Back to School Eco Tips

Back to school 2

One of the nice things about being in the world of school or academia, or having kids in these worlds, is that you get two chances each year to celebrate a new year. Why is this nice? Because new years are surprisingly good opportunities to make changes in your life (Gritz et al. 1988, Norcross and Vangarelli, 1989). This might sound unbelievable to you if you’ve ever made and failed at a New Years Resolution, but compared to other one-shot attempts to make changes in your life, New Years Resolutions are amazingly successful; one study found that 46% of New Years resolvers had completed their goal a year later, while only 4% of the control group had completed their goals a year later (Norcross and colleagues 2002; for the full article, see here).

So, take advantage of this new school year to make some sustainability changes to your life! I will sidestep the “can one person make a difference” conversation now, but will say that, since we are not perfectly rational humans, building sustainable habits and continuously making sustainable adjustments is part of the process of building an identity. Your daily experiences help you live the practice of promoting long-term environmental concern.


First Steps

(adapted from this blog)

  1. Make a realistic list of green goals for this year. I recommend putting it as a note on your phone or taping it to your desk. See below for tips on what to add to your list.
  2. Take the time to inventory what you have and what you need before you shop for anything – school supplies, clothing, etc.


Then, consider the following tips on making this school year more sustainable:



Local PhD student bikes or walks to school every day.
This local PhD student bikes or walks to school every day.

Consider alternatives to driving to school. According to one study, car commuters experience more stress and a more negative mood (Wener and Evans 2011), and according to another this effect might be worse for women (Roberts et al. 2011).

Taking the bus likely produces less CO2 than driving, no matter what kind of car you drive, and carpooling takes as many cars off the road as there are other people in your car. Instead of seeing carpooling as less time-efficient than driving, think of it as an opportunity to build relationships and start your morning with social time.

Commuter bike on campus at Duke Marine Lab
Commuter bike on campus at Duke Marine Lab

Or, bike to school if that is an option for you! Commuting by bike is associated with fewer sick days (Hendriksen et al. 2010), and, for me, makes me brilliantly happy when I arrive at school. Here are some biking resources:

  • Biking map of Durham, NC showing the best roads to bike on around Duke.
  • Register as a bike commuter at Duke, and get two free daily parking passes a month for when it rains or when you have an interview and need to dress nicely. See here for more details.
  • First-time bike commuter? Tips for your first commute can be found here.
  • And this blog has a very helpful list of detailed scenarios showing how to not get hit by cars when biking.
  • Finally, for bike safety statistics, in case you are curious about knowing the facts.


Important: make sure to bike safely. Wear a helmet – it reduces the likelihood of dying by 50-80%, and be aware of cars during your whole commute; most fatal bike accidents happen between (not at) intersections. Ride as though you are invisible.

For interesting ideas on how to be happier in your commute, see here.



Print on both sides

You will find infinite options for “green” school supplies, which you are welcome to explore. But, for some clear-cut ways to make your school day more sustainable:

Fellow Nicholas School blog writer Sarah brings her own mug to seminars and coffee hours.
Nicholas School blog writer, Sarah, brings her own mug to seminars and coffee hours.
  1. Opt reusable: BYO plates, cups, and cutlery for lunch. If you are buying food at a cafeteria, or getting free coffee, bring your own dishes. It seems weird at first, but it will (probably) soon seem very normal, and you may inspire change in your friends. If you are packing your child’s lunch, opt for reusable glass containers and a lunchbox instead of paper bags.
    A visiting scholar brings his own plate to a lunch buffet.
    A visiting scholar brings his own plate to a lunch buffet.


  2. Buy your schoolbooks used, if possible. There are lots of options for used textbooks, and they’re usually cheaper, also! If you are looking for alternative used book websites, see Abe Books and Barnes and Noble online.
  3. Reduce paper usage by renting iPads or Kindles from your institution if you can (often you can do this for free!). If you must print lots of pages, make sure to print on both sides, use recycled paper, or re-use paper. Take those 3 extra seconds to make sure that you’ve checked the right boxes, and that you’re printing the right thing.
  4. Don’t buy what you don’t need, if you can avoid it. This is easiest to do when you know what you need – which can be surprisingly hard. So, wait to go shopping until you have a good idea of what you need, and make sure to bring a list of what you are looking for. This will help you avoid the temptation to buy attractive office supplies and excuse them as “you might need them”.


For more reading and a comprehensive green back-to-school blog, see

Back to school 1

Best of luck in the new school year!



Gritz, E.R., Carr, C.R., & Marcus, A.C. (1988). Unaided smoking cessation: Great American Smokeout and New Year’s day quitters. Journal of Psychosocial Oncology, 6, 217–234.

Hendriksen, I. J., Simons, M., Garre, F. G., & Hildebrandt, V. H. (2010). The association between commuter cycling and sickness absence. Preventive medicine51(2), 132-135.

Norcross, J.C., & Vangarelli, D.J. (1989). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse, 1, 127–134.

Norcross, J. C., Mrykalo, M. S., & Blagys, M. D. (2002). Auld lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self‐reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology58(4), 397-405.

Roberts, J., Hodgson, R., & Dolan, P. (2011). “It’s driving her mad”: Gender differences in the effects of commuting on psychological health. Journal of health economics30(5), 1064-1076.

Wener, R. E., & Evans, G. W. (2011). Comparing stress of car and train commuters. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour14(2), 111-116.