Students Think Outside the Dumpster by Samantha Jakuboski, August 05 2015, 2 Comments

One man’s trash is…. well, you know how it goes!

And, for a group of students at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), this maxim is the cornerstone of their campus program, Trash 2 Treasure (T2T), and the national non-profit organization that grew out of it, the Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN). These are projects which strive to decrease college campus waste and work towards zero-waste campuses.

The ideas for T2T and PLAN began to take form in May 2011, at the end of spring semester. Like most colleges and universities, UNH forces its students to pack up and move-out of their dorms for the summer. From experience, I know that moving out is a real pain (waiting until the night before to pack: BAD IDEA). It never occurred to me how much “stuff” I had accumulated during my time at college, and the problem of how I was actually going to move everything home posed a problem. Let’s just say, thank goodness for U-Haul!

However, not all students have the advantage of living relatively close to their college and driving home in a van, and due in part to traveling limitations such as airplane luggage restrictions and summer storage fees, some find it easier to simply throw their belongings out. Walking around dorm buildings, it is therefore the norm to see hallway garbage bins and outside trash dumpsters overflowing with appliances and merchandise that were bought just a year before, many of which are still in great, working condition.

Unsettled by the amount of goods (100 tons more than the monthly average) spotted in the dumpsters on that May day in New Hampshire, the previously mentioned group of students, led by Alex Freid, decided to take matters into their own hands. Literally. They went into the dumpsters, retrieved items that were in good condition, stored them over the summer, and sold them back to eager freshmen and returning upperclassman at discount rates in the fall semester. The sale turned out to be a huge success, earning more money than was initially invested in the project, and voila, the Trash 2 Treasure program at UNH was born.

T2T was warmly welcomed as a campus initiative, and in lieu of rummaging through dumpsters, the program soon established drop-off locations throughout campus where students could leave their goods. From collecting sofas to kitchen chairs, desks to bookshelves, and clothing to electronics, this project has diverted over 110 tons of recyclable goods from being tossed in the UNH dumpstersand eventually the landfillin just three years since its founding. In these three years, Trash to Treasure also:

  • Recycled over 2,000 electronics, thus preventing toxic chemicals from being leached into landfills
  • Collected five tons of used clothing and food and donated them to shelters
  • Sold over $55,000 worth of reused goods (this money pays for pick-up truck and storage space rentals)
  • Saved UNH $10,000 in disposable fees, since many schools pay trash haulers to pick up their garbage on a pay-as-you-throw basis (hence, the less trash one has, the less expensive the collection service is)

Due to such successful outcomes, the student leaders decided to expand their mission. In 2013, they created a non-governmental organization called the Post-Landfill Action Network to help colleges nationwide run similar zero-waste programs on their campuses. PLAN is also currently in the works of creating an online platform and database, which will provide students with resources and foster a continuous dialogue on waste reduction. With over forty participating campuses, including Harvard and MIT, PLAN is successfully making a difference in the way students view and handle their waste.

It is also of value to note that other colleges, not part of PLAN, have also taken the initiative to reduce waste on their campus. At Barnard, for instance, every May the lobbies of certain dorm buildings become designated drop-off sites for unwanted goods, and the items are then donated to a charity. Other colleges, such as Middlebury, even have on-campus, student-run thrift stores that sell recycled items.

Reading about these student-led initiatives makes me feel good, because it is comforting to know that people my age are striving, and succeeding, to live greener and more sustainable lives. We live during an age where global consumption and waste are at all-time highs, with America alone accounting for about 20% of the world’s energy usage (although we represent less than five percent of the global population) and producing over 200 million tons of garbage every year (over four pounds of garbage per American every day!). Such consumption and waste cannot continue, since there are a finite number of natural resources, and it is clear that we must try to curb our buying habits, value the belongings we have, and think twice before chucking something in the trash. These UNH college students have the right idea in working to reduce student consumption and campus waste. If we, millennials, are working now to make the world more sustainable, we will only continue to increase such endeavors in the future as we rise to become world leaders, thus setting an example for, and imparting environmental awareness to, future generations.

Picture Credit: The U.S National Archives (via Flickr) and available for use