Calling All Students: How to Make Sustainable Living a Habit at University

Sustainable living and ethical fashion blogger Mikaela Loach can frequently be found in all pink outfits and funky earrings, chatting to whoever will listen about plastic-free and vegan living, and how we can make these movements accessible and inclusive. Currently studying Medicine at Edinburgh university, Mikaela shares her tips on how to invest wasted time in zero waste.

Today is the day: A level results are out. The torture of waiting is over, and I hope that whatever the result, you’re feeling some sweet, sweet relief right now. For many of you, this is the official start of your student journey – congratulations! I’m sure there are a million different things you’re thinking about right now as you envision your new, more independent life as a fresher, and the idea of making all of that sustainable might be a little overwhelming, but I’m here to help.

When we talk about sustainability, and our own ability to live a “sustainable lifestyle”, often we focus on money as the most important factor. “I can’t afford to live sustainably as a student” is something I’ve heard, and previously believed myself. This idea feeds into the perceived exclusivity of being able to live sustainably: it’s a club for well off people who have it all together, eating acai bowls and sipping green smoothies. This doesn’t have to be the case. Obviously, money makes a lot of these things easier, but I’d argue that there’s something that can hold more value when pursuing sustainability – something that the notoriously “broke” student has in abundance: time. Students have a lot of time. So, alongside binge-watching Netflix and moping around hungover, let’s talk about how time could be the most valuable resource you have in pursuing a more sustainable lifestyle.

I’ll start with a bit of my story: two years ago, I arrived at the University of Edinburgh as a very keen fresher excited to start my adult life, move out and meet new people. This new, independent lifestyle meant that suddenly I was responsible for more choices than just what I ate or wore: now there was toilet paper, laundry detergent, energy suppliers and so much plastic packaging to contend with. By this point I was already boycotting fast fashion and had been a vegan for two years. My principle behind these choices was that each purchase I made was a vote for something and I should – where possible – be voting for whatever honours our planet and fellow humans most. Suddenly there were a load of new “votes” I was making and a load of responsibility that I hadn’t planned for.

By April of my first year, I’d decided I was going to go plastic-free for Lent. My zero waste friends warned me not to do this overnight, but my arrogance got the better of me – could it be that hard? Turns out, if you aren’t prepared then it can. What I learned that month is that cutting down your waste and getting into sustainable habits takes time and effort; it’s not an overnight switch. I spent my second term of uni scouting out greengrocers, supermarkets and bulk stores in Edinburgh, working out where I could refill my detergent or rice or beans, get oats packaged in paper rather than plastic, and affordably purchase loose fruit and veg. Overall it took research, trying out different things and learning from those around me for my entire first year before my lifestyle even resembled a “zero waste” one. By the end of it, I was able to spend the same – if not less – than my friends on food and utilities with a fraction of the waste.

So, how can you start?

  1. Spend a week living as you normally would. At the end of it look in your bin: what are you throwing away? Why? Could you add in a swap here or there to reduce significantly?
  2. Scope out your local area. Look in greengrocers, local supermarkets, small independent stores. Work out where you can shop economically and waste free. See if there are low/zero waste or bulk stores in your area or food sharing cooperatives.
  3. Work on one area at a time. Start in the bathroom or kitchen or with laundry. Make goals that are achievable. Also, don’t be too hard on yourself: it’s a marathon not a sprint.
  4. Surround yourself with people who inspire you and encourage you. Having someone to look up to can help a lot in this: look for societies that would attract people who’d be interested in sustainability and make some pals who will encourage you. Also follow people on social media who can offer tips!

In all of this, I’ve been privileged to live in a city which has zero waste bulk stores, greengrocers and a Lidl with a sizeable loose veg section, all within walking distance of the main university campus. Throughout, however, my greatest privilege has been the affluence afforded to me by free time. In many ways, how we use all the time we’re given at university is what shapes the person we will be when we leave: we are forming habits and behaviour patterns that can stick for life. If you use this time to do the burden of research and scouting out required to live a sustainable lifestyle, then the habits you form will help you out wherever you go.

Start small: buy a keep cup and use it for hot drinks. Then add some reusable cutlery and a shopping bag to your backpack. Make bringing these few things with you as much of a habit as bringing your phone or your keys when you leave. In times of climate crisis, we seem to only speak about time as something we don’t have a lot of left. I’d like to challenge you to realise the value of the time we have and to use that odd hour before a lecture or in the evening as an opportunity to create small incremental changes. Small steps and good habits can lead to a tidal wave of change: if we all made them, that could save our climate.

Read our guide to sourcing your student essentials sustainably.

Find out how young activists are leading the fight for climate change.

Check out where to start when it comes to dressing ethicallyplastic-free food and ethical beauty.