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The Weight of One Year in Trash

Campus | April 28, 2017

As students leave campus for the summer, suitcases in hand and their September-to-May bedrooms locked behind them, most do not realize the aftermath left in their wake: an overloaded janitorial staff, the physical burden of collected waste placed on someone else’s shoulder, and piles of piles of reusable items marked for landfill. We affectionately wave goodbye to the place we have lived for ten months of the year, but when it comes to move-out, do we treat campus like home—or like a hotel?

For a student body that mobilizes behind movements to support Tufts janitors, disinvest from fossil fuels, and make our community a better place, the treatment of our on-campus accommodations does not always align with on-campus discourse. The Tufts Office of Sustainability now aims to ameliorate the issues of excess waste and overloaded workers by redesigning the move-out process and placing more responsibility physically into the hands of those who use the system: the students.

Eric Van Vlandren, the Sustainable Move Out Coordinator, was tasked with organizing this move-out process for the 3,700 Tufts students living in Tufts residential buildings in 2016 and 2017. Van Vlandern hopes that the changes to Tufts’ move-out process empower students to take more responsibility for the burden of waste and work during the move out process. “We, Tufts, enable wastefulness,” he said. “Hundreds, maybe thousands of people spend lots of time cleaning up after students.”

According to Tina Woolston, the Director of the Tufts Office of Sustainability, the move-out process this spring will have a stronger emphasis on incentivizing sustainable behavior and imposing fines on those who do not comply with move-out policies. Branded as ‘Pack-a-Dorm,’ this year’s move-out policies will emphasize bringing all trash, recycling, and donation items physically out of the dorms to dumpsters set up in convenient locations around campus. The Office of Sustainability also plans to organize a sale of donated goods in the fall so that students can find low-cost, lightly used versions of the dorm room essentials that they need rather than buying new versions.

The decision to ask students to bring all items out of their dorms stemmed from the sheer volume of trash and unwanted belongings that Van Vlandern noticed students disposed of last year. According to statistics that he collected, those who worked move-out in Spring 2016 collected 94 tons of trash, 28 tons of recycling, and 33,000 pounds of goods, clothing, and food for donations. This process of collecting donations was run by four staff members and 36 student workers with a total of 600 labor hours worked.

According to Van Vlandern, the neglect of dorm cleanliness and sustainability at the end of the year reflects a disconnect between the Tufts community and the physical spaces that facilitate our learning, bonding, and, growth. “Tufts has a culture of treating students as guests or customers rather than as members of the community,” Van Vlandern said.

Senior Ashlyn Salvage, the student coordinator of the Tufts Eco-Reps program and a student worker during move out last year also noted the disengagement between the students moving out of the dorms and the workers who clean up their stuff. “Being a move-out worker gave me a whole new appreciation for Tufts custodians,” Salvage said.

Van Vlandern hopes that the changes to move-out this year help Tufts more equally distribute the burden of maintaining a community—what he defines as the less-desirable tasks that are required to allow the community to function well, like cleaning up. “We don’t share the burden of community equally,” he said. “Students have the belongings while others clean them up.” After all, bringing a few more bags of trash is not a large individual burden, but transporting the accumulation of increased trash is extremely taxing to custodians and facilities workers who clean and maintain the hallways.

To Van Vlandern, the current unequal distribution of the burden of community is most obvious in how we suggest sustainable living on campus. “We say that we value [sustainability. We] teach it. [We] let people major in it,” Van Vlandern said. “I think that we should take that same philosophy and expand it [so] that sustainability is not something done by a few to enable a larger group to live more sustainably.”

According to Salvage, the influx of trash during move-out is both unnecessary and unsustainable. Salvage noted that Tufts students are not always aware of the correlation between what they purchase at the beginning of the year and the volume of trash at the end. From first-year orientation week outings to Target to the dorm section of the campus bookstore, students purchase dorm-room “essentials” that often wind up in the trash during move-out period. “Moving in, you never think of moving out,” Salvage said. “Students don’t think through the things they buy.”

In preparation for this year’s move-out, Van Vlandern wonders what students’ reactions will be to policies that require more work on their end. “Reinventing the wheel on a big problem like this brings you to the unknown,” Van Vlandern said. Will students comply and bring their trash to dumpsters outside, or will trash bags simply line the hallways? Will the community feel empowered to help clean the buildings that physically house us, or will they reject the added responsibility? Until May, Van Vlandern cannot be sure about how the future move-out scenarios will play out. But, with strong hope for a more sustainable, supportive, and equally-distributed move-out process, he has faith that, with time, Tufts will be able to realize a more ideal move-out process that benefits all members of the community.