Becoming a sustainable student

Monday 1st October marks the end of the university summer: a return to weighty books and squinting at a glaring laptop screen into to the small hours as the essay deadline approaches. It shouldn’t, however, signal a hiatus for creative thinking, particularly when it comes to innovative ways to communicate and act upon sustainability concerns.

Going to Tesco is necessary, but how do we make it a more sustainable activity?

The lofty goal of making my university house greener has been steadily growing over the last few weeks, as the spectre of study crept over the horizon. But, rather than approach this with neo-Gandhian ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ pretention (an instant switch-off for a heavily cynical student), I wanted to dream up several smaller behaviour changes or tools. These will hopefully stand a greater chance of ensuring I follow them regularly and, you never know, lead to my housemates taking them on board as well.

Here’s a little brainstorm for the moment and, as I turn them into a reality over the coming weeks, I’ll report any progress for your delectation.

1.   Egg timer shower timer

I love showers. Unashamedly. Standing with no concept of time while the pressurised steamy water pummels your skin is a great pleasure for me. I’m left entirely alone with my thoughts, and it’s often where my creative spirits will graciously hand me an essay plan, article stem or pretty turn of phrase. But I’m fully aware of how much water and energy those lingering showers use. My water bill that is calculated on a flat rate compounds this addiction.

I read recently that the reason showers have been deemed better than baths in terms of water use, is that the calculation was based on showers lasting five minutes on average. Mine can be far longer. So what to do? My thought is to use a simple kitchen timer to limit myself to those five minutes. I’m sure I can squeeze plenty of thinking in to that timescale, and, if not, I’ll just go for a long, moody walk.

How easy will it be to limit shower time?

2.   Ban on supermarket plastic bags

It’s the easiest thing in the world to pop to the supermarket on a whim, grab a few bits of food and throw them into a fresh plastic carrier bag, or three. But if, on a rough calculation, I use six new carriers a week (split across a typical two major shopping trips), that works out as 162 bags across the course of a Durham University year (27 weeks). The fact that I’m just one person and that’s only half a year underlines how many bags will end up in landfill after just one use. My solution will be a complete personal ban on new carrier bags. It sounds so simple, but making sure I’ve always got a proper shopping bag on hand (tote, thicker plastic, or otherwise) is the real test.

3.   Fair trade or local store trial week

The dream of shopping at solely independent retailers is far from a reality for my student life, because the restrictions of cost (Tesco for your weekly shop almost always wins), movement (there’s no way to get to a local farm shop) and time (often markets can be awkward to reach during lecture or work timetables). But for weeks of this year I want to trial doing all my shopping at Durham’s wonderful indoor and outdoor markets, or other independent stores. Another week, I’ll do something similar, but this time with everything possible that is Fairtrade or equivalent. By running this as a proper trial, rather than a semi-failed constant attempt, it will allow me to judge the up-and down-sides of both properly.

4.  Take recycling seriously

Of course we try to split up our waste, keeping certain materials separate when we can, but we can always go much further. Why can’t we take our bottles to a bottle bank once a week? Why can’t we ensure the cardboard is properly separated and picked up? And why why can’t we try and compost food waste, to use on our small stretch of soil (potential herb garden)? This one will be about setting up a system so that recycling can become a norm, not a hassle

5.  Switching to a sustainable and ethical bank

The competition for student accounts amongst high street banks is fierce. I’m no expert, but I imagine the attraction of hooking in savers in their early adult life is one pathway to lifetime business. The lure of free railcards, NUS memberships and other added extras – combined with favourable overdraft limits – is often the deciding factor when making this choice. Sustainability and ethical credentials probably never come into the decision. The Co-operative Bank offers a similarly competitive student account, with a £1,400 overdraft. Amongst the big players in the high street banking industry, it is recognised as the most ethical, and consciously avoids lending to companies involved in activities from arms trading to animal testing. I want to make the switch, and I’ll let you know how the experience goes.

Photographs: geograph.org, fotopedia.com

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