10 Tips for Sustainable Living While Studying Abroad in London

Mar 31, 2019 10:19:00 AM / by Sarah Mai

In this week's post, Sarah talks about how she cultivated good habits for a sustainable lifestyle in a global city—on a student budget. London is a green city and offers a lot of options for mindful consumption, waste reduction, and cost-effective travel. Go through the pros and cons of this list and see how you can incorporate some of these tips abroad!

(Original illustrations by Sarah Mai)

Coming TogetherOver the past few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in growing movements like zero-waste and sustainability. It’s nice to be able to feel like a difference can be made with everyday actions. At home, I was able to get into a fairly green routine while still staying on a budget, but eventually the time to pack up and move came around and I had to start figuring out how to live in a new city again. Even though London is the fifth most sustainable city in the world, I’ve found that it is much harder to reduce the amount of trash I produce while I’ve been studying abroad. There is no option to recycle or compost where I live, and food comes wrapped in a lot more plastic than I am used to at home. I became used to composting and recycling since it was so easy to do in my neighborhood in Minneapolis, but unfortunately it’s not a standard practice everywhere in London.

At the end of the day, there’s a lot of factors that come in to how we can live like time, money, and health. It’s all about what can be feasibly done to reduce impact, which can vary from day to day and week to week. And London does have a lot of pros: it is a very green city, meaning there are parks and green spaces available to enjoy pretty much everywhere. The public transport is super, and there aren’t terrible amounts of cars clogging the streets. Grocery stores are making the step to encourage people to bring their own bags, and people seem to be making the effort as well. Every little bit goes a long way! To keep the spirit up, here are a few of my tips to live more sustainably on a budget during busy student life in London.

1. Pack Your Own Lunch During the Work Week

This saves so much trash and money as those lunches can add up, even if you’re buying the cheapest option at a restaurant or express shop. Meals to go usually have a lot of waste, often with several layers of paper and plastic packaging. Generally, I end up packing the leftovers from dinner the night before and a few small snacks in my bag, like a fruit or some crackers. Right when I got to London, I bought a cheap reusable container with several compartments. It’s perfect for a whole meal, and it has a fork and spoon attached so I can skip the plastic ones.

2. Check Out the Secondhand Shopping Options

Secondhand ItemsI’ve always loved thrifting, and London has not disappointed. Fashion trends turn over rather quickly here, so you can find fairly new items in thrift stores most days. There are a lot of different options of charity shops in the UK, one of my favorites being Oxfam, since they sell specific items for the same prices (shirts are one price, dresses another, pants, etc...) and sometimes give discounts if there is a rip or stain. (They also sell books for 99 pence!) Some markets, like the Brick Lane market, have lots of funky vintage options for a variety of tastes, as well as a range of prices. Otherwise, there are always cool thrift events happening around the city, like kilo sales, which is when you pay a certain amount of money for a kilo’s weight in items. This past week, I went to one with my friend, where we collectively got eight items of clothing for £15. It was even cheaper since we split the cost! They are usually announced on Facebook, so keep an eye out for the events online.

3. Try Mindful Consumption at the Grocery Store

This one has been hard to keep up as there seems to be way more plastic packaging used here than in the United States. More vegetables come in plastic, and things like chips come with up to three layers of plastic bags. Essentially, I try to shop at places that have the least packaging on their produce, which generally is Tesco. Of course, since we are all on student budgets, sometimes the options that come in plastic are more feasibly priced. For example, a bag of potatoes is usually much less expensive than single potatoes, but if you shop with friends, it could be a good idea to share the bag and reduce both your spending and shared trash. Frozen vegetables are also great since they don’t go bad as fast and can be prepared in a variety of ways. Oh yeah, and bring a tote.

4. Cut the Single Use Coffee Cups

Lots of coffee shops here offer the option to have your warm drink in-store out of a real mug (which is great!). They also encourage people to bring their own mugs, and sometimes offer a discount for a travel cup or charge extra for the paper cup. In the end, usually the best option is to make the coffee at home, since you save the money and trash, but in the case you find yourself exhausted and far from home, ask to drink in-store with a real mug.

5. Bring Your Own Water Bottle

Sustainable ItemsThis one is nothing new. But what is new is that there is an app that tells you where you can fill up your water bottle on a street near you! It’s called Refill, and it gives you the locations of the 14,000 Refill stations around the nation. Every time you fill your bottle at one of their spots, the company sends 13 pence to help fund their planet protecting campaigns. And it’s free for you—cheers!

6. Use Public Transport or Walk As Much As Possible

This is simple to do if you’re a CAPA student since we all have the Oyster card as part of the program, but it really becomes important if you do a lot of traveling while you’re abroad as well. Cabs and Ubers can be really expensive and aren’t as earth friendly as using the transport available in cities. When I traveled in Italy, we did a little research of the trains and buses before getting there so we didn’t have to use any extra means. And while I’m at home, the transport in London is reliable enough that I should never have to get a car ride anywhere while I’m here!

7. Travel on Trains and Buses Over Planes

Even a little flight (like from London to Edinburgh) uses a ton of resources and has a significant carbon footprint. Try traveling to locations that are more local on a train or bus rather than hopping on flight. Of course, unless you are here to hardcore tour Europe, which in that case, do what you need to do!

8. Avoid Passive Electricity

This just comes down to things that eat up electricity all day but are only used occasionally, like washing machines, ovens, TVs, and dishwashers. In my apartment, there are switches that turn the energy on and off right next to the plug! If everyone is out for the day and nobody is using the machines, just switch them off and save the wasted energy when you can. Easy peasy.

9. Enjoy More Activities Outside in Green Spaces

Eco-FriendlyIt is not hard to find a green space to enjoy in London since there seems to be one every few blocks for most boroughs. Some of the best parks to visit are Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, Richmond Park, St James’s Park, and Greenwich Park, but that is a very slim pick of what’s available. Since warm weather is coming soon, and flowers will soon be covering the land, you can bet I will be spending my free time wandering around in some of these lush spots, which doesn’t use any energy except my own.

10. Share What You Can With Your Roommates

There are a lot of things that likely won’t get used all the way up and will be wasted if there is only one person using it. For example, sugar and flour is an easy item to share since home baking isn’t happening as much as it was at home. Other items like cleaning supplies, hand soap, and coffee can easily be shared and communally purchased. Just communicate with the folks you live with about those shared items so you don’t end up with doubles or triples of things!

This barely scrapes the surface of what we can do to do decrease waste in the city, but is a great start for anyone who is sustainability-curious. It all comes down to making a little bit of effort and keeping track of how much waste we make every day and every week. It seems as though more and more people are jumping on the RRR train (reduce, reuse, and recycle), and it is reflected in the attitudes and habits of lots of companies in global cities like London. I feel like studying abroad is a nice time to start practicing sustainability since there are so many ways in which we change while out of our normal surroundings. Picking up some new good habits is never bad! Happy sustainable living, my friends.

Thanks, Sarah!

Sarah Mai


Sarah Mai is an official CAPA blogger for spring 2019, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. An English and Art major at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, she is studying abroad in London this semester.

Sarah's journey continues all semester so stay tuned.

Learn More about the CAPA London Program

Topics: London, England, Predeparture & Study Abroad Preparations