From trash to treasure, then back to trash
Every summer, thousands of University of Oregon students pack up their stuff and leave Eugene. Some students may return in September to continue their education while others graduate and move on entirely. International students often board planes, taking with them only what they can carry. Left behind in dumpsters and on street corners are the remnants of this mass exit. This is the way of a college town.
The sidewalks surrounding campus become awash with various types of furniture; whether it be couches, mattresses, full-sized desks or bookshelves. For some, this is a time for celebration. It’s as if Eugene has turned itself into a city-wide garage sale free bin. For others, it becomes a sign of carelessness in regards to the wasteful nature of abandoning recyclable and reusable materials.
A 1988 Supreme Court ruling, California vs. Greenwood, states that when a person throws something away, it is technically in the public domain and can be taken. Regardless, states have been able to reinforce their own regulations regarding the legality of dumpster diving and similar activities.
Sam Black, who graduated from UO this year, said convenience was the main reason he decided to put his desk and a few other belongings on the street while moving out.
“In addition to the desk, I put out other things like a lamp, mirror and nightstand,” Black said. “About 10 minutes later, everything had been taken except the desk. Although I noticed that all the drawers to the desk were open and all of the knobs for the desk were gone.”
While some items are picked up quickly by community members looking for furniture, others are picked through and left behind. Items that could have been donated and restored often become damaged while on the street. The responsibility then falls on the city to clean up anything that wasn’t deemed valuable to passersby.
Kelly Bell, who works in the Waste Management Division of the Lane County Public Works as the master recycler volunteer coordinator, said that while the community has employed several strategies to help encourage donation, these strategies have almost always been met with poor participation.
“When things are left out on the curb rather than donated, they become degraded and may never be reused,” Bell said. “The volume of this material is staggering. Abandoning home goods on the street or near dumpsters is extremely wasteful — wasteful of time, money, the reusable items themselves and all the natural resources that went in to making those products.”
UO’s Zero Waste Program, a student initiative committed to reducing waste and reusing resources, is just one of many resources that offers extra help to students who are looking to discard large items during finals week.
“We set out extra collection sites to ensure we capture as much material as possible,” Karyn Kaplan, Zero Waste program manager said. “A typical year yields over 20 tons of materials that get donated back to the community in areas that are needed, and that doesn’t include the increased recycling that is captured at the same time.”
Alana Birkeland, who recently graduated from UO’s School of Environmental Sciences, spent a night at the end of finals week digging through the dumpsters near the dorms. In addition to recovering items that could potentially help those in need, Birkeland was concerned about the environmental impacts this type of waste could have on the community.
“I found tons of brand new toiletries and kitchen appliances that still worked,” Birkeland said. “People don’t realize that when you throw something in the trash it doesn’t just disappear. It ends up somewhere where those chemicals can leach into the ground, or the electronics basically never decompose.”
According to Kaplan, dumpster diving is still not permitted on campus, and aside from the costly trespassing fee, there are plenty of health risks to be aware of before descending into an aluminum dumpster.
“Dumpster diving is not safe. There are many hazardous and sharp materials that pose a safety and health risk when digging in a dumpster,” Kaplan said. “We try and encourage students to donate or post their items on a for sale or free e-bulletin board. There is also a donation drive held in the residence halls during the last two weeks of the year.”
For many, the risk seems to be worth the reward. Phillip Martin works near campus and looks forward to the day when the students leave for summer, having found numerous valuables and clothing items in dumpsters over the years.
“One year, I found a $1,000 Asus gaming laptop in a trash can at the house next to Tom’s market on 18th and Agate,” Martin said. “Also found about ten dollars in silver fifty cent pieces, and three pairs of Ray Ban sunglasses.”
Martin also mentions finding brand new Nike sneakers on multiple occasions, as well as many other clothing items. These are the types of materials that thrift store donation bins encourage with their conveniently placed drop boxes.
Over two weeks since finals week ended, the streets surrounding campus are still littered with couches, mattresses and desks. Many of the items have been picked through and will probably remain there until the garbage collectors come prepared to pick them up. By the time that happens, students will more than likely be returning to campus for fall term, bringing their junk with them.
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