Preserving the Environment

The Earth-Friendly Second Life of Dorm Cast-Offs

May 29, 2015
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The Earth-Friendly Second Life of Dorm Cast-Offs
Yale students participate in the Spring Salvage recovery/waste diversion program. Courtesy of Yale University
These universities prove college life doesn't have to be an environmental hazard.

“Pomp and Circumstance” accompanies the annual spring rites of commencement, as thousands of bright-eyed college graduates depart for the real world. Another, less memorable (and certainly more environmentally-damaging) tradition usually follows immediately after: the dumping of four years’ worth of Ikea futons, mini-fridges, Greek life t-shirts and dog-eared textbooks — items that’ll be purchased by the cartload by incoming freshman next fall.

Undergraduate move-out day generates tons of waste. Student activists on these three college campuses created more efficient systems to reuse and recycle.

University of New Hampshire

The first student-run sustainability initiative of its kind in the country, Trash2Treasure at this college in Durham, N.H., makes storage easier for on-campus students who have limited options for where to stash their furniture over the summer; in the process, they diverted 110 tons from dumpsters. Unwanted items are picked up at the end of each academic year, then sold to newcomers in the fall. It’s profitable enough as a business model that it actually generates more money than it spends to operate — earning $55,000 in revenue for future initiatives, as well as saving the school $10,000 in cleanup costs and parents more than $200,000 on dorm furnishings.

“Thousands of reusable items clog up streets and sidewalks and are sent to landfills every year,” Alex Freid, a UNH student who co-created T2T, tells The Boston Globe. “This is a problem campuses, towns, and cities have been seeing for 20 or 30 years, so they love to see students taking initiative and solving the problem.” Freid now runs the Post-Landfill Action Network, a nonprofit bringing the methods they refined at UNH to other campuses like University of Massachusetts, Tulane University in New Orleans, Northeastern and the College of William and Mary. “Our goal is to help campuses achieve zero waste, and move-out waste is a really great way to start,” Freid adds. “What we’re trying to do is to build universities as microcosms of how the world can and should function in the future.”

Yale University

A decade ago, this Ivy League school in New Haven, Conn., began the annual “Spring Salvage.” The program is based on a simple concept: “All students have to do is look for the blue and gray donation bins as they move out,” says Gabriel Roy-Liguori, a rising senior who helps coordinate the collection. “Blue bins are for soft items” — clothes, shoes, towels, sheets — “gray ones are for hard items” — books, lamps, electronics. There’s some mild confusion every year with a handful of students who think the 150 collection bins are meant for trash, but for the most part, the initiative salvages plenty of perfectly good items. Last year, more than 60,000 pounds of items were donated to Goodwill Industries. Overall, waste declined from 101 tons in 2013 to 93 tons last year, and a greater percentage went to charity instead of the landfill.

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Arizona State University

At the largest campus in the country, students on five campuses around Phoenix diverted 156,860 pounds of waste by redirecting it to charity, repurposing it for next year’s students or recycling it. The “Ditch the Dumpster” campaign works similar to other salvage programs, but at a huge scale. “When 9,000 students leave campus in the course of a week, you have to be on top of your game,” says Elizabeth Kather, a former member of the Sun Devils’ program. “You need a dedicated team — one that can be nimble as things change and react quickly to the needs of the program.” With this year’s move-out program, which launched on Earth Day, they’re hoping to exceed last year’s total, breaking past 78 tons.
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