As students again leave all their stuff, reuse efforts gain traction at UMass



Published: 05-10-2017 10:15 PM

AMHERST — In his short story “The Daughters of the Moon,” the writer Italo Calvino described a mythological New York City “where every object was thrown away at the slightest sign of breakage or aging, at the first dent or stain, and replaced with a new and perfect substitute.” The city’s refuse — “piles of battered fridges, yellowing issues of Life magazine, and burnt-out light bulbs” — accumulated in a wrecking yard on the edge of town.

Watching students move out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst dorms this week, it’s not hard to see hints of Calvino’s anti-consumerist imagery: year-old futons, good-as-new mini fridges, plastic shelving and other dorm-life essentials stream out of the buildings toward the bright orange dumpsters sitting in the parking lot.

The big difference, however, is the students and campus staff working tirelessly to intercept many of those items before, or shortly after, they reach the dumpster.

This week, more than 50 student volunteers and campus staff are taking part in the New2U collection program, a student-organized initiative that in its fourth year is steering tons of dorm-room materials away from landfills and back into new students’ hands.

New2U collects unwanted items and resells them at a university tag sale in the fall, providing many new students with an affordable and more sustainable way to furnish their rooms. Whatever doesn’t get sold is either recycled or donated.

Good cause

The initiative is part of a growing realization on college campuses across the country that the mounds of discarded consumer items generated on move-out day need to be dealt with more sustainably. UMass and Mount Holyoke College are just two of dozens of universities that receive logistical support from the nonprofit Post-Landfill Action Network, which helps college campuses put together zero-waste programs like New2U.

“It’s for a good cause, and we are making a difference,” said Ainsley Brosnan-Smith, the New2U student coordinator at UMass Amherst.

Brosnan-Smith, a 20-year-old junior studying environmental conservation, has been a part of New2U since her first year on campus. During move-out, she wakes up at 7 a.m. and usually spends 12 hours helping coordinate collection efforts.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Pot company to pay $350K fine over worker’s death at Holyoke plant
Plainfield man, 55, dies in crash
Northampton panel member’s reappointment opposed after ‘ugly’ handicapped access remark
Statewide 911 outage fixed after two hours offline
UMass launches task force in wake of spring protests, will also review police activity
Belchertown voters resoundingly strike down override for new middle school

Students set up collection tents near the dumpsters, and also pull whatever can be resold or reused out of those dumpsters and separate recyclable materials for the Office of Waste Management to pick up.

“It’s so symbiotic,” Brosnan-Smith said of the students’ work with campus staff. “They help us out so much and we help them out, too.”

That work has yielded some astonishing results. Last year alone, the program filled four 50-foot trailers and an entire classroom with some 12 tons of items, generating $11,000 at the fall tag sale. That money goes back into the university’s sustainable fund for future projects.

Fewer dumpsters

Things weren’t always this way, however.

“It was definitely pretty disastrous before this was here,” UMass graduate Ari Moscone said, gesturing toward the white New2U collection tents scattered around the Southwest Residential Area.

Moscone was one of the student founders of New2U, helping to organize the first collection event in 2014 when she was an undergraduate at UMass.

Before that, she said, students moving out of the dorms would easily fill the 10 dumpsters stationed around these dorms. The university had to use backhoes to crush the items down so that more trash could be dumped on top.

“Before New2U, we were a campus at move-out where every single residence hall had a pile of stuff — good, bad and ugly — that would just be out front,” Dawn Bond, director of UMass Residential Life Student Services, said.

Then, in 2014, Moscone, together with other students and members of the Post-Landfill Action Network, approached the university about putting together a sustainable move-out.

Now, New2U operates in four of the university’s seven residential areas, and the university has cut the number of dumpsters down to five, though some students said they wished that Residential Life would just do away with them all together.

“It’s so psychological — if you see the dumpster, you’ll throw stuff in it,” Brosnan-Smith said.

Bond, however, said it was unlikely that the university will be able to get rid of dumpsters entirely.

“There’s always going to be a little waste,” she said. “I think we’re going to get as close as we can to zero waste.”

Changing the culture

In the meantime, Brosnan-Smith and others are hoping to change the prevailing culture on campus by promoting a simple message: “Dumpster-diving is cool!”

Apparently in agreement with that idea was 19-year-old freshman Alexia Perides, who was knee-deep in old bedding and bean bags inside a dumpster on Thursday afternoon.

“I’m lucky enough to be done with my finals and be here,” she said, jauntily separating the discarded items into different piles. “This doesn’t make sense — people are just wasting their money.”

Changing the dominant culture, which currently gives preference to the disposable over the reusable, is a key component of the program.

“If you do something for four years, it kind of becomes the norm and students don’t really know what it was like before you started doing that thing,” campus sustainability manager Ezra Small said.

Now, Small said, campus staff and New2U volunteers are starting to see the blue tape from the tag sale reappear on mini fridges they collect, meaning those items are cycling back through the student body.

“It’s really cool to see that,” he said.

What’s more, students line up out the door as early as 6:30 a.m. for the annual fall tag sale, Small said. To make sure students who need those items the most have first pick, the university lets international students stand in line for free for the “early-bird special,” which normally costs $5.

Brosnan-Smith, the New2U student coordinator, also said the program will soon be opening a thrift store in the Student Union several days a week.

But until then, some students will continue to work throughout the summer, sorting items and getting them ready for the tag sale.

Organizing reusable goods into different bins (“Home and room decor,” “electronics,” “non-perishable food”), Brosnan-Smith said she hopes young students see that it’s possible to reuse and donate their things instead of just throwing them away.

“I really hope people see us doing it and it makes them turn around and think about what they’re doing,” she said between helping students bring their things under the New2U tents. “Just by visually seeing other students doing it, it ingrains it in their brains.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at