Every spring, students throw their lives away. Now, colleges are recycling that old stuff

Harvard University’s Recycling and Surplus Center is open to the public on Thursdays and attracts treasure-seekers as well as those who are looking for a bargain.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Harvard University’s Recycling and Surplus Center is open to the public on Thursdays and attracts treasure-seekers as well as those who are looking for a bargain.

Three thousand, four hundred. That’s the number of pillows Harvard University had on its hands at the end of the school year, left over from students moving out and reunion weekend.

Those thousands of pillows could have ended up incinerated or in a landfill. But a visitor to the university’s recycling warehouse, which is open to the public two hours a week, decided some of them would make the perfect padding to protect sensitive computers and cars he was shipping to Ghana. The man said he also planned to donate them to a hospital in that country.

“It’s surplus, but that doesn’t mean it’s junk,” said Rob Gogan, Harvard’s recycling and waste manager.


At the end of the academic year, colleges have a gigantic problem on their hands: What to do with all the waste students leave behind — not to mention all the clutter the institutions themselves accumulate. It was once commonplace for schools to just dump these leftover items. But these days, campus sustainability teams and student volunteers are working to reuse, sell, or donate all sorts of gently used stuff.

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

MIT’s sustainability project manager, Brian Goldberg, attributes some of the increase in waste accumulation — from 88.1 million tons in 1960 to 258.5 million tons in 2014, according to the most recent figures from the Environmental Protection Agency — to “the Amazonification of our purchased goods.”

“The generation of materials is what seems to be growing,” Goldberg said. “The Amazon trend is making it that much easier for us to consume more materials.”

He said the trend toward recycling and reusing is encouraging, but students and administrators also need to ask a more complicated question: “How do we reduce the actual generation of all these materials to begin with?”

Students at Tufts University are trying to put a small dent in the problem. Last fall, students from the Tufts Green House, a sustainability-themed housing unit, sold unwanted stuff collected across campus the previous spring at a back-to-school sale. The money went toward programming for the house as well as some local charities.


“The students really wanted the stuff to stay within the student community,” said Tina Woolston, Tufts’ director of sustainability. “It seemed really silly to throw it away or donate it off campus because students would be needing the same stuff three months later.”

Boston University used to throw items left behind by students into dumpsters and incinerate them with the rest of the trash. But in 2010, the school started donating the abandoned items to Goodwill.

Donation bins are typically available for three to four weeks at 15 locations throughout campus each spring, and they’re often filled to overflowing. In the nine years that BU has run the program, the university has donated more than 600 tons of items to Goodwill, including more than 79 tons last year.

“The volume of items that students leave behind . . . it’s mind-boggling,” said Lisa Tornatore, assistant director for sustainability at BU.

With just 3,700 undergraduate students, Emerson College is able to take a more community-oriented approach. At the end of the year, Emerson’s sustainability office, with the help of eight student employees, sets up temporary on-campus thrift shops that they call Shop & Swaps.


Students pick over the materials to find treasures they’ll use over the summer or during the upcoming school year.

“It’s this open, free exchange that’s organized just enough so that students can leave and take what they want,” said Amy Elvidge, Emerson’s sustainability coordinator. “It’s a cultural shift. It’s not just putting clothes in a bag that’s going to be taken away. Who really knows where a lot of those donated items go. No, your shirt is going to your neighbor down the hall.”

Recent Emerson graduate Jennifer Cole picked up a dress that was covered in silhouettes of international landmarks from this spring’s Shop & Swap. A friend recognized it with delight when Cole wore it to a senior class event.

The friend, Cole said, told her: “I put that in Shop & Swap last week because I couldn’t wear it anymore. It’s good to see you in it.”

Swaps help students appreciate and enjoy reusing items, Cole said.

“Students really get addicted to finding all this cool stuff for free,” she said. “It’s not easy being poor in college, but this really, I think, motivates students to go find and reuse other things.”

Harvard’s Recycling and Surplus Center, a 7,000-square-foot warehouse, accepts unwanted furniture, supplies, and equipment from about 450 university buildings. Every Thursday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., the items are free and available to the public.

This is the high season for the warehouse, Gogan said: “When 6,000 undergraduates move out — not to mention 2,000 graduate students — they leave a lot of stuff behind,” he said. “We receive it here . . . where we give it one last chance to escape going to the incinerator or the landfill.”

Some of the 60 to 100 people who visit the shop are immigrants who send items back to other countries such as Haiti, Uganda, and Niger.

Others are regulars who just love the hunt. Belmont native Daniella Capolino first learned about the Harvard facility about two years ago while searching for a desk on Craigslist; now she drops in every Thursday looking for books and clothes.

“What might I find this week? Or if I don’t come, what am I gonna miss?” she said, as she browsed near a clothing bin last week, bags filled with clothes hanging from both of her arms. “Not to mention that I hate the amount of waste that’s left here.”

The warehouse exists in what might be described as a state of organized chaos. On Thursdays, a crowd usually starts lining up about 30 minutes early, waiting outside as volunteer Marcia Hamilton randomly assigns each visitor a color.

When Hamilton calls each color, warehouse visitors hurry toward massive cardboard boxes overflowing with leftover items: one with garbage bags full of clothes and bedding, another with just pillows.

Other visitors move past the boxes to check out the dormitory couches, desks, and dressers that Gogan and his crew have painstakingly placed to maximize the space. A tower of mismatched chairs is so tall that it almost brushes the ceiling.

Hamilton started working at the facility nine years ago after a friend of hers lost her home in a fire. The woman — a grandmother who had full custody of seven grandchildren — “had nothing” until Gogan set her up with new dishes, mattresses, and whatever else she needed to get back on her feet.

“I knew I had to be a part of this,” Hamilton said.

Sophia Eppolito can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @SophiaEppolito.