Trash2Treasure

Every year, campus communities across the country are faced with a deluge of waste as students moving out for the summer discard thousands of unwanted items. Many of these items are still useable; many are electronic items like microwaves and compact refrigerators that should not end up in landfills, but too often do. Then, in the fall, students moving onto campus purchase these same items new at local big-box stores. 

Three years ago, a group of undergraduates at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) noticed this problem on their campus in Durham and decided to do something about it. They created a program called Trash 2 Treasure, which collected useable items discarded by students each spring and resold them at a yard sale over move-in weekend. 

Laying the Groundwork

Launching that program was no small feat. University administrators from eight different departments had to be convinced to sign off on the project. Fundraising was required to cover first-year costs of $9,000. Dozens of student volunteers had to be recruited and organized to collect, clean, sort and sell thousands of individual items. In the end, however, it all came together.

The program was a big success. To date, UNH Trash 2 Treasure has salvaged more than 100 tons of usable materials, recycled 2,000 electronic items and donated over five tons of food and clothing to local shelters. The effort has also saved UNH over $10,000 in disposal fees and raised more than $55,000 in program revenue, which has been reinvested into new sustainability initiatives on campus like a year-round e-waste recycling program and a bikeshare service.

Trash 2 Treasure is the first program of its kind — entirely student run and self-sustaining. It solved a persistent and recurring problem that plagues campuses across the country. Now, the creators of UNH Trash 2 Treasure have launched a new nonprofit to bring this solution to campus communities nationwide. 

Expanding the Vision

The Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN) brings an innovative model that combines micro-financing, buyer/vendor cooperatives and student leadership. PLAN works with student groups on campuses as well as university administration and sustainability offices through three phases. In Phase 1, PLAN provides start-up funding to student groups to help them launch new move-out waste collections and yard sales. PLAN organizers provide close support and training to student leaders to help get these programs off the ground. For campuses with existing move-out waste reduction programs, Phase 2 provides membership services that help students and universities expand and improve these programs. These benefits include consulting services, discounts on program costs, access to online resources and education and other customized support. In Phase 3, PLAN guides students through a comprehensive campus waste audit to design new ways to reduce waste on campus year-round. The proceeds from the yard sale can be used to fund these initiatives, as well as other sustainability projects such as organic gardening or renewable energy generation.

This cooperative approach solves a number of related waste problems. For example, it is prohibitively expensive to recycle many types of waste, like textiles and carpeting. PLAN’s network allows multiple schools to aggregate waste, making it economic — and in some cases, profitable — to recycle far more than ever before. PLAN’s network also facilitates a cooperative knowledge base, allowing campus organizers to talk with each other about best practices and innovative solutions they piloted on their campuses.  

Looking to the Future

The need for solutions to our society’s waste problem is great. Our economy turns natural resources into consumer goods, which soon end up in landfills or incinerators. Our planet’s resources are limited, and our trash is toxic. We cannot maintain this linear system on a finite planet indefinitely, or we face resource depletion and growing toxicity in our environment. We need to fundamentally change course. 

Luckily, we can begin the transition to a zero-waste world today. The technology to do so already exists — all we need is to change individual behavior and institutional practices. University students can be the drivers of this transformation. They can build the infrastructure to recycle, reuse, repair and compost just about everything. They can educate their peers and administrations about the impact of waste, and work to design and build solutions.

The Post-Landfill Action Network doesn’t just help students do all that — it helps them help each other. This cooperative approach promises to move the world student by student, campus by campus, towards a world without waste. 

To learn more and get your campus involved, visit www.PostLandfill.org.

Brett Chamberlin is a founding member of the Post-Landfill Action Network. He studied politics and journalism and served as a resident assistant at New York University. Brett is on Twitter at @99Brett.

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