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Making the Most of Student Move Out

Focus on Six Streams

If you manage recycling programs at a residential campus, student move out is one of the most frantic periods of the year. If you’re new to the process, it can be overwhelming. But, regardless of whether you are still planning for move out, staring at the piles of discarded stuff accumulating as students are moving out, or have already missed your window of opportunity and are merely leaving notes for things to do better next year, focusing on the six items below will help.


Clothing is one of the bigger streams of “new waste” that comes out at the end of the year. As I wrote in a prior blog post, when students and their families get that sinking feeling that not all of their stuff will fit into the trunk of their car to move home, clothes are one of the more easily replaceable items and one of the first left behind.

As the person managing this clothing waste, you will typically either collect and resell them as part of a fundraiser, or collect and donate them to a local shelter. Whichever path you choose, make sure the organizations you are partnering with can receive the clothes at the times and in the quantities that you need to deliver them.

Clothes are an easy item to target because they achieve that “perfect storm” of factors. They are relatively easy to market. They are generated in significant enough quantities to get you avoided disposal benefits to justify your efforts. And doing a clothing collection will generally have a positive impact on your CSR or town-gown relations.


Because there are so many new recyclables to deal with at the end of the year, people often forget about how much extra paper is generated during move out. Yes, the internet has reduced the amount of paper. There are no longer quite the same size stacks of old J. Crew catalogs being discarded. Business students are now as likely to have an online subscription to the Wall St. Journal as they are a stack of newspapers to recycle. But, the amount of paper is still significant. There are still all of those old exams and handouts being discarded. There are all of those posters taken down from the wall and discarded. There are all of those no-longer-needed pizza-delivery menus. There are all of the paperback books that the bookstore wouldn’t buy back that are being discarded when they don’t fit into the car. And despite the internet, there are still some magazines, catalogs and newspapers. Chances are your paper recycling infrastructure wasn’t designed for this much stuff. If you are going to get an extra month’s worth of paper, you are not going to be able to get it all with a regular weekly pickup. You are going to need extra bins, extra pickups, or some combination of both.

Wood Waste & Other Building Materials

Despite rules to the contrary, college students build stuff. Sometimes it’s illegal wooden lofts. Sometimes it’s impromptu bookshelves. Sometimes it’s just something to prop up a piece of half-broken furniture. As a result, at the end of the year, there is typically a mess of building materials discarded

There are markets in many areas to reuse and/or recycle those building materials. But, perhaps most importantly, you want something to keep that stuff out of the regular trash dumpster, for logistics reasons (in addition to any recycling/SMM reasons).

Waste collection crews this time of the year are already frantically trying to keep up with the extra trash collection and extra traffic, much of which is blocking their access to dumpsters. Given that, there is nothing more infuriating or disruptive than to finally get to a dumpster and find an 8-ft 2×4 or sheet of plywood sticking up out of the dumpster. Lumber that long blocks your waste crew from being able to empty the bin. And yet it is so buried under the other trash, that it cannot easily be removed without manually emptying almost the entire dumpster. There is not much more disruptive and demoralizing.

CFL Bulbs & Lamps

You spent all year getting students to use energy-efficient CFL and LED bulbs in their lamps. Maybe you even mandated their use. The consequence is that you will have a lot of hazardous-material-containing bulbs being discarded at the end of the year. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: CFL bulbs will last years. If students didn’t have to pack up and move the lamp, the bulb would likely last their entire college career. But, they do have to pack up the lamp, and it probably doesn’t fit into the car well, so there is a good chance it is being left behind with the mercury-containing CFL bulb still in it.

Non-Perishable Food

Compared to other items on this list, this is not huge in terms of volume. However, it can be high in terms of impact, promotional value, and town-gown relations.

Even if you never print a CSR story about your non-perishable food collection efforts, don’t overlook the morale benefits of this collection. At some point during move out you will be dragging. You will have worked your umpteenth day in a row of overtime wading through mountains of clothes and student belongings. But, no matter how exhausted and near broken you are, when you show up at the local shelter or food pantry with a truckload of non-perishable food from the student move out, the gratitude you receive from the workers or clients of that shelter or food pantry can be incredibly reenergizing. It can remind you why you go through this every year, and give you the morale boost you need to get through the remainder of your move-out clean up.

Perishable Food

For all the value that comes with a non-perishable food collection, as noted above, it is comparatively little volume. If you have a composting program in or near your residence halls, you can significantly expand the amount of food you collect at the end of the year. All of those opened boxes of cereal or pasta or bags of rice from the bulk-food section of the grocery store can be collected for composting. As can any of the unfinished soups, sauces, or pizza slices that need to be cleaned out of the dorm fridge before students move out. Just make sure that you increase your collection frequency accordingly. Whether it’s parents picking up their kids, or that summer conference arriving at the residence hall right after the students move out, if you have an overflowing bin of uncollected putrescible food waste sitting in the early summer heat, you are going to be spending an unfortunate amount of time during move out getting yelled at by someone.

A successful move-out recycling effort can bolster your recycling rate not just in May but for the entire year. And focusing on the six materials detailed above can make the difference between whether or not your move-out recycling effort is a success.

Written by

Roger Guzowski
Roger Guzowski

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