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Conquering the Trash Mountain After College Move-Out

To diminish the size of end-of-year piles, colleges and universities around the country are taking proactive measures to manage extra trash and recyclable materials.

When students went home at the end of the academic year in May, colleges and universities were left with a mountain of waste that had been discarded by students in the resident halls. Across the country, schools manage this extra trash and recyclable material through programs and outreach.

At the University of Virginia (UVA), the sustainability team takes proactive measures to deal with what has become a routine waste problem. “We see a lot of rugs, fans, clothing and small home goods like organizers,” says Nina Morris, an employee of UVA’s Office for Sustainability.

To manage the excess waste and dispose of it, the university runs Hoos ReUse, a move-out donation drive. “[We] collect materials from both on- and off-campus housing. This past May, we kept over 62,000 pounds of materials out of landfills through the Hoos ReUse program,” says Morris. Much of the material was donated to Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity, Salvation Army and other local charities.

While the program has been around for years, its growth skyrocketed recently. Charlottesville’s NBC29 reported that the program’s collections grew from almost 9,000 pounds in 2013 to 37,000 pounds in 2017.

To diminish the size of end-of-the-year piles, the university tries to start early, at the beginning of the new academic year. For example, the Office of Sustainability offers students some tips for what to bring, including encouraging students to shop for secondhand furniture and furnishings and to get free school supplies at the university’s Reusable Office Supply Exchange (ROSE) program.

In reality, many students will end up with more than can fit in the van for the drive home; at the very least, the university hopes to keep those materials out of the landfill before the end of the year, as well as after the dust settles on move-out week.

“We do a lot of communication to students about the Hoos ReUse program leading up to move-out, as well as hosting clothing swaps throughout the year to help get students thinking about innovative ways to avoid putting good materials in the landfill,” says Morris.

In Boston, area schools take similar measures. Harvard University sells items in its recycling warehouse; at Tufts University, students sold leftover items at a back-to-school sale; and at Boston University, many of the collected items are donated to Goodwill.

At the University of Oregon (UO), clothing, bedding, bed risers, shower caddies, school supplies, lamps, mini-fridges, shelving and furniture make up the bulk of left behind items.

“It’s easy to see that a good deal of items that end up as landfill-bound material could actually be recycled or donated,” says Robyn Hathcock, zero waste administrative services manager, University of Oregon Zero Waste Program. “It’s not uncommon to see brand new clothing or unopened, non-perishable food thrown away. Students typically pack and move out in a short period of time, and that haste can definitely lead to waste.”

The UO Zero Waste Program partners with UO Housing to help promote the Give Before You Go Drive. Designed for student residents, the drive encourages them to pack early, sort out recyclables and put aside items for donation. The drive is promoted in the residence halls for several weeks before move-out, including in the dining hall and on social media.

“Our resident assistants encourage students to use this program to decrease waste and to help a charity that benefits the local community. This program aligns with our values of sustainability, responsibility, accountability, learning and growth,” says Leah Andrews, director of marketing and communications, university housing, student services and enrollment management.

During move-out, team members from the zero waste program are available to assist students and families by answering recycling questions and explaining how to donate items that they may not have thought of, such as games, sporting gear and even Oregon Ducks’ gear, which can easily be reused. They also collect computers that the IT team wipes clean to protect students’ data and identity.

Donation bins in the residence halls, stickers to denote which items are destined for donation and the ability to submit work orders for the custodial team to pick up large items all help UO get a handle on the material. Team members also make sure items such as liquids get placed properly in the right bins to decrease contamination.

“The UO donation drive for on-campus residents during move-out week is an incredibly robust, effective effort in capturing material and reducing waste. It is impressive to see the donation drive come together each year and partner with the staff that supports the effort,” says Hathcock. The residence hall donation drive generates more than 20 tons to 30 tons of reusable items.

Students can also worry less about getting rid of items because UO provides free summer storage for students who are returning next year. They can securely store items such as rugs, bicycles, mini-fridges and boxes with their belongings over the summer months.

As students and families start shopping for the upcoming academic year, it’s important to think critically about what materials are needed.

“It is a natural tendency for parents and students to supply the student rooms with as many supplies as possible upon move-in, especially if moving long distances. Instead, it would be better to start off with fewer items and add as needs arise during the year,” says Hathcock. “This approach might encourage students to see more value in these items and to reuse or donate them upon moving out, rather than throw them away at the end of the school year. Additionally, bringing unneeded items back home during the year, if possible, can help reduce waste generated at the end of the year.”

Andrews agrees, noting that students tend to bring more than they need. The university provides students with a list of what to bring and what not to bring to help with their planning and packing and also suggests that students coordinate with their roommates to avoid duplication.

“I often suggest that a student packs for college like they would for a month-long trip, where they only get to take two suitcases,” says Andrews. “Bring the clothes and items that make you comfortable and happy, bring things that remind you of home and help you create a new home on campus, but perhaps wait on buying ‘all the things’ until you have had a chance to move in and settle in a bit.”

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