Universities challenge throw-away culture


Three large Dumpsters sit outside of University of Mississippi residence hall. (Bryce Johnson/University of Mississippi)

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Many campuses across America are striving to achieve zero waste during move out.

According to the “zero waste” perspective, literally everything created, used, and discarded can be recovered through recycling, compost, reuse, or donation. The movement centers around three goals: diverting waste from landfills, educating the community, and assisting those in need.

Programs vary in size and structure. Most zero waste move out programs divert 5 to 65 tons of waste from landfills yearly, leading to cost savings and fundraising.

Discarded items are often similar to those purchased by incoming students. According to the National Retail Federation, the typical first-year college student spends $300-$400 outfitting their dorm room. Students can experience significant savings by purchasing these items at move-out drives where discounts are 50% or greater.

In 2016, Ohio University diverted 20 tons of reusable furniture and household items and four tons of food. The food drive helped over 800 local families avoid hunger that summer. California State University East Bay repurposed hundreds of bed mats for the homeless. University of Missouri’s move out program raised more than $10,000 to fund summer camps for underprivileged children in Columbia.

UMass Amherst professor Arianna Moscone said their New2U program has provided an alternative to business-as-usual waste disposal. Knox College’s year-round Free Store has led to 50% waste reduction and over $1,000 savings from hauling alone. A similar program saved Harper College $9,300 in office supplies during its first year.

Universities structure programs around their target audiences. Programs focusing on incoming students might hold onto donated goods until August or install year-round thrift stores. CSUEB operates a free thrift store because 60% of students are low income.

Most institutions serve the surrounding community and operate only in April and May. They gather, inventory, and organize collections during the last three weeks before move-out. Campuses often host one to three large sale days and then donate remaining items to charity. Others who donate to charity first still raise thousands of dollars.

Handling literal tons takes a lot of manpower. Universities often log up to 400 volunteer hours. Although volunteers are critical, they “are not a reliable resource,” says Alec Cooley, director of recycling programs for Keep America Beautiful.

Many campuses hire 10-20 student workers to manage the project and assist operations. Student volunteers engage participants at dumpster sites, directing them towards donation and recycling stations. Volunteers help organize materials and transfer them to central locations.

Moscone said undergraduate involvement at UMass builds “an engaged network of students who are committed to changing the wasteful, throwaway culture that persists on college campuses. Showcasing how much is thrown away that can be reused affects decision making and living practices while benefiting everyone.” University of Wisconsin-Madison and Ursinus College drastically improved student involvement by integrating move-out into coursework.

Colorado State University found that investing in staffing directly increases diversion results. Although labor is the largest expense for programs such as Colorado State, these costs are offset or completely covered by savings and revenue from sale events.

Community partnership is foundational because these organizations deliver large volumes of goods from the program to those in need. Partners assist the organization, execution, and visibility at every level.

A large portion of start-up costs typically go towards marketing. Puget Sound’s initial budget was spent entirely on one-time physical advertisements. Due to its marketing success, the Puget Sound’s budget has grown and is now spent on other expenses.

The most successful programs take advantage of all media channels, including mass emails, social media, radio, television, signs and flyers. Ohio University partnered with a best-selling pizza restaurant to turn pizza boxes into 5,000 additional advertisements.

Pilot project budgets range from $500 to $7,000. Budgets often grow after results are calculated and profits from the previous year are applied. Many projects find additional funding through state or university grants. Stacey White credits the successful diversion of 35 tons at the University of Minnesota to a $15,000 grant.

University of Missouri claims that 95% of the work occurs during the last three weeks. However, for most programs planning often begins in February. Coordinators select sites for donation stations and sale events. They contact stakeholders and partners throughout March and establish involvement and needs. Training occurs in April after student leaders are hired and volunteers are recruited.

The last three weeks are filled with facility prepping and establishing donation stations, and intense marketing starts two weeks before sales. They often add action items for programs that have August sales.

Success ultimately depends on cooperation, communication, and dedication. Each program is built upon interaction within a web of stakeholders: housing, waste management, facilities, sustainability office, community organizations, the city and, of course, the public.

Cooley said move-out programs can fail when stakeholders avoid special operations, are spatially restricted, or disregard such movements as low priority. Student Program Manager Marcella Heineke provided advice: “Focus on the main goal, the resale, and do not get caught up in the bureaucracy of school politics.”

Alicia Lavaute from the Sustainability Office at Missouri adds that all parties must be engaged with the project, know their role, and follow through.

Interaction with the public is the cornerstone to a move-out program’s success. The Theory of Planned Behavior suggests people are most affected by the time required to act sustainably, followed by convenience and cost.

University of Wisconsin and University of Iowa promote self-efficacy using posters that display program achievement, donation locations, and acceptable products. Coastal Carolina University’s bold graphics direct participants to 25 Portable On-Demand Storage units, assist workers with organization and inventory, and help shoppers navigate the sale. They also offer incentives such as t-shirts and reusable water bottles.

Overall, the best move-out programs promote environmental awareness, build shared economies, and support social equity. Their results are impactful, fighting hunger and poverty. The best programs are well-scheduled, quickly implemented, scalable and self-sustaining.

Knox College’s Free Store manager Ramona VanRiper says move out programs “establish a culture wherein resource stewardship is habitual. Excitement and engagement increases with participation.”

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