Ending the Campus Throwaway Culture

Moving into college is an exciting and essential part of the college experience, whether it’s your first time moving into a completely new place or you are a returning student excited to see your friends after a long summer. One aspect of moving in that excites many students, including me, is decorating your new room. And, if you are living in a house or apartment, also decorating common spaces. Every year in August and September, students empty local Walmarts of last-minute fans, mirrors, pillows, hangers, and more. In addition, the university’s mail center has its busiest season, with thousands of Amazon packages crowding the student center. The result? Trash containers filled with empty boxes. Have you ever wondered where all these possessions go once the student graduates? As an international student, I have to be conscious about the amount of clothes and other possessions I have as I know that once I graduate, I will need to squeeze everything into just two suitcases. Looking back, I never thought about how I would get rid of my stuff until the end of my sophomore year, let alone the strategies other students use to move out.

With this realization, I started an initiative called Close the Loop to foster an exchange culture on campus by hosting clothing swaps. By the end of the year, I decided to stay the first couple of weeks of summer and work for SLU ReUse, a program put in place by my university, St. Lawrence, to deal with the massive moving-out dump that takes place. Even though I was warned several times about the sheer volume of waste, I wasn’t prepared for how much graduating seniors and moving underclassmen simply throw away. St. Lawrence is relatively small, with a student body of only 2400, but the waste pile was massive and disheartening. But this end-of-the-year dump is not exclusive to St. Lawrence University. It’s prevalent at universities across the United States. According to Dump and Run, Inc., the average college student produces 640 pounds of trash annually, most of which accumulates at the end of the year during move-out. Each university has implemented different models and systems to deal with this waste, but the issue persists.

Photo: St. Lawrence University.

At Close the Loop this year, we aim to implement different solutions throughout the year and at its end to reduce waste and ensure that clothes, furniture, kitchen supplies, and more get sold, donated, or recycled. The pop-up clothing swaps of last year were successful; students were able to get rid of clothes before the end of the year, and we distributed them to students who needed them. However, we realize now that more is required. This year, we are partnering with our school’s Thrift Store to create a permanent swapping space. It will also be open for donations for students to have a place to slowly give things away before the end of the year instead of rushing to get rid of everything at once which results in a lot of it being thrown away. The Thrift Store is also open to our local community, allowing community members and students to get reasonably priced items.

In addition to creating spaces on campus for students to buy, sell, and swap second-hand items, as a Rachel Carson Fellow, I am driving environmental education and awareness work regarding consumerism behavior on campus. We already have planned introductory sewing workshops to encourage students to repair and mend their clothes before throwing them away, as well as upcycling seminars that teach ways to give clothes makeovers rather than buying new ones.

Photo: Abby Lateer.

Since getting involved in waste management and environmental groups at St. Lawrence, I’ve researched other U.S. colleges and universities and their programs for moving out waste. I also had the opportunity to hear from environmental leaders from other universities regarding different solutions their schools have implemented when I attended the RCC American Environmental Leadership Institute (AELI) this past summer. The ideas and experiences of other RCC Fellows were helpful for planning activities in my club. Nevertheless, I realize how big of a disconnect there is between all these efforts. I wonder how we can strengthen these relationships the same way that different organizations such as sororities and fraternities do. Could we create a model to deal with waste with chapters propagating throughout U.S. universities? Currently, I am implementing a strategy to reach out to clubs in other schools to exchange experiences, make connections, and implement new ideas.

Getting involved in environmental issues while in college is challenging as you will encounter many obstacles including lack of money, bureaucracy, and apathy. But we can overcome these obstacles by uniting those who are passionate about sustainability and committed to making an impact. It’s been three years since I started Close the Loop, and we have achieved so much more than I ever anticipated. I am excited about the coming year’s progress. I know that if we continue spreading ideas for making mindful choices in waste and consumerism, we can continue making a difference.

If you are a college student interested in starting a club or initiative on campus related to the environment and waste management and don’t know where to start, or, if you are part of an existing club whose mission focuses on sustainability, social justice, and fashion and would like to collaborate, feel free to reach out through my club’s Instagram @sluclosetheloop or email me at [email protected]. I would love to talk and find ways to collaborate. Working together, committed students can move mountains – even those piles of discarded campus possessions.

RCC National Environmental Leadership Fellow – Valeria Obregon

Valeria Obregon is a senior at St. Lawrence University majoring in environmental studies and sociology and minoring in gender studies. She has studied abroad since she was seventeen having lived and studied in four different countries: Mexico, Singapore, Italy, and the United States. During her time at St. Lawrence University, she has been part of the Sustainability Program cohort of 2021-2022 and founded the club “SLU Close the Loop”, an environmental initiative to reduce waste on campus. In addition to her co-curricular activities, she has also interned at organizations which include Waterkeeper Alliance, Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, and Benvenuti Arts. Valeria has a passion for the arts, especially protest art and muralism.