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Cardboard Recycling & Student Move-In

Cardboard is coming. A lot of it. To give you a ballpark sense of how much (and to violate most of what I wrote in my “Pitfalls of Extrapolation” post) let’s guesstimate that about 10% of the 18 million college students in the U.S. live on campus (considering commuter campuses and the like). Assume that each of them brings at least 1 medium-sized standard 3-cubic foot moving box (which is about 18” tall). Stacked on top of each other (and pretending for a minute that you wouldn’t encounter any silly little realities like compaction, wind-sheer, or gravity), that would be a Tower that stands about 2.7 million feet high, almost 100 times the size of Mount Everest! Even if my ballpark guesstimate on the number of residential students is off by a factor of 50%, that’s still a lot of cardboard! Especially when you consider that many students come with more than just 1 moving box.

On campus terms, for many schools, you are looking at as much as an extra month’s worth of cardboard that arrives the first week when students move-in. So what do you do with it all? The simple answer is that you need a month’s worth of extra storage containers and/or a month’s worth of extra pickups to deal with it all. However, the reality of collection is a little more complicated than that.

Finding the labor

The first complication is that you will have very little labor to help you. Most of the full-time staff is busy getting the campus ready for move-in and does not have an extra month’s worth of labor hours to give you to help pick up the extra cardboard. At most schools you are going to have difficulty hiring your “regular” students this early in the year. Students have not arrived back on campus yet and at many schools, Housing is reluctant to let too many students move-in early. Even if you can get students in early or want to work with students living off campus, you might not beable to hire them. If you want to hire a student that is not on work study, many schools do not let you do so until later in the fall when they are assured that everyone with work study have been afforded a chance at on-campus jobs. And even if you can clear both of those hurdles, some students may not be willing to return early either because of travel plans or because they need to eke out the last few days on a higher-paying or resume-building summer job. If your campus hires summer-labor students (schools will often hire high school students from the surrounding community or high-school aged kids of campus employees to work summer labor jobs), you may want to see if you can extend one of those students for a week or two. However, by the time school starts, most have returned to school and are likely not available to help. In addition, budgets for summer students may have been so decimated in the past few years that those students are no longer available.

Even if you typically do your trash and recycling collection with in-house staff, this might be a time that it is worth contracting with a waste and recycling vendor for the additional pickups that you need. They may be able to provide the resources that you cannot get on campus. With enough advanced notice, larger haulers in your region may be able to marshal the trucks, containers, and labor that you need to handle this extra volume. To make this type of collection work, there are a few things that I think you need to consider:

  • You need to be honest with haulers about the scope of work and potential for their trucks to get stuck.
  • You need to recognize that there is a cost associated with that scope of work that may be different than the pricing they give you for a mid-semester “dump and go” type of collection.
  • You will need to work with them regarding specific times to do the pickup in order to minimize how much time their trucks are stuck navigating move-in traffic.
  • If you typically do in-house collection of trash and recyclables, and are a union campus, you may need to approach union stewards proactively to work out a deal to allow for this extra help during move-in.
    • That may involve at a minimum insuring that the staff drivers have plenty of opportunity to make overtime during this busy time of year.
    • It could also involve assurances that this is only a temporary situation for this temporary spike in volumes (in which case, to be fair, you need to communicate that clearly to the haulers), or a commitment that you will only work with a contracted waste hauler that uses union drivers.

The issue of access

Traffic is typically HORRIBLE around move-in. I can’t find enough bold fonts, all-caps, or exclamation points to emphasize that enough. Many schools have tried to install programs like staggered move-ins which have helped, but access around campus, especially for something like a waste packer truck that you might be using to collect cardboard can be a logistical nightmare. I have seen trucks stuck for over an hour at a single location because after they pulled into an access alley, 5 cars boxed them in and owners/drivers left to go move-in. The line of cars on the main road was so backed up that we couldn’t get a tow truck in to move the blocking cars. And even if the packer truck could navigate out past the cars boxing them in, it takes forever to get to their next stop.

One thing that will help is to ensure all of your cardboard dumpsters or compactors are empty before the move-in rush begins. If you go into move-in weekend with dumpsters already full, they are going to be overflowing in no time and you are going to have to try to dispatch trucks to empty the bins in the middle of the worst part of move-in traffic.

Try to avoid interior loop collection sites if you can – locations where trucks are likely to get stuck. If you can keep trucks largely on main roads, that can often help. Also try to work with public safety and residential life. If you are all working together, they may be able to help reduce the degree to which folks moving in block you or your hauler’s collection truck.

How can you move cardboard to perimeter bins that are easier to access? If you can scrounge enough manual labor, you might want to look at something like using cubic yard tilt carts or laundry hampers and wheeling those from interior buildings to dumpsters at perimeter buildings in which you have better access. Another option to consider: I had one school in which the grounds guys used a bobcat with a forklift attachment to haul full dumpsters of cardboard “off-road” over to a perimeter location where they could be picked up by the packer truck.

If your campus logistics allows for it, this may be a time that having one or more centralized compactors is advantageous. Because of their compaction, you can cram a pretty significant volume of cardboard into a compactor. If you can ensure that the compactor is emptied early each morning before the traffic to campus or around campus gets bad, a compactor will let you handle a considerable volume of cardboard without overflowing dumpsters. And if you are loading the central compactor with smaller carts or trucks, you may find those easier to navigate among the move-in crowd.

Cardboard comes in waves

One last complication is that there are often waves of move-in cardboard. There is a wave of cardboard that arrives when student residence life assistants and other early arrivals move back in. Then there is another wave that comes in with incoming first year students (typically the biggest wave), then another wave that comes in with returning students.

There is also a post-shopping wave of cardboard. Don’t forget the impact of incoming first year parents on your cardboard after the initial move-in. As a parent, for seventeen or eighteen years you have provided as best you can for your child. Now that child is a young adult leaving you to go to college and you have just moved them into a dorm room that when you first walked in looks pretty barren. That can cause some parents to get a bit overzealous when they go out to the store with their new student to buy some remaining “necessities” for the room. If you are the parent of a new student reading this, I urge you to look at the trunk of the car before you go shopping and remember that anything you buy now is something you are going to have to move out, pay to store, or throw away at the end of the year. Usually the parents of upper class students have been through the hell of move-out so this is less of an issue with returning students, but definitely plan for it with new students.

Cardboard Mountain is looming. Are you ready to navigate all of its challenges?

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Roger Guzowski

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