AS ONE OF MORE THAN 630 who have signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, I have pledged to create a sustainable campus environment at Lafayette College (Pa.). We have invested in energy and water reduction projects across campus, which have saved money as well. But much of the momentum to improve our sustainability record comes from students. They pushed for better recycling, food waste composting, a community garden, and retrofitting water fountains to easily refill water bottles.
A few years ago, students came forward with an excellent idea to donate usable items left behind at the end of the academic year. Individual students, staff, and faculty led the way in a project to collect these items, as they have on a number of other U.S. campuses. Even a small school like Lafayette, with 2,300 students, can make a significant impact. This year, volunteers collected 7,130 pounds of clothes, unopened food, bedding, and books, as well as a truckload of mattresses, small refrigerators, fans, televisions, and furniture.
Six local charities benefited, including a homeless shelter, a food pantry, and an animal shelter. This “green move-out” helped our neighbors and promoted positive town-gown relations?as well as saved us the costs of hauling these good items away as trash.
Lafayette junior Andrew Carlins says he “was inspired because the project seems like such a simple way to have a large positive impact. There just aren’t many greater opportunities for collecting donations than when students are moving out of college.” Senior Max Bass notes that the majority of donated items “were in extremely good condition.”
In many cases, students, even those who recycle every day, leave usable items behind as a matter of convenience or necessity. Much of what is obtained during the year?a coffee table, for instance?can be costly to mail or hard to haul home. Students welcome the opportunity to deliver items to an area in their residence hall for delivery to a charity.
Other institutions using student move-outs to help local charities include Baldwin-Wallace College (Ohio), which donates items from its “Leave It Behind” campaign to women’s shelters, community centers, and outreach organizations. At Clark University (Mass.), items are sold through thrift shops, with proceeds going to Big Brothers-Big Sisters. Also in Massachusetts, Wheaton College students organize an annual campus yard sale; this year it raised more than $1,200 for the public library. The University of Pennsylvania’s recent sale of donated items raised almost $30,000 for United Way agencies.
How can you encourage such an effort on your campus? Collecting and organizing the donations are very labor intensive, so have volunteers heavily involved. It often works best if one student group spearheads the initiative to collect items at move-out. At the same time, an office on campus needs to support the volunteers with logistical help and retain a “history” of what has worked to avoid reinventing the wheel as student leaders graduate.
We have found that clear communication at the highest levels can help make the process function as efficiently as possible. Encourage administrators to explain the concept to parents as early as the start of the fall semester. It helps with early planning?and parents are usually involved in supplying students during the year and helping them move out in May.
Students should be informed at orientation, and colleges should include information on the entering class web page. Make sure charities that can use the donations are identified early on, or all the collecting and sorting could end up being a waste of time. So there is no year-end confusion, organizers should be as specific as possible when explaining what will be collected and what is not acceptable. Consider speaking with department heads about encouraging faculty members to use related classes (such as social justice classes) to promote the program.
Our students have made it clear that this annual initiative is important to them. It is one area where their interests and their talents for organizing and teamwork?not to mention their sweat?come together to accomplish something that has an immediate, positive impact on the greater community.
It is up to us as campus leaders to harness that student energy as we continue to help move our institutions forward along the path to sustainability.
Daniel H. Weiss is president of Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.