Abandoned belongings clutter campuses

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

Take Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. A cleanup of the dormitories 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 noodles, not to mention bicycles, stuffed animals, crutches and exotic underwear.


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

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


But Kuriakose and activists on other campuses have decided enough is enough. Concerned about waste and overstuffed landfills, they are devising ways to donate or recycle dorm leftovers.

Some schools, such as Penn State University and Ohio State University, conduct immense yard sales with 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.

Lenhoff was among 24 volunteers working on the new, weeklong effort called "Operation Clean Sweep," which will funnel dormitory discards to six charities.

Norbert Dunkel, vice president of the Association 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 Dunkel 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," he 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 items are left by undergraduates who shop during the year and then panic because many colleges allow no or very little summer storage.


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

Some students seem simply spoiled. That was the case in May 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 such as 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.

Carolyn Lambert, who is helping to organize Penn State's sixth annual sale scheduled for May 26, 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 coins, said Lambert, an associate professor in 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 student volunteers scoured rooms for things they would later truck to charities for what is expected to become an annual event.

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

Officials from some charities seemed awed by the scale of it all.

Nancy Dufford, a coordinator at Uncommon Good, a Claremont, Calif.-based agency that helps low-income families, was picking out couches, fans, mirrors, school supplies and toys. "We're thrilled," she said. "Our families will definitely benefit from this."

Larry Gordon writes for