For college students, the end of the school year is near. Finals are being crammed for, summer adventures are being planned, job prospects are being explored and move-out plans are being made. But, over the course of a year, in addition to collecting knowledge and memories, students have also accumulated a lot of stuff; stuff that many of them won’t take with them.
So where does all the excess stuff—we’re talking desks, lamps, vacuums, couches, clothing, electronics, etc.—go? Too often, it ends up in campus dumpsters. But students and schools with a mind for sustainability have created programs that provide alternatives to throwing perfectly good stuff away.
Across the country, there are campus collection and redistribution programs that divert goods away from the landfill and into the hands of people who can use them. Programs include Arizona State’s Ditch the Dumpster, University of New Hampshire’s Trash2Treasure, UConn’s Give & Go, Yale’s Spring Salvage, UC Santa Barbara’s GIVE Sale, San Francisco State’s Sustainable Move Out and many more.
Some programs collect items and distribute them immediately to local nonprofits; some sell the goods and put the money into the community; other programs store the collected items and sell them to returning students in the fall.
If you’re interested in starting a collection and redistribution program on your campus, there are a couple of ways to begin. The first is to start on a grassroots level. Talk to those around you, come up with a plan for collecting and distributing the collected goods, and make it happen on a person-to-person basis.
The benefit of this approach is that there are no administrative constraints. You can simply coordinate locally, collect and distribute. The downside is that, without administrative assistance, transportation, storage and funding, all costs, marketing and organizational requirements fall on you. This approach, while effective for diverting a small amount of stuff from the landfill, may be overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that is thrown out on a campus-wide level.
Salvaging reusable items from NYU's dumpster. Creative Commons photo by mecredis
Perhaps the biggest challenge of collecting and redistributing items is storage. If you plan to redistribute the goods to returning students, you need a large storage facility to hold the collected items until the Fall.
“The problem is the delay,” says Hans Schoenburg, co-founder of Giftflow, who also founded a free store in New Haven, Conn. with items donated during a college move-out collection. “No one’s buying furniture when everyone is moving out. But there’s enormous potential to do good with the stuff.”
One way around the storage issue is to distribute items immediately to local nonprofits and community centers. Another strategy is to set up, like Schoenburg and his team did, a free store that’s open to the community at large.
“Running the free store with the discarded stuff was a wonderful opportunity to build community and bring together people who wouldn’t have otherwise interacted," he says. "It’s a great way to build community around reuse and bring awareness to how wasteful we can be.”
The Free Store in New Haven, Conn. Photo courtesy of Hans Schoenburg
Another way to go about starting a collection and reuse program is to get the administration behind you. While this approach may slow down the process as you’ll be in the world of proposals, budgets and boards, the benefit is that with the administration’s help, the program can scale to a campus level. There may be funds available to hire a small staff, provide designated drop-off bins and trailers and pay for the transportation and storage of the items.
Kristen Lee, Yale’s 2013 Spring Sustainability Fellow, who is running the school’s Spring Salvage, emphasis the importance of working with the administration to actually get things done.
“If a student organization is looking to be successful in the long term,” she says, “I would say support the interests of facilities management, or operations-type organizations within their college. If they’re met with open ears, the transportation and storage that that type of entity can provide is valuable. Don’t reinvent the wheel,” she continues. “Work within the infrastructures that already exist.”
Starting or supporting a program that diverts reusable items from the landfill is a great way to conserve resources and draw attention to how much we waste. As Schoenburg says, “The biggest problem with a lot of waste is that it goes out of sight, out of mind. We become unconscious of it. An effort to reuse and recapture,” he continues, “also brings awareness to the act of wasting itself.”
Tips for starting a collection and reuse program on your campus:
The Basics: Have designated donation days and areas then transport the items to a central location to be sorted and either stored or distributed.
Teamwork: “When 9,000 students leave campus in the course of a week, you have to be on top of your game,” says Elizabeth Kather, who is part of ASU’s Ditch the Dumpster team. “You need a dedicated team--one that can be nimble as things change and react quickly to the needs of the program.”
Start Early: If you want to make the project sustainable, you have to start early. Charles Zhu who started Yale’s Trash to Treasure program says, “Start as a freshman or sophomore and start building a community around this idea. That’s the only way you can sustain this idea for years afterward.”
Find Support: Partner with both the administration and also student organizations. Kather says, “We work hard to get other student organizations involved...Our team is very diverse and involves facilities, custodial, sustainability student organizations, university housing and our partner in donations and giving, Swift Charities for Children.”
Close the Loop: To minimize the amount waste being created, try to put the stuff back into the community it came from. Ideally, this means providing the goods for reuse on campus, but logistics may necessitate putting them into the larger community.
Scalability: Zhu advises, “Look for solutions that can be scalable across the country. So often, you see these programs have a spurt of growth for a couple of years then they just fall apart after the original students graduate.”
Get Creative: In addition to storing and selling items back to students in the Fall, Zhu’s Trash to Treasure program stored stuff for students who didn’t want to get rid of it but had no way to transport it. His solution was to park four large trailers on a vacant parking lot and store things that students wanted to have back in the Fall.
Do Something: As Kather says, “Start small, but start something. There is too much going into landfills and trash collection that can be reused or recycled. College students want to make a difference and just need an outlet.”
What’s your experience with campus move out collection programs? What works well? What could be improved? Share your experience in comments.
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