Most of my adult life, I have lived either in college towns (New Paltz, New York; Amerhst, MA) or in the sections of cities that harbor large populations of college students (right now I live right near Tufts University in Somerville).
This is both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because it allows for progressive politics, a community that embraces the arts, and a generally youthful and vibrant atmosphere that can help keep us non-college students youthful and vibrant as well. It's a curse because you also get to deal with the sometimes drunken and often discourteous antics of late teens and early 20-something experiencing their first taste of freedom. For all practical purposes, they are adults, but their minds are more or less still adolescent. Yes, they pay rent and bills, drive cars, etc., but in many of those cases, it's not really them footing those bills, it's their parents. So, many of them get the freedom of adulthood while still being coddled like children.
Which is why, I suppose, they have no problem cluttering the sidewalk curbs with their shit at the beginning and end of every school semester. September 1st is an exciting day for my junk-raiding friends, who often find fairly newish stuff to take home for free. But no matter how much they raid, most of that stuff still winds up being picked up by the trash collector.
Here's the deal, college kids: I get that mommy and daddy bought you this stuff, and they'll probably just buy you new stuff again to replace it all. I get that you were too busy getting lit and catching up with the summer syndications of the Biggest Loser or whatever other trash is on television these days. Or maybe, since the Boston/Cambridge area is home to such uber-competitive schools such as MIT and Harvard, you were really just too busy studying, to be sustainable. I get that you have had most things handed to you, so you never think about things like the work it took to get something into your hand or mouth. But I say bullshit. It's high time you learned where your stuff comes from, and where it goes after you've barely used it.
The vast majority of your STUFF (i.e. your furniture, houseware, clothing, electronics/gadgets, books) that your parents purchased for you was created by resources like virgin wood, rare minerals, and cotton that was most likely harvested/yielded under not-so-nice circumstances, and then fashioned into the end product you used for such a brief period by the sweat of shop (and maybe even, slave) laborers (many of whom are children much younger than yourselves) for pittance wages overseas.
Then, when you leave it for the trash man, he takes it to the landfill, which is most likely situated near an impoverished community. Not only do the poor people then have to deal with the brimming lanfill down the block, and breathe in its stench, but they even will develop cancers from the stuff like your used electronics as the metals in them like mercury and lead leech into the air, ground and water and deal with the adverse effects on the resident ecosystem.
Let's take cell phones for instance: cell phones require a mineral called Coltan to make them work. This mineral is largely found in the Congo. Consumer pressures to come up with more Coltan to fuel the Western world's insatiable appetite to have a hip new phone every season is helping fuel a bloody civil war over there, and driving the Mountain Gorilla to extinction.
But hey, at least you get to text Tammy about the latest joke that made you LOL or your latest hot lay at any time of the day or night. What's a few dead bodies, raped teenaged girls and an extinct species in some hot continent overseas--as well as an increased risk of developing a brain tumor--in comparison for the satisfying returns of our constantly plugged-in culture?
I don't care if you have a "Save the Seals" bumper sticker on your SUV, and I don't care that you buy the fair trade latte at the Atomic Bean, if you are not walking the talk in your life in terms of your consumer choices, you are part of the problem. And I don't buy that you are too busy, that your intentions are good...blah blah blah. I bet if you clock in half the time into trying to be a more conscientious consumer, that you do texting and fooling around on Facebook, this world would be a much different place. A much better place.
So, if you actually care to make a difference, here's how not to be an a-hole come moving day:
1.) Consider storage.
Are you coming back next semester? Are you leaving only for a semester or year for an internship? If you are, please consider storing your stuff while you are away, instead of just throwing out to buy again. Check with friends and family first, to see if you can unload some of your stuff with them, in their basements/garages, or for them to use. If not, consider renting a storage space. Depending on how long you plan to be gone, and what service you use, the price might even be cheaper than refurnishing new when you return.
2.) Sell your stuff...
Most of the time, the stuff you are trashing is in good, if not excellent, condition. We're in a shitty economy, and chances are, unless your parents are Wall St. tycoons, even they are feeling the crunch. You may think that Harvard B.A. in anthropology promises you job security after graduation. You're wrong. So start thinking practically. If you really can't take your stuff with you, sell it at a discount. There are trendy consignment clothes shops that would salivate at the chance to resell your hipster wardrobe. I can tick off five off the top of my head here in Somerville & Cambridge. You can trade them in for some cash or store credit. Most stores that sell used books or CDS will also buy said items from you if gently used. For your college textbooks, virtually all college bookstores will buy back your books, even if you were liberal with your yellow highlighter with them.
Granted, all of these places will offer you a pittance of what you paid; the college bookstore in particular might offer you something like $5 for a $50 textbook even if it's mint condition...but it's something. Store credit is a better deal over cash. As for the college bookstore and its audacity at robbing you blind, at least take solace in that you are helping some poor sap of a kid whose parents can't foot his bills who can now buy your book at discount (this was usually me).
If you want a better deal for your goods without even the effort of stepping outside of your house, use the Internet. There's Ebay, Amazon, and of course, Craig's list.
You get to set your price, and people will not only pay it, but they'll come to you, and you'll get rid of that stuff pronto. Don't think so? I've sold things on CL like old tupperware and throw pillows (yes, throw pillows!). Everytime I've posted things on CL, thinking no one will want it, I get 20 emails in my Inbox an hour later. Usually, I am rid of everything with a day or less of posting.
3.) Give it away...
Unless you live in the bumblefuck boonies, you have either a Salvation Army in your town or a Goodwill. Most likely, you have both. As long as it's in decent condition, they'll take your crap, and pretty much anything you got, from furniture to books to a blender. Shit, Salvation Army will even come to you (arrange a pick-up) in many instances if you don't have a car.
