Jeff Wilson’s life had all the trappings of a conventional adult existence.
For starters, he was living in a comfortable, 3,000-square-foot Brownsville, Tex., home with a large walk-in closet, an easily accessible bathroom and a $1,600 monthly mortgage payment. He had a tenure-track professorship at a state university, an hour-long commute and a matrimonial social arrangement with a fellow professional.
Today, Wilson has none of those things — and insists that he’s never been happier.
Between then and now, there was a divorce, a new job in a new city, a surrendering of worldly possessions, a new social arrangement with a new romantic partner and — perhaps most importantly — an olive green dumpster that he called home.
Until he vacated it last month, Wilson — an associate professor of biological sciences at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin — spent an entire year living in a converted trash receptacle on the historically black college campus.
On its face, turning the 33-square-foot space into a livable home — complete with an AC unit, a weather station, a mailbox, and a false-floor basement to store cooking equipment and clothes — was a bold exercise in sustainability that demonstrated a person’s ability to comfortably exist in a space 1 percent the size of the average American household.
“It’s an insane idea on the surface, and it may be an insane idea below the surface,” he told The Post. “As a way of having a better life, I decided to move into a dumpster.”
Wilson said the immediate benefits of living in the container were myriad: Lower rent, lower utility payments, less time spent doing chores, a shorter commute (approximately 90 seconds on foot) and less money spent on unnecessary possessions. Those benefits may sound underwhelming compared to the sacrifice involved, but in totality, Wilson said, they offered a new freedom.
Because his living space was so small, Wilson said he also spent much less time at home. Instead, he was frequently on and around campus, having face-to-face interactions. (Importantly, he also had to leave the dumpster to use the restroom or take showers, which he did at the campus gymnasium.) As the boundaries between home and community blurred, the neighborhood surrounding the university began to feel like an extension of his backyard.
“There are all these studies that say the broader and deeper your social network is, not only does it create more happiness, but it increases your life span,” Wilson said. “In the modern home you can have a cradle to grave experience. Your doula can pop you out in the living room, you can get an MIT education online, order food from outside and then work from home until you die in the living room watching your flat screen TV.”
Adjusting to the dumpster lifestyle also forced Wilson to give away almost everything he owned, he said. At his most spartan, he owned four pants, four shirts (two short-sleeve and two long-sleeve), three pairs of shoes, three hats and eight or nine bowties, according to the SpareFoot Blog.
Among the few possessions he did purchase during his year in the dumpster were a garden gnome and a small air conditioning unit to offset the blazing summer heat, which reached as high as 130 degrees inside the dumpster during the hottest parts of the day.
“I gave away a pair of shoes last week—it’s almost a bit like an addiction,” Wilson said in August. “I think I’ve crossed the point of crazy into insanity and just keep reducing the amount of stuff I have.”
But as “Professor Dumpster” (as he is now known) readjusts to a more demanding lifestyle — moving in with his girlfriend, paying higher bills and dealing with the demands that exist outside the confines of the dumpster — he has come to realize that the last year was also an experiment in reducing “noise.”
Not necessarily the audible kind, he said, but the kind of noise that arrives in the form of endless e-mails and tasks and responsibilities and the sort of informational overload that has spawned the “digital detox” movement.
Some noise is unavoidable, Wilson notes — unless, of course, you want to quit your job and relocate to a dumpster. The professor maintains that modern noise is not the problem so much as the mental fatigue it creates. That fatigue, he argues, is what keeps many people from focusing on the activities or passions that lead to more meaning and purpose in their lives.
“You can’t be aware enough to watch for meaning if you’re buried in e-mails or facing a barrage of direct messages on Twitter,” he told The Post. “You don’t have the bandwidth or the time or the attention to watch. You’re looking, but watching is a different exercise.”
After separating from his wife in 2010, Wilson was the one searching for greater purpose in his life. He could continue writing papers, teaching his classes and following a traditional academic path, but he wanted something more, he recalled. What that something was, he couldn’t exactly say.
His epiphany arrived in the most mundane way imaginable. He was working on a peer-reviewed paper in his office, a cup of espresso in one hand and a pen in the other.
“I looked out into the parking lot, and this gate was opening,” he said. “Someone was about to throw something into the dumpster and I said, ‘Man that’s it. I need to move into one of these guys.'”
“That’s it,” he said.
It would take almost two more years to make the move. In the summer of 2013, he landed a new job in Austin, where Wilson figured his idea would get more traction. The plan was first broached with his provost over a lunch a week after he was hired, he said.
“I told her I wanted to live on a corner of campus in a trash dumpster and turn it into a tiny sustainable home,” Wilson recalled. “It was crickets for an unimaginable amount of time and finally she said she needed to talk to the university’s president about it.”
When Wilson told his students about “The Dumpster Project,” there was silence.
Then, there was laughter.
For most people, Wilson said, reducing noise can begin incrementally and doesn’t require moving into a cramped container. Start by finding ways to reduce your e-mail load so you can spend more time with your children, he said. If you downsize your home, you might be able to live in a smaller place closer to work to cut down on your commute time.
“The average American has 12 pairs of shoes and the average American house is 2480-square-feet,” he said. “We can happily live with much less than that.”
He added: “There’s this idea you have to go find a guru in India and sit on a mountain top in the Himalayas to go through a transformation. But you can continue to perform in your job and make changes in your life that will help you find more meaning.”
For now, the dumpster will remain on campus to serve as an educational tool for students, artists and educators, who can tour the home or spend a few nights inside. The hope, Wilson said, is that someday he’ll be able to take his old dumpster on the road. He also wants to write a book about his year in the dumpster and the lessons learned inside.
Next for Professor Dumpster: A project called “99 Nights ATX,” in which Wilson pledges to spend 99 nights couch-surfing in Austin to learn about the different ways people are living as the city booms in size. Another experiment — this one involving traveling to eight countries over 21 days with a woman he’d recently met on OkCupid — went viral and led to a movie deal for his travel companion.
Wilson also hopes to expand his original dumpster to include multiple levels, as well as a bathroom, deck and vegetable garden.
The transition into the dumpster was difficult, Wilson recalled, with the temperature dropping below 30 degrees multiple times during that first week. And yet, he said, the transition out of the dumpster has been even harder.
He cried, he said, the day he moved out.
“I don’t know if the difficulty of moving out was the attachment I formed to it as a home,” he said, “or if it was anticipation of more noise entering my life.”