One grad's trash is another's treasure
From the nation that brought you consumerism comes campus programs to recycle all that junk
Picture Pennsylvania State University's cavernous Beaver Stadium filled, not with screaming fans, but with nearly 90 tons of student junk - and 10,000 people pawing through it.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Rugs, sneakers, lamps, refrigerators, jackets, half-full bottles of shampoo, televisions, toaster ovens, notebooks, fans, pens, posters, computers - all the once-vital trappings of 16,000 students' lives suddenly deemed expendable when the school year ends.
And it all used to be the bane of Albert Matyasovsky's existence. As Penn State's chief junk buster, he deals with the mounds of stuff left behind when students leave in May.
But the resourceful Mr. Matya- sovsky turned his one-time bane into a boon by creating the mother of all yard sales - and opened it to the entire University Park community.
The end-of-year junk problem grew enormously on most campuses during the 1990s as students increasingly brought with them all the comforts of home. The result today is that nearly every residential campus is floundering beneath the load.
Many campuses just toss everything into a dumpster. That's what Penn State did - until last year. But Matyasovsky didn't like sending all that good furniture and serviceable wares into a landfill. So last year, he enlisted support on campus to hold a monster flea market - the school's first "trash-to-treasure" event. It's a recycling-for-charity idea that is growing on campuses that want a green alternative to the dump.
A dollar buys a rug, two dollars a jacket, five a couch. There will be the ubiquitous Christmas sweaters with the price tags still on them. A good-stuff-cheap extravaganza unlike anything the University Park campus has seen: 300 eight-foot tables piled with the detritus of student life.
Standing recently under the stadium bleachers, Matyasovsky describes by cellphone the sale's centerpiece: a 96-foot-long line of tables piled three feet high with used blue jeans of every size and maker. Just blue jeans - for two dollars a pair - or less as the sale winds down.
"Prior to this we were sending hundreds of tons of reusable goods to the landfill," he says. "This way we recycle much of it, the proceeds go to charity, and we build good relations with the community." Last year the school made $15,000 which went to the local United Way chapter.
But Penn State is only one recent convert. Lisa Heller is the queen of end-of-year move-out bargain sales business and president of "Dump and Run," a three-year-old nonprofit company in Brookfield, Mass. Her idea is to help campuses set up a cheap but sophisticated system to deal with the year-end jump in student cast offs.
Ms. Heller first saw the light from the bottom of a dumpster. It was 1993, and she was a grad student at Syracuse University. While moving out, she realized she was missing a ring her mother gave her, and concluded it must have gotten tossed.
"I just jumped into the dumpster," she says. "I never did find the ring. But I found crutches, a TV set, canned food, hot chocolate, and a cigar box with stamps from 1892 worth $400. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, someone's rare stamp collection.' As a result, I started thinking about it - why did someone throw out those out?"
She's concluded that students are not inherently wasteful. But when they must clear out in two days, many will abandon or throw away perfectly useable items, she says. Compounding the problem is the fact that colleges increasingly have only a few days before summer sessions begin to get dorms ready to go again.
"The end of the term stuff is an enormous problem - it's hard to imagine the volume," says Gary Schwarzmueller, executive director of the Association of College and University Housing Officers International located in Columbus, Ohio.
Dump and Run began as Heller's pilot project at the University of Richmond in 2000. Since then, 20 schools have tried the program. This year 10 campuses are participating and six former client schools liked it so much they now run their own programs.
Ana Lyman, a student at Brown University, returned last spring to visit her graduating friends after living in a modest Brazilian community where nothing was wasted. She was shocked as she watched things being thrown away that would have been saved or sold in Brazil. This spring, she is the student coordinator for Brown's first dump-and-run project.
"I was skeptical - I thought students would be apathetic, but they really haven't been," she says. "We're getting a lot of hotline calls."
A number of schools are fighting the trash monster. Ellen Dunton-Larmer, a former graduate student at Lehigh University, says only a few core colleges and universities have adapted their recycling programs to deal with the demands of the end-of-year move out. The University of Texas at Austin, Ohio State, and the University of Michigan all have year-end programs, she says.
Others like Tufts University in Medford, Mass., began "dump and run" a few years ago, along with Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and the University of Minnesota.
The dump-and-run habit caught on at University of Richmond where cinder blocks (used to jack up student beds or create bookcases) are among the hot items collected each spring - then resold to students each fall for two dollars each. Student sofas are the hot ticket at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., which hauls them to the local thrift store - where students buy them back at the beginning of the next school year.
Lehigh University uses its move-out time as an opportunity to build bridges with the community. The community supplies volunteers. Money raised goes for programs that help community children.
"Our program focuses attention on enhancing the social fabric of the community," says Ms. Dunton-Larmer says. "It's working to help bind the school and the community together."
• For further information on college recycling visit: www.dumpandrun.org or the National Recycling Coalition.