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Leaving a big mess on campus

As school ends, students abandon clothes, fridges, ramen and more. Activists collect them for charities.

May 20, 2007|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

After final exams and graduation every spring, America's college campuses become astonishing junkyards of abandoned stuff -- providing, some say, a snapshot of a generation of students raised in a throwaway culture.

Take Pomona College. A cleanup of the dormitories there last week filled hallways and lounges with about 50 unwanted mini-refrigerators, 40 computer printers, scores of microwave ovens and window fans, mounds of mattresses and couches, piles of pillows and clothes, a store's worth of detergent, shampoo, books and ramen, not to mention some bicycles, stuffed animals, crutches and exotic underwear.

At that liberal arts college in Claremont and at schools across the country, graduating seniors and even underclassmen lack the time, storage space, wits or desire to keep all their possessions. So they leave some -- even items in good condition -- behind. That is particularly true for the students headed home to faraway locales or for those whose parents will sigh in exasperation but will finance another clock radio and bookcase in the fall.

"I think it's absolutely enormous. But it's not surprising," Sarah Kuriakose, Pomona's former student body president, said while surveying the detritus gathered from a room-to-room search she organized. "No college student would say it's surprising."

But she and activists at many other campuses, including USC, UCLA and UC Irvine, have decided enough is enough. Concerned about the waste and overstuffed landfills, they are devising ways to donate or recycle the dorm debris.

Some schools, such as Pennsylvania State and Ohio State, conduct immense yard sales and give the proceeds to worthy causes.

"Not until you are here sorting through it all do you realize the actual magnitude of what was previously being trashed. And what could be put to good use for families of need," said recent Pomona graduate Katie Lenhoff.

She was among the 24 volunteers working on a new weeklong effort called Operation Clean Sweep, which funneled the discards to six charities.

But first there was cleaning and sorting to do. In Walker Hall, Lenhoff, for example, was washing wine glasses with tell-tale red stains still at their bottoms.

That time of the year

Norbert Dunkel, vice president of the Assn. of College and University Housing Officers-International, said the widespread abandonment of property has become a springtime ritual at many schools.

The University of Florida, where he is director of housing and residence education, recently gave about 20 tons of usable items to the Salvation Army, food banks and other groups.

"Students today, even versus 15 years ago, are much more of a throwaway culture," Dunkel said. "They use things and don't keep them for an extended period of time."

Part of that is driven by technology: Why save a printer if a faster and cheaper one will be available next year?

Some belongings are forsaken by departing graduates. But lots of bikes and microwaves come from undergraduates who shop during the year and then panic because many colleges allow no or very little summer storage.

In some cases, they have acquired things that won't transport very well -- such as the live 5-foot-long boa constrictor University of Florida employees found a few years ago in a dorm dresser drawer.

And some students seem simply spoiled. That was the case this month when a freshman from Maryland left a closetful of clothes and shoes. The university contacted her mother, who seemed unconcerned and told the school to give it all away. Families like that, Dunkel said, "are affluent enough to buy a new wardrobe every year."

Last year, Penn State's Trash to Treasure sale at the campus stadium involved more than 66 tons of student castoffs and garnered more than $50,000 for the United Way. Among the items were a mink coat, a silver-plated punch bowl, 33 television sets, 166 window fans and 270 pairs of ski boots. No marijuana plants were found, but some gardening tools raised suspicions.

Carolyn Lambert, who is helping to organize Penn State's sixth annual sale scheduled for Saturday, considers the events "a huge anthropological study in terms of what students leave behind and have donated."

Besides the vacuum cleaners, irons and extra sheets that parents bought in September, some students walk away from mugs filled with sizable sums of coins, according to Lambert, who is an associate professor at Penn State's School of Hospitality Management.

"A lot of the items would indicate that they are more of a privileged group than a previous generation," she said.

At Pomona College, dean of campus life M. Ricardo Townes stressed the positive as the student volunteers scoured rooms for things they would later truck to charities for what is expected to be an annual event.

"There is a spirit of sustainability around here, of reusing things as opposed to just throwing things away," Townes said.

For example, many of the fridges would go to animal shelters to keep medicine chilled.

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