IMAGE: SALE OF COLLEGE STUDENT CLOTHING
Lisa Billings  /  AP
Kylee Burrows sifts last Friday through mountains of clothing and other items left behind by college students during a sale put on by volunteers and Sierra Club members at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Va.
updated 5/22/2007 5:11:25 AM ET 2007-05-22T09:11:25

With 1,700 students, Davidson College may be small. But you'd never know it when you see the stuff students leave behind at the end of year.

In a large room at a fraternity house, stacks of clothing, furniture, lamps and electronics were already piling up days ahead of last Sunday's graduation. Mixed in were odds and ends that could only wind up together in a college trash pile: a pair of giant Homer Simpson slippers; a collection of Pokemon cards; a batch of fashion disaster dresses you can only hope were costumes from a campus theme party called the Five Dollar Prom.

College students have more possessions than ever, and in the frenzy of finals, commencement and last-gasp partying before the end of the school year, little time is left for an orderly move. Purging is often easier than shipping or storing.

But recently, much of the flotsam and jetsam of Davidson's spring has at least avoided the Dumpster. Last year, students collected enough goods to fill the frat house about 10 times over — twice as much as the year before — and turned the material over to local charities.

"As you're trying to stuff your stuff into the car, you realize what you really need," said freshman Elizabeth Krebs.

Davidson isn't the only college trying to put its student left-behinds to better use. Next Saturday, up to 10,000 people are expected to descend on Penn State's Beaver Stadium to pick their way through 62 tons of student detritus at the annual "Trash to Treasure" sale, which has raised more than $200,000 for the United Way. Boston College collects up to 100,000 items annually for dozens of community groups. In the 15 years since its program started, the University of Michigan has channeled 123 tons of "gently used" student gear back to the community.

Programs also have sprung up in recent years at numerous other schools, among them Tufts, Santa Clara University, the University of Colorado, Furman University and Carleton College in Minnesota. Sometimes, student environmental groups are the driving force. But many colleges like the idea, too — at least more than paying to haul it all away.

'Dump & Run' at a dozen colleges
"There's a growing sense of the cost," said Lisa Heller Boragine, who started an organization called Dump & Run that helps recycling and resale programs at about a dozen colleges. Nor do schools like having trash pile up during prime parental visiting time.

While administrators used to tell her the year-end move-out mess wasn't a big deal, "I don't have that problem anymore," she said. "Nobody denies it's a problem at their school."

Why now? At schools like Davidson and BC, more students are coming from out of state and overseas. Those students fly home and can't fit everything in their luggage.

And many schools, such as BC, have a range of new upscale housing options. College students are living more apartment-style lives than their predecessors. Items such as microwaves, TVs, and refrigerators that used to be shared by a dorm section are now in every room. Everyone has a laptop, and many upgrade during college.

There is also more affluence on many campuses, and you can see it in the trash.

Wake Forest "could basically open our own clothing store" with what it collects from students, said Donna McGalliard, the school's director of residence life and housing. "Very well-known brands. Banana Republic. Old Navy. Chaps." Many still have price tags. Others "are a little worn or wrinkled, but they didn't seem to have stains or anything on them," she said.

In the items BC students leave behind, "you do see an increase in wealth over the years," said John McLaughlin, a BC employee who helped start the program as a young alum. He had recently returned from an Indian reservation and was bothered by how much went to waste at BC.

'Living like there's no tomorrow'
Ed Newman, who overseas 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 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.

Boragine, who started a resale program at the University of Richmond when she was teaching there, said she can tell the difference between a school with a $20,000 price tag and a $40,000 one just by looking at what gets left behind.

"Instead of the dollar-store scissors, you'd probably find the $7 ergonomically correct scissors," she said. Rather than a hand-me-down TV that no longer works, there is a year-old one that is too heavy to ship.

Mostly, however, the left-behind items are the predictable, timeless staples of college life: casual clothes, low-grade furniture, countless unopened Ramen noodles. Penn State's sale features about 4,000 carpets, along with stacks of sweaters and T-shirts running down a row 100 feet long and 3 feet wide.

Those essentials are more useful to the charities than high-end appliances are. Texas State University-San Marcos, which serves a high poverty area, gave clothes and other items to about 1,000 needy people last year. Among the groups that collect from BC is The Second Step, an organization for domestic violence survivors, many of whom are trying to set up their own households and often don't have things like furniture and cookware.

At Penn State's annual sale, where nothing goes for more than $20, "there are folks looking for a bargains," said Al Matyasovsky, who heads the effort there. But, he added: "There are also people in the surrounding community that need this and can only afford the $4 pair of jeans."

The service project is now among the biggest on Davidson's campus, about 20 miles north of Charlotte.

Snake left in one drawer
Senior Liz Dover said locals have grown accustomed to post-graduation Dumpster-diving on campus — so much so that volunteers now sleep on the pile of couches in the yard to keep them from being taken. If people really need something, they are sent to Goodwill and other charity groups where the donated goods wind up.

"We don't donate anything if it's dirty or has holes, unless it's Abercrombie style and it's supposed to be dirty and have holes," Dover said.

Eventually, the cartloads of sweat shirts and acres of carpet blur together, and it's the more colorful left-behind items that stick out. A six-foot boa constrictor got left in a drawer at the University of Florida a while back; a three-foot inflatable Jesus turned up at Bates College. This year's haul at Colgate includes a gross of chopsticks, a walking cast and a disco ball.

Some find anthropological significance in the mixture of the odd and humdrum.

A typical catch might include "hula hoops, dishes, a can opener, a couple of condoms and notebook paper," said Kim Yarbray, environmental sustainability coordinator at Guilford College, also in North Carolina. She sees it as a kind of symbol of the intersecting stages of life of college students: childhood playfulness, adolescent experimentation, the first tools for adults who must work and take care of themselves.

"Their whole life is right there," she said. "You can just see it in the things they choose to discard."

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