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Voices

Kick Waste Off Campus

Every spring, college campuses across the country are faced with a deluge of waste as students moving out for the summer discard thousands of unwanted items. Furniture, electronics, school supplies, clothing, dorm gear, and more overflow dumpsters at universities nationwide. Most of these items – many of which are still usable – are sent to local landfills and incinerators. From there, the toxic chemicals in this waste make their way into our water, soil, and air.

photo of two men in ties and sport-coats

Then, in the fall, students returning to campus make pilgrimages to the nearest big box stores. They stock up on brand new back-to-school goods like electronics, school supplies, clothing, and dorm gear – the very same items that their classmates threw away just a few months earlier. Another school year goes by, and it happens all over again.

It’s no accident that when we went to college we noticed this problem on our respective campuses – Alex at the University of New Hampshire, and Brett at New York University. We’re friends and organizers who have been thinking about waste since high school, when we worked together to launch a new recycling system that cut our school’s waste in half. To us, the piles of reusable items on our campuses represented a fundamental flaw in the way our entire consumer economy uses and disposes of the planet’s resources. We saw an opportunity to think globally and act locally.

When we started investigating this issue three years ago, students at UNH were throwing away 25 tons of waste in an average month. But during the month of move-out, waste jumped to 105 tons. To solve this problem, Alex helped create a program called “Trash 2 Treasure.” In the spring of 2010, volunteers collected thousands of reusable items discarded by their peers during move-out. Over the summer the volunteers cleaned and organized it all. Then, that fall, we resold everything at a huge yard sale during move-in weekend.

From the start, the program was an enormous success. In its first three years, UNH Trash 2 Treasure has salvaged about 110 tons of usable materials, recycled 2,000 electronic items, and donated five tons of food and clothing to local shelters. We have also saved UNH more than $10,000 in disposal fees and earned $55,000 in program revenue, which has been reinvested into new campus sustainability initiatives like a year-round e-waste recycling program and a bikeshare service. What’s more, the sale has saved students and their families an estimated $250,000 by selling back-to-school items at steep discounts compared to big box stores.

From the start, we recognized that we were addressing a problem that plagues campuses nationwide –
so we designed a solution that could be implemented at schools everywhere. We founded the Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN), a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping students establish programs to reduce waste in their campus communities.

Our approach begins by providing step-by-step advising, best practices, and support accessing startup funding for the establishment of move-out waste-collection programs like the one piloted at UNH. PLAN also functions as a cooperative by establishing vendor partnerships that allow us to extend discounts on program expenses to member schools. We have created similar partnerships with recycling companies, and aggregated hard-to-recycle materials across multiple campuses to reach bulk amounts, making it possible to recycle resources that universities would otherwise send to the landfill.

But reducing move-out waste is just the start. Once programs are up and running, we help students conduct a campus waste audit and design ways to reduce year-round waste. We also facilitate internships through which students are discovering innovative ways to cut waste. Finally, we hold educational events on campuses and at student conferences to drive dialogue about solutions to the waste crisis.

To get involved, visit: PostLandfill.org.

Our vision is a national movement of students organizing and agitating for a world without waste. The technology for such a world already exists. All we need is to change individual behavior and institutional practices. University students can be the drivers of this transformation. They can build the infrastructure to recycle, reuse, repair, and compost just about everything. They can educate their peers and administrations about the impact of waste, and design and implement solutions.

We think that the most important lessons in college happen outside the classroom. For us, it took place in the dumpsters. Now, students across the country are learning together that a zero-waste world is possible.

Alex Freid and Brett Chamberlin are co-founders of the Post-Landfill Action Network. Freid is a recipient of the 2013 Brower Youth Award.

   

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