Besides Goodwill and Sal's, most towns have their own local, independent thrift stores. When I lived in Burlington, Vermont, it was RecycleNorth (now known as reSOURCE). In Silver Spring, Maryland, it was the Unique Thrift Store (there is also a separate Unique Thrift Store chain in the midwest).
It just takes a few minutes to flip through a yellow pages to find these stores, or do a Google search. Easy-peasy.
And again, there's Craig's list. It has a FREE section. Just post and watch the people reply! You can even post what's called a "CURB ALERT," or "PORCH ALERT" for those last-minute giveaways. Just let the masses know you moved or are moving, and left items XYZ on the curb or your porch and it's first come/first served. When my neighbors move and leave their stuff on the curb, I always post a courtesy CURB ALERT on CL. And the stuff always gets snatched up before the trash man comes. Not only does this keep perfectly usable goods out of the landfill, this helps out low income people get stuff without wallaping their wallets.
I do have a reservation about curb alerts, though. Our cities are seeing an explosion in bedbugs. By leaving your stuff outside, it can become infested with bedbugs and then it gets passed on to the poor, probably low income, person taking it home. This especially goes for furniture with cushions, but even hardwood and electronics can get bedbugs. Which is why you should try to get rid of your stuff before it's moving day, or at the least post an alert right away, to reduce chances of infestation. On this same note, if you have things like a cat, or are a smoker, please be honest in your posting. People have allergies, and it's good to be honest. Don't worry, there are plenty of people who will still snatch up your stuff.
In addition to Craig's list, there's also Freecycle, which is an online forum for giving away and finding stuff in your community. You need to sign up for a membership account, but it's free and only takes a couple of minutes.
You may also be able to find an online forum for your town with a free classified section you can also post in. Seriously, this takes such a short amount of time...
4.) Recycle what you can't sell or give away...
Are your books too ratty or old to resell or donate? Do you have a a bunch of Playboy magazines you're too embarassed to sell and Sal's won't except them as a donation (I am sure there are some 14 year-old boys who would buy them off you)? A little known fact is that most cities and states now accept magazines and books in their paper recycling. So, when it comes time to get rid of these things, simply opt to put them in the blue bin with your paper waste, instead of the trash can (you can easily cover up those naughty PB's with newspaper and other paper waste). Check your state or city website first to make sure this is the case.
Is the problem that your printer or computer or stereo don't work anymore?
All BestBuy outlets now accept used/non-working electronics for recycling, regardless of where you bought them from. Additionally, most major cities, and even many towns have both municipal places that specialize in the recycling and refurbishing of electronics, as well as private companies or NGOs. Some of them will even arrange a pick up. For instance, here in the Boston area, there's a place that specializes in electronics recycling called Earthworm Recycling. There are even some national places you can mail your used electronics to...this is especially easy with cell phones. To find a place near you, check out this link by the EPA: http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/ecycling/donate.htm.
Some of these places may charge a fee, but many are also free. Shop around, but whatever you do, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE, try to find these places and use them. Landfilling electronics is an awful thing. They are chock-full of carcinogenic metals and plastics that leak when they become wet, wreaking havoc on local ecosystems and endangering the long-term health of people living nearby.
5.) Buy second-hand or refurbished...or consider not buying at all.
We are obsessed with consumption. We always think we need another car, another phone, another item. At the same time, we're working more and harder, getting sicker, have shorter attention spans, and are less happy as a people than we were a few decades back. The truth is, we're exhausting our resources, we're exploiting other people, and even allowing people and species to die off to ensure the endurance of minor conveniences in our life. Recycling your stuff is a good start but you need to also support recycling from the other end, and reduce your consumption.
This doesn't go for just college kids, it goes for all of us. It goes for me. The truth is, I am targeting the college kids, because I feel their consciences are more active than us more mature adults. In Vermont, there were plenty of 18 year-olds who SCHOOLED ME about sustainability...about what it really means.
So, next time you feel the need to head to the mall, or buy yourself a new pair of shoes, ask yourself not only do you really need it (which of course you probably don't), but 1.) if it's worth all the suffering that went into it, if that kind of suffering is something you are willing to perpetuate with your purchasing power; 2.) if it will make you happier or your life better (and I am not just talking about that drugged kind of rush you get seeing your credit card swiped or using said item the first time or two, I am talking about a lasting sense of happiness and satisfaction), and 3.) If this is something you'll have awhile and invest in maintaining.
For those things you do need or want, please try to source them second-hand first. I made a pact with myself to do this. With the obvious exception of underwear, socks (which I buy from sweatshop-free American Apparel) and occasionally shoes (I have special orthopedic needs for my formerly clubbed foot), I buy all my clothes from thrift or consignment shops. I borrow books from the library and barter with friends, or buy at my local used bookstore and either resell or donate them when I am done. I now only use used cell phones (purchased from DotCells) and I recycle my old ones. When my at-home freelance writing business required a printer, I bought a refurbished one (whenever you search for an electronic product on Amazon, most brands will have used and refurbished models of what you are looking for).
I am not perfect. I still need to improve. I am mentioning these things not to be on a high horse, but just to show that it's more than possible to live a life prioritizing an heirloom (creating products that last a loong time, and reusing their parts) mentality, without being stuck in the stone age.
So, let's do it, let's stop dumping on other countries and communities in our relentless desire for STUFF.
Want to know more about the environmental and labor issues connected to the creation and waste of our electronic products? Please visit the website of the Basal Action Network (BAN) at: http://www.ban.org/