May 3, 2014 was the last day of finals for undergraduates at Duke University. The students leave for the summer to pursue internships, summer jobs, and travel. But before they go, everyone has to move out of their dorm room. Parents, siblings and friends descend on the campus to help pack. It is a frenzied period of time.
I decided to pay campus a visit to see what was going on. Without putting too much effort into digging through the mountains of black bags Duke students had piled into and around the dumpsters, I was able to find several small refrigerators, countless floor and desk lamps, unused notebooks, a coffee table, a wholesale-sized package of q-tips, a small couch, two microwaves, a printer, an endless supply of hangers, more than forty waste baskets, a coffeemaker, and enough unopened food packages to feed a nice crowd. This was on one visit.
I am stumbling over my own words as I try to describe the pointless waste of useful things. Perhaps the items that spoke most profoundly from their undeserving place in the garbage were the unopened bottles of beer I found beneath an ironing board. Where else in the world could you find unopened bottles of alcohol thrown into the trash?
As I was documenting this tragedy (and rescuing the beer), a nice security guard told me that I could not remove anything from the dumpsters. When I told him that I just wanted to take pictures, he said that was also unacceptable and that I would need to leave immediately.
In explaining why I wanted to take pictures, we got to talking about the waste that was occurring. The guard informed me that all Duke staff were strictly forbidden from collecting any of the useful items being thrown into the dumpsters. Indeed, he thought that one staff member may have lost their job that very day for putting a lamp he found in his car.
The guard also explained to me that Duke hired extra security guards during move-out to make sure that nobody dug through the dumpsters and took the useful items. He surmised that Duke was concerned about their liability should someone get hurt digging through the trash.
Duke’s Sustainability Office had a Twitter post that linked to an article in Duke Today about ways students could donate their unwanted items. They listed more than ten locations across campus where students could drop-off unwanted items. My best guesses here are that not very many Duke students use Twitter or that the student-body simply doesn’t give a shit.
I called Arwen Buchholtz, the staff contact listed on the article, to ask why students would be so wasteful when there are classes being taught at Duke with titles like The Theory and Practice of Sustainability (ENV 245) and Denial, Faith and Reason: Sustainability and Survival (ECON 285).
Arwen told me that Duke’s administration has been working to address the waste that occurs around move-out for some time. She thinks they are making progress. Duke even pays a local charity to collect the unwanted items Duke students dump in hallways and common areas (to avoid fees for leaving things in their rooms).
This is a case where I think the administration has done a lot to avoid waste. It couldn’t be much easier for students to avoid garbaging so much perfectly good stuff, no matter how frantic they are. The blame (and shame) belongs with the students. So, dear Dukies, while you are busy saving the world this summer, don’t rest too easily on your laurels–you left a mess back home.