Brown students generate tons of trash — literally. In 2019, the University collected over 540 tons of compost alone, a number likely dwarfed by the mountains of non-compostable waste produced every year. Over the years, Brown has made commendable efforts to reduce and reuse, including the introduction of recycling bins alongside every trash can and composting at the dining halls. Though there have been notable pandemic-related shortcomings, these efforts doubtlessly have had a positive impact for our environment.
Even if most students are environmentally conscious, colleges are nonetheless susceptible to the creation of needless waste. Emphasizing convenience, all-you-can-eat dining halls throw out mounds of food and packaging every day, and classroom wastebaskets drown in piles of paperwork after daily printouts are discarded. But the worst waste of all comes from the end-of-year scramble to get off campus. This annual occurrence sees students ditch school supplies, clothes and even appliances in the rush to pack their lives into sedans and suitcases. With limited and often pricey options for stashing their belongings over the summer, most students are forced to trash perfectly good possessions in roll-off dumpsters stationed near dorms. In recent years, this pattern has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which restricted students’ transportation and storage options.
To further its commitments to sustainability, Brown should start planning now to mitigate the effects of this annual mess. Rather than just enable mass wastefulness by providing ample dumpster space for any and all refuse, the University should instead partner with the community to find better ways to mitigate the yearly trash-and-go. By doing so, Brown can become a model for developing strong community partnerships and shrinking its material footprint.
The first step on this path is to proactively reduce the number of items students bring on campus that may end up in dumpsters. Over the pandemic, the University made some preliminary moves toward this in providing “microfridges” — combined microwaves and minifridges — to each dorm room without a kitchen. This doubtlessly shrunk the number of small appliances bought by the student body, and in turn likely reduced the number thrown away at the end of the year.
To be fair, a program providing a microfridge or other small appliances to every dorm would be expensive, but there is an opportunity to make it cheaper and kill another bird with the same stone. Every year, many seniors move off of College Hill with no need for their coffee makers, TVs or desk lights — or at least no way to transport them to their next home. To save students the headache of putting them up on Craigslist or Facebook, the University should offer to buy them from graduating seniors. This would help the University procure cheap appliances for students and reduce waste by giving seniors an outlet for their otherwise dumpster-destined goods.
However, this only addresses a portion of the annual trash troubles. Far more every year gets indiscriminately tossed for lack of affordable or easy summer storage options. Services that pick up and haul away belongings can be prohibitively expensive, and other options — like local storage units or moving vans — are neither convenient nor cheap. This puts many students in a position where they must throw away accumulated things or somehow find a way to bring them home for the summer. Unsurprisingly, much of it gets tossed.
It does not have to be this way. Colleges across the country have partnerships with local businesses to coordinate and subsidize student storage. Even schools that have no such partnerships at least recommend local options to students online, but Brown provides no such portal. It seems like a glaring oversight on the University’s part to simply expect that students will be able to find their own way, especially given that the vast majority of students are not Rhode Island locals nor have easy, local access to cars.
If the University is unwilling to spend some of its record endowment on student summer storage, it would still be possible to accommodate students by allowing them to store items in their future dorms as is possible at other colleges. On-campus dorms are assigned plenty early for the University to coordinate a program like this, especially if it were only opened to students receiving financial aid. A small step like this would save money and headaches for students while reducing the likelihood anyone would throw something away for lack of storage.
Some things, however, just are not worth storing. Non-perishable foods, unneeded office supplies and unwanted clothes are all unceremoniously given the old heave-ho at the end of the school year whether they are at the end of their useful lives or not. This does not, however, mean these goods could not find a home elsewhere. Food shelves, local schools and shelters would benefit greatly from an increased presence on campus around move-out. And with more resources, these organizations would be able to better serve the community.
While Brown is in the process of expanding its commitment to Providence, it should also work to organize local nonprofits to collect items of use that students may otherwise toss. The University should reach out to these organizations to gauge interest in a partnership. Depending on community enthusiasm, the student population has the capacity to be a great source of philanthropy.
Most of all, no matter whether the University plans to be actively involved in reducing end-of-year waste, Brown needs to at least provide separate dumpsters for recyclables and non-recyclables. Even in the heart of the school year, there are dorms on campus with no options to recycle or compost. If we reach the end of the year and these options are still not offered, then the University has taken a stance of negligence toward its sustainability goals.
Amid a climate crisis and a need to cut back on our material footprint, there is an opportunity for the University to innovate and reduce wastefulness on campus. By reducing the number of items students must buy individually, providing better summer storage options and encouraging donations to local nonprofits, Brown can be both a better partner for the community and an example for other colleges trying to be sustainable. If the University actively works to change the status quo, the end-of-year rush to get off campus could be much less wasteful.