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10 ways to go green on a grad student budget

Trying to be more environmentally conscious while earning only $20,000 (in Santa Cruz, one of the most expensive places to live in the US) was a daunting task when I first began grad school. I've always carried deeply about environmental issues, so it was a little frustrating to move to California and be confronted with people who had enough money to afford the Next Green New Thing, often a product or DIY that takes a lot of time or costs more than the non-green version (I'm looking at you, unbleached recycled toilet paper!!). The equity issue involved with "going green" is a discussion for another time (though no less important). Today, I'm here to tell about a few easy, low-cost ways to be a more environmentally conscious on a grad-student budget.

1. Reconsider how you attend conferences and workshops

Reusable conference items
Have reusables, will travel

Conferences are essential for networking and presenting your research as a graduate student. But traveling via plane produces a LOT of carbon. As a scientist working to protect ocean resources, I'm aware that flying to conferences that I may not need to go to is hypocritical. I've approached this problem from two angles: First, I avoid conferences that I have to fly to when possible. If I'm missing out on meeting up with a potential collaborator, I try and set up a video conference with them, instead. Second, if it's a meeting I need to attend (and have to fly to), I will purchase carbon offsets that are certified by the Gold Standard.

Another tip to go green at conferences: Bring your own thermos and utensils for both the traveling and the meeting (you'll be able to keep your coffee-break coffee hot for longer!).

2. Encourage your colleagues to use real silverware and plates at community functions.

My department has been a constant culprit in the use of paper plates and plastic utensils at coffee socials and graduate defenses, despite there being plenty of reusable utensils and plates in folks' offices and the community kitchens. Now, I take 15 minutes before the event to gather plates and silverware. I also clearly mark a bin (or a general area) where guests can place dirty dishes. Via some casual polling, I found that people hesitate to use a reusable plate/utensils because they aren't sure where to put them and don't want to burden anyone. I promise -- it only takes another 15 minutes or so at the end of the event to clean the dishes, and boom -- we've just prevented a whole garbage bag of paper and plastic from heading to the landfill and avoided anyone having to go out and buy new supplies next time.

3. Eat less meat

Studies have shown that adopting a diet with more plants and less meat is a major way to decrease carbon emissions. Even just removing meat from your diet for a few days a week can dramatically lower your carbon output. Plus, meat is expensive! Dried beans, tofu, avocados, eggs, and other foods will provide you with the same level of protein for a much lower cost per oz. For more suggestions on cheap vegetarian recipes, I recommend The Stingy Vegan, Budget Bytes, and Cookie and Kate.

safety razor
This thing is saving me SO much money!

4. Buy a safety razor

I've always struggled to get a solid shave, so I was really astounded when I switched to a safety razor and starting immediately obtaining a better shave. I bought my handle for $20, and with some basic TLC, it should last me for the rest of my life. A single blade can last months and be recycled after it's used, and get this -- a pack of 100 blades is just $10, meaning that you can get away with shaving for the next decade for just $30 and minimal waste.

5. Bike, carpool, or take public transportation to school

In most university towns, there are usually several public transportation options, and students sometimes get free transit. If you live close enough, you can consider biking or walking to work. There are also other students in your department who you could carpool with. All of these methods will save you money on gas, car maintenance, and parking permits (UCSC charges graduate students $800/year for parking -- yikes!). Biking and walking improve your physical well-being, and as graduate students who spend a lot of their time inside in front of a computer, getting outside can be really good for your mental health.

6. Women: use a menstrual cup

Female hygiene products produce a huge amount of waste; millions of tampons and pads will end up in landfills this year alone. The production of pads and tampons also produce a lot of carbon dioxide. One article also suggests that menstruation products will set you back by $20,000 over the course of your life. Enter the menstrual cup, an amazing invention I somehow missed hearing about when I was growing up. They have a small learning curve, but you'll get the hang out of it after just a few uses (the internet is your tutorial friend!). Here's the best part: You can keep them in for 12 hours, you can avoid spending loads of money on tampons/pads (and avoid those terribly awkward runs to the store), and they are excellent for camping and field work. What more could you want, as a poor field biologist?

7. Shop secondhand or host clothing swaps

Buying secondhand or trading with friends allows you to avoid spending money on clothes while giving clothing, furniture, and more a second life. Socializing in graduate school can be challenging amidst research, writing, and field work -- so use clothing swaps as an excuse to get together with your friends!

8. Use less plastic at the grocery store

Unfortunately, plastic recycling appears to be a thing of the past in the United States. Plastic products are right now sitting in shipping containers, waiting buyers abroad to recycle. At this, point we need to start consciously choosing to use less plastic. Here are some easy tips: Bring your own reusable shopping bag (saving you money in many states with plastic bag taxes), don't use plastic produce bags (let that produce roll free or use cloth produce bags), buy in bulk (even my local Safeway has a bulk section). Buy in glass or aluminum when you can rather than plastic -- these are more easily recycled in the US. Another option is to invest in an "ugly food" shipment box like Imperfect Foods or Hungry Harvest. Everything that comes in the box is recyclable, it is cheaper than buying food in the grocery store (check out my analysis of my own box here!), it comes right to your doorstop, and you're helping decrease food waste.

You can compost pretty much all food scraps!

9. Compost.

Yeah, yeah -- composting is for hippies! What if I told you it is also one of the easiest ways to avoid food waste? Almost everything can be composted, and the process is very easy. To get started, check out this handy guide from the EPA. You can compost even if you don't have a backyard -- check your area for local community compositing efforts, or buy or make an indoor composting kit. Even if you don't have a garden, you might have neighbors or friends who would love some fresh soil.

10. DIY your holiday gifts.

Holiday gift-giving has been tough for me since I started graduate school. Living on a shoestring budget in Santa Cruz leaves very little money for gifts. In recent years, I've focused on making my own gifts instead or buying zero-waste gifts for folks that I think will use them. Some of the low-cost, super easy projects I've done include making beeswax wraps (check out my DIY!), bath bombs, handmade cards, and baked goods (who doesn't love cookies??).

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Gunjan Kumari
Gunjan Kumari
Jun 21, 2021

Hi! I love how informative and great your articles are. Can you recommend a <a href="">List of Citrus Fruits</a> or blogs that go over the same topics? Thanks a lot!

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