Colleges turn students' trash into cash for charity

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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?"

Boston College's Cleansweep program aims to make it as easy as possible for students to recycle their belongings. They don't even have to take them to a collection spot; they just leave their excess stuff in their rooms to be collected by volunteers.

The discards end up in the college's athletic center. There, John McLaughlin, who started the program with his wife 16 18 years ago, manages a team of volunteers, including members of his family and many BC alumni and staff. They unload and sort the mountains of items.

So far this year, the haul covers more than a basketball court, and there are still more dorms to empty. Among the haul: a four-foot-high mound of clothing, a thicket of lamps, a surprising number of stuffed animals, and enough nonperishable food to stock a corner store.

Notable finds this year include a set of golf clubs and two mannequins.

All of the items will be gone in a couple of days when BC opens the gym to a number of carefully vetted community groups, including domestic violence shelters, homeless groups, and Head Start.

Mr. McLaughlin and his wife, Catherine Morley, both BC graduates, began the program when they came to the college to attend graduation ceremonies one year and were shocked at the amount and quality of things that students had thrown away.

They had been working with needy people as a part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and were disturbed by the idea that so much food and other usable items would go to waste. "[My wife] brought the moral outrage, and I brought the organizational skills," says McLaughlin, who views the entire project as "a large gift from the Boston College community to the greater Boston community."

At Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, the focus is on generating cash for charity. For the past eight years, the college has enlisted the help of volunteers from dozens of community organizations. The volunteers put in hours collecting and sorting items and staff a gigantic yard sale. The proceeds are divided among the nonprofits based on how much time they put in to the effort. Last year, the sale brought in $40,000 for area groups.

Before the program began, Bowdoin put 40 10 (40-yard) dumpsters around campus at move-out time, some of which were emptied twice, says Keisha Payson, Bowdoin's sustainability coordinator. Now, collection boxes are placed in dorms for students to fill with items they no longer need.

"It's a win-win-win," says Ms. Payson. "The housekeepers like it because there is less stuff to deal with, the community likes the great bargains, and students like it because they feel bad about putting stuff in the dumpster."

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