The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One student’s junk is another student’s treasure

Students unpacked their vehicles to take their belongings into dorms at the University of Maryland in August. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Students unpacked their vehicles to take their belongings into dorms at the University of Maryland in August. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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Desk lamps, storage cubes, chairs: Every year, college students stream into school lugging new stuff for their dorm rooms or apartments. Nine months later, the process shifts into reverse, with hundreds of tons of usable goods landing in dumpsters.

Not anymore — at least in some places.

Driven by the desire to be eco-friendly, many schools promote reuse and recycling through ­student-led initiatives such as Zero Waste Clubs. Donation bins appear in residence halls and student neighborhoods during finals season to divert usable items to nonprofit partners. There can also be a payoff for families of incoming students, who can save on dorm costs by purchasing used goods at campus move-in sales stocked with donations from outgoing students. (Many programs don’t resell bedding, but students can score furniture and appliances.)

“It’s incredible to see how much great stuff gets donated every year and how much waste can be reduced by shopping at the sale instead of taking a trip to Target,” senior Eva Gaufberg said of the Trash2Treasure sale at Northeastern University in Boston.

The movement began in 2011 at the University of New Hampshire, when Alex Freid co-founded the first student-led, self-sustaining Trash 2 Treasure sale. Since then, the school’s program has diverted more than 200 tons from landfills and saved families more than $500,000. Under the helm of student chief executive Jake Werner, this year’s event filled eight shipping containers and two lounge halls for a massive sale in UNH’s hockey arena. The sale earned $18,000, all rolled back into the program.

Freid is also credited with spawning the Post-Landfill Action Network, a 5-year-old nonprofit known as PLAN that teaches students how to create campus waste-reduction programs. PLAN has 248 campus members in the United States and internationally, and it hosts an annual Students for Zero Waste conference. This year’s conference will be in November in Philadelphia.

“Our philosophy is meeting students where they are and helping them develop the skills and tools they need to be successful in their project,” said Faye Christoforo, PLAN’s co-director.

It all sounds fairly easy, but move-in sales can be tricky. They are sometimes tough to find on campus websites and often not included in orientation literature. But established sales are gaining visibility through emails to families and campus social media.

Tiffany Ortamond, sustainability coordinator at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., which held a pilot program this year, suggests contacting the campus’s sustainability office or resident coordinator to learn about sales. “They’ll know if something is going on,” she said. “We had overwhelmingly positive feedback from students and parents, especially those coming from the East Coast.” Ortamond estimates the sale diverted 3½ to four tons from landfills.

Rochester Institute of Technology’s Goodbye, Goodbuy! program, created in 2014, partners with the student orientation program and this year was included on an app that promotes campus engagement.

“Parents seem more enthusiastic about the sale every year, and my goal is to work more closely with our new-student orientation department,” said Ethan Koval, the program’s student director. Typically earning $23,000, the program diverted 30 to 35 tons of goods toward the sale this year and donated another 2 tons to local social-services groups.

Since its creation in 2015, American University’s Project Move-in sale “has become part of the move-in culture,” said Grace Pugh, co-president with Caroline Johnson of the school’s Zero Waste Club. The co-presidents manage the program with the university’s Zero Waste manager, Tyler Orton. This summer, the sale was announced through move-in information to families for the first time. Next goal: a student-run campus thrift shop such as the University of California at Davis’s Aggie Reuse Store, which is open during the school year and stocks kitchenware, clothing and dorm decor gleaned from donation drives.

Some schools have had such success they have expanded their efforts and broadened their causes.

Northeastern University’s program, which started selling used goods nine years ago, hosts two collections and two sales per year and launched Sustainability Week in March, according to Sally Kramer, the program’s president.

Humboldt State University in California funneled $2,450 from its pop-up thrift shop into the student-led Oh SNAP! campus food pantry, which, according to the school’s website, provides free food “to support food insecure students.”

There are benefits even if a program does not generate a profit. Running Rochester Institute of Technology’s program is similar to helming a nonprofit, Koval said. He has received post-college job offers because of his involvement.

“It’s my dream,” he said, “to have every college campus have a program like this because it’s had a huge impact — environmentally, financially and for leadership opportunities.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when Northeastern University began selling used goods from outgoing students to incoming students. It was nine years ago, not three. The article has been updated.

Joanna Nesbit is a freelance writer and editor in Bellingham, Wash.