That's when the Dumpster divers townies and students alike get to work. (I recall, eight years ago as an RA, raiding rooms in my apartment complex for espresso machines and other appliances that had been left behind.) Some come in search of academic items, others the purely recreational. This month, for example, a teen walking past a collection site for discarded goods at Princeton University picked up a toy gun that soon afterward was mistaken for the real thing, setting off an emergency response that resulted in a half-hour campus lockdown. (See TIME's photos from a public boarding school.)
The junk problem at most colleges doesn't usually rise to that level of drama. It's more a persistent, slow-burning question: What are we going to do with all this ... stuff? Over the past decade, schools like Princeton, NYU, Cornell, Harvard and Ohio State have each instituted some sort of program to collect unwanted items and either donate them to charity or sell them at the beginning of the following term.
"At the very end of every school year, on a big campus, it's like 10,000 evictions are happening at the same time," says Jeff Ferrell, a sociology professor at Texas Christian University and the author of Empire of Scrounge, a book on Dumpster diving. "What do you do with all that perfectly reusable stuff that gets tossed?" The answer, increasingly, is to start a collection program like TCU's Trash to Treasure.
It's a simple idea that is not that simple to execute. At George Washington University, housing director Matt Trainum helps run a Green Move Out program that collects food, clothes and other goods to give to local charities. Bins are placed in the lobby of every residence hall, and student volunteers help sort through the piles. This year the program's fourth they have collected about 53,500 lb. (24,300 kg) of donatable goods, much of which would have gone straight into the trash in days of yore.
Lisa Heller Boragine was a graduate student at Syracuse University when she realized how much colleges throw out unnecessarily. In 1995, Boragine ventured into a Dumpster in search of a lost ring. "I was floored by what was in there," she says. "There were TV sets, an unopened case of ramen noodles and a cigar box full of rare stamps." She went on to found Dump & Run, a nonprofit that has advised more than 30 institutions on how to salvage what students jettison, including some truly trashy items. "Someone at one school brought in a 3-ft.-tall inflatable Jesus," she says. "I'm pretty sure it went up for sale."