Friday, May 25, 2007

Our Disposable Culture on Campus

Everyone knows that November and December are the months that many people open up their checkbooks to make end of the year charitable donations. But who knew that the end of the school year also offers a potential charitable bonanza? On college campuses across the country, departing students leave behind a gigantic load of tangible goods, often in great condition, that make perfect donations for charities. That's if the stuff isn't just tossed in the trash.

Generations of students have commonly stocked up throughout the school year on the usual staples of college life, from desk lamps and study supplies to sports souvenirs and laundry detergent. But the trappings of our affluent society have spread to the dorm and students now commonly have all sorts of fancy furnishings, small appliances and big wardrobes that they acquire with the same gusto their parents demonstrate at home. Since most schools offer little or no storage during the summer term, the majority of this stuff usually has been consigned to the dumpster or just abandoned in the room, especially if the student had far to travel and didn't want to deal with packing and shipping expenses. Here's just a partial list of items that students leave behind, gleaned from several recent articles about the phenomenon:

computer printers
microwave ovens
toaster ovens
mini-refrigerators
window fans
linens
clothing
bicycles
mattresses
bookcases
clock radios
carpets
televisions

Excluding the more esoteric cast-offs, such as a boa constrictor and a three-foot inflatable Jesus, there are literally tons of useful things that formerly were being thrown out but are now offered to local charities where they serve an enormous need. Many student organizations and administrators realized that it was a terrible waste, a major landfill burden and a big clean-up expense for the college to allow so much perfectly fine merchandise to end up in the trash. Students and schools began setting up systems to collect donations from students and distribute them to charities. There's even a non-profit company called Dump and Run that transforms the piles of abandoned stuff into organized charitable donations on a dozen college and university campuses.

But what does the accumulation of all this stuff say about us as a society? Clearly, it says that by the time kids hit their college years, the pattern of over-consumption and the belief that we live in a disposable culture have been well ingrained. At the University of Florida alone, twenty tons of usable items were donated recently to the Salvation Army and other local charities. Twenty tons, all from college students on one campus. It's astonishing. And it's a sign that if we want to make a cultural change in the way we consume and value our possessions, we'd better start by setting a good example for our kids and explaining the concept of "enough" when they're still very young.

MSNBC's report on this "spring fling of things" includes the following:

Ed Newman, who oversees the recycling and reuse programs at Ohio University, calls the spring move-out "a study in conspicuous consumption."

"There are 85 schools in Ohio and 4,000 in this country, and they're all living like there's no tomorrow," he said.

Though proud of the [recycling] efforts, he is also troubled by how much still is wasted. About 80 percent of OU's trash could be recycled or reused.

"It's more appalling than anything else," he said.


If you have a college student in your family (or if you are one), what a difference you and your school could make to local charities by setting up or participating in a campus-wide donation system at the end of the term. Yes, it's too late to start a big new recycling project for this year, but just in case you or your college-age kid are still packing up to head home for the summer, please try to take the time to donate what you're not taking back with you. To throw away useful things that you no longer need isn't just thoughtless, it's exactly what Ed Newman said: appalling.

Check out CNN.com, MSNBC.com and the LA Times for more details on this compelling nation-wide story.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

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