign to make sure that lights were off in offices when not in use. Offices were awarded “energy stars” and this was a visual reminder for people to make good decisions regarding the environment.

Individual students can also make sure they always recycle, are careful about their water use and are not wasteful, and can educate others about the importance of these issues. If students are aware of the choices they make, they can make a big difference.

Let’s assume that a student attends a college that doesn’t seem interested in sustainability or environmental issues. What can a student do to get that ball rolling themselves?

The first is to partner with like-minded students at their college to form an environmental student group. It is important to address only one or two issues at a time, though, and keep it reasonable. McDaniel’s Green Life club started with recycling as their issue to tackle.

Also, students should not be afraid to approach their administration. Students involved in the Green Life club at McDaniel work closely with the environmental studies department faculty, as well as finance, physical plant, grounds and housekeeping staff, regarding environmental issues.

Using social media has also been a powerful way to accomplish change and garner interest in environmental initiatives.

Anything else you might like to add about going green on college campuses?

Change doesn’t happen fast, especially when trying to implement college-wide initiatives that may need board or division approval. Be persistent and also celebrate small victories when they occur. One of the best selling points to college administration for changes in sustainability is the return on investment (ROI), so if your proposed change has cost savings built into it for the college, use that to your advantage as a selling point. Not only are you helping the institution to become more sustainable, but you are also saving money.

Understanding the Benefits of Going Green in College

It’s obvious that going green can help the environment, but it does much more than that. Going green can provide a wealth of advantages for anyone who chooses to make a change, no matter how small that change might be – as long as the change is consistent. Here are a few reasons why going green matters on a personal level.

Better health

When you look to sustainable agriculture for your food, you are going to become healthier, simply thanks to the lack of hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and other chemicals that make it into your meals. When a good local diet is combined with the exercise that comes from eco-friendly commuting, such as walking or riding a bike, your health gets even better.

Saving money

When you switch to eco-friendly options, your costs go down. Installing LED lights and using a power strip to cut down on “vampire power” leads to lower costs for utilities. Riding a bike instead of using a vehicle cuts down on gas and maintenance costs. Even refilling your own water bottle can save a great deal of money over the course of a year.

Better communities

Any steps to reduce energy consumption can help reduce global warming. Many of those effects are clear in the community right from the start. For instance, compost means healthier gardens, carpooling means getting to know new people, and spending time at workshops means learning more that helps students grow as members of the greater college society.

Cheaper transportation

Going green in college can mean walking around campus or riding a bike to class. It can also mean forgoing a vehicle altogether and instead relying on carpooling or shuttle buses to get where you need to be. By leaving the keys behind, your transportation costs are much cheaper, and you do something good for the environment at the same time.

Reducing water usage

One of the first things those who want to go green will learn is that water isn’t really as free as it seems – turning on a tap is a luxury that many in the world don’t have. By reducing water usage, you are keeping a little more of that precious water in our lakes and streams. Over time, a little here and a little there really adds up.

Setting an example

There are those who look to you for the right answers. Perhaps it’s your sister or brother, or even your parents. Maybe it’s your friends. Your children, certainly, will benefit from seeing the way you act about the environment, as they will act accordingly. Your example can be a powerful catalyst for change for generations to come.

A clear conscience

When you make a point of going green, you start to do things that are better for the world around you, and for the fellow beings that inhabit it. When you bike to class, you cut down on your carbon footprint. When you eat organic, you help ensure that livestock are raised well and slaughtered humanely. When you stay local, you pour money back into the local economy. It’s a wonderful cycle.


At the end of the day, going green saves money, makes you healthier, is kinder to the environment and leaves you with a clear conscience about your choices. There are few things in life more valuable than peace of mind.

12 Tips for Going Green on Your Own

What if your college is already going green, but you want to take it further? Fortunately, that’s entirely possible and will make an even bigger impact. “Make a commitment to consuming less in your daily life,” suggests Matthew Derr, President of Sterling College. “You can start with seemingly small actions.

These tips for going green on your own will help reduce your carbon footprint – and best of all, making these things happen is relatively easy.

Use online textbooks.

Textbook are huge tomes of information that use up trees at an alarming rate. The good news is that textbooks last for a very long time, so the hard copy can be rented during the semester, or online textbooks can be used with a few clicks. As an added bonus, there is no hauling around that heavy textbook to and from class!

Filter your own water.

“Simply stop buying bottled water—landfills and our oceans are bursting with plastic water bottles,” Derr said. “Get a reusable water bottle that you can fill from water fountains or the tap.” Want that crisp, clean taste? Invest in a water filter pitcher and run tap water through it for daily fresh water in your dorm room.

Make use of reusable bags.

When you carpool or take the shuttle to run errands, don’t forget your reusable canvas bags. Every plastic bag that is kept out of the environment is a good thing, and in some areas, you might even be saving money by using your own bags.

Adopt the ‘upcycle’ mindset.

Before you toss anything, ask yourself: What other use does this have? You can find new uses for almost anything. Consider it an opportunity to use your ingenuity and maybe save some money while helping the earth. If you can’t find a use for it, consider freecycling it – giving it away. And if that doesn’t work, recycle.

Cut vampire power.

That laptop charger, phone charger, television, and any other electronics that stay plugged in all the time are slowly drawing power. It’s just a bit, but it adds up over time. Cut down on this vampire draw by investing in a power strip, and simply turn it off when you leave the room.

Take care with entertainment.

Instead of cluttering up your dorm room with video games, movies and the like, look for ways to get that same entertainment for free or cheap. Rent movies from the library for free or a nominal fee; turn to services like Redbox to rent games, or borrow from friends. Want to see the latest movies? Find a community park that hosts free movie nights.

Acquire a bike.

Riding a bike everywhere on campus is a time-honored tradition that deserves to be upheld. Look for a good, sturdy bike that will last for a long time, because it will take a beating over the span of your education. Invest in a very sturdy lock, too. Then ride everywhere to save on time, money and emissions.

Reuse paper.

How many times have you printed out several pages of notes or reports? Now, how many times have you turned that paper over and used the completely clean and empty side? Simple reuse of paper in this way can cut down significantly on how much you go through in a semester.

Get your friends involved.

When one person gets excited about going green, others tend to catch the fever. Invite your friends to help you with the organic garden, shop for sustainable items and otherwise do their part to make life easier for themselves and the world at large. Your simple enthusiasm can be a catalyst for change!

Host a swap party.

Why buy new when you can trade? Hosting a swap party that involves everything from clothing to video games can give you something that is gently used but ‘new to you’ – and it saves money while keeping more consumer goods out of the environment. “These may seem like mere drops in the bucket, but these are great first steps,” Derr said.

Commit to buying green.

When you purchase the necessities, such as shampoo or laundry detergent, look for those things that are gentle to the environment. Items with no harsh chemicals are a good way to start. Also look for reusable items that can be used over and over, such as canvas bags.

Encourage broader change.

When you see changes that could be made on campus, take the issue to the right people. Start with something that almost any college can do. “Reach out to Dining Services about ways to reduce food waste on campus, such as implementing trayless dining, or composting food scraps,” Derr said. “What can the campus food service do to reduce food waste, buy more locally grown food, and food grown in ways that don’t exacerbate climate change?”

Green School Spotlight

Some schools go above and beyond to create an eco-friendly atmosphere. Here are a few of the top performers.

This university earned top marks for student engagement in sustainable issues, as well as waste management, planning and innovation, among others. Thirteen solar arrays, over 20 LEED-certified buildings, and research into sustainability ongoing in over 90 percent of CSU’s departments means that going green is not a fad, but a way of life. Students have caught the fever; 86 percent say that sustainability matters to them, and 80 percent “ride the talk” by registering bikes as their campus transportation.

Address: 711 Oval Drive, Fort Collins, CO 80521

Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC) & the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools

STARS score: 85.29 (Platinum)

A model of sustainability, Sterling College in Vermont offers only environment-related degrees, and is one of seven federally-recognized work colleges in the nation. The third college in the nation to divest its endowment from fossil fuel extractors, Sterling goes further and takes every possible step toward sustainability, from solar panels to wind turbines and much more. In fact, in 2016 almost all campus power will be created by 13 solar trackers. Sterling has the distinction of being number one in the nation for serving “real food” to students: 75 percent of all food served is local, sustainable, fair-trade and humane.

Address: P.O. Box 72, Craftsbury, VT 05827

Accreditation: New England Association of Schools and Colleges

STARS score: 76.05 (Gold)

It’s not just small private colleges going green – some of the big boys are too. Students at UC Santa Cruz enjoy the fact that 24 percent of all produce served in the dining hall is organic. A trayless dining program has saved over 30,000 gallons of water per month and reduced food waste by 40 percent; the food waste that does remain is composted.

Address: 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95064

Accreditation: WASC Senior College and University Commission

STARS score: 63.09 (Silver)

Going Green at College Resources

Campus Green Resources College Gardens

Many colleges offer gardening space for students in addition to college gardens for the dining halls; students can create their own plots or join in with others to grow their own food.

Environmental Groups

There are numerous environmental groups available on campus, usually hosted by students and faculty who are interested in green issues.

Office of Sustainability

Many colleges have heard the call to help the environment and have responded with a central office of sustainability, where students can get more information or offer suggestions as to what comes next in the quest to become greener.

Community Green Resources Community Supported Agriculture

Also known as CSAs, these programs offer the community members an opportunity to pay a certain fee in order to obtain fresh, organically-grown produce every week.

Go Green Program

Curious about purchasing products that have a net zero or negative carbon footprint? This program by the Government Purchasing Alliance provides information on which suppliers might fit the bill.

How to Green Your Community

TreeHugger offers a great list of ideas to help students gets started on making a difference in the community outside of the college campus.

The Green Power Network

Where can the community get greener power? This initiative from the U.S. Department of Energy helps communities make informed decisions on where their power comes from.

Online Green Resources Energy Action Coalition

A clearinghouse of climate justice issues, including opportunities to get involved with climate change initiatives.

Engineers for a Sustainable World

This network of faculty, students and professionals are dedicated to projects on campus and beyond.

Sierra Student Coalition

This student division of the Sierra Club works for environmental justice and remedies for climate change.

United Students for Fair Trade

This organization focuses on promoting fair trade principles in their local economy and beyond.