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Colleges turn students' trash into cash for charity

By Bridget HuberContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / May 26, 2009

Boston College Cleansweep volunteers Gwyneth Landry (right) and Katie Corkum pause while sorting shoes that were left after students moved out of their dorms this year.

Bridget Huber/The Christian Science Monitor


Each year at this time, college students move out of their dorms, leaving behind what Lisa Heller Boragine calls a "tsunami" of stuff. She stumbled onto the problem about 10 years ago, while studying at Syracuse University: It was just after move-out day, and she had jumped into a dumpster to search for for a lost ring.

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The ring never turned up, but what Ms. Boragine did find amazed her: VCRs, television sets, cases of ramen noodles, crutches, and even a cigar box filled with rare stamps, one of which was worth $400.

And "that was just one dumpster," she says. There were many more like it on campus – and a similar situation at numerous other schools around the country.

For years, much of the flotsam left by college students at the end of the school year ended up in landfills. But, increasingly, schools across the country are implementing programs that corral the leftover belongings and get them into the hands of people who will give them a second life.

For her part, Boragine began gathering the discards and taking them to charities herself. Then, in 1999, she started the nonprofit Dump & Run, which helps colleges collect the items and resell them to benefit charity. The organization is also an information clearinghouse for schools that want to organize similar programs.

When she started, few colleges had formal programs to deal with waste left at the end of the academic year. But as environmental consciousness has grown, Boragine says that's changing. Now schools are more likely to contact her for help in fine-tuning their existing programs rather than start from scratch.

This year, she's helping Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., organize a collection drive and sale, which is called Give & Go. So far, volunteers have collected 6 tons of stuff from departing students. Much of it – including clothing, food, bedding, and even half-used containers of laundry detergent – will go to local charities.

The remainder -- minifridges, desk lamps, and the ubiquitous plastic storage containers -- will be sold to incoming students in the fall, with proceeds from the sale benefiting on-campus sustainability efforts.

The idea is to reduce both waste and consumption, says the college's sustainability coordinator, Jenna Janna Cohen-Rosenthal. "Part of the problem is that when students move in, they're buying new things. That's not sustainable," she says.

Students aren't inherently wasteful, Ms. Cohen-Rosenthal adds, but the end of the semester often finds them scrambling to finish assignments and vacate the dorms on a tight schedule.

Adding to the problem, Boragine points out, is that many students who live off-campus can't afford to move all their belongings home or store them."If you have finals until 5 p.m. on Friday, and you have to be out [of your apartment or dorm room] by noon on Saturday, where is all that stuff going to end up?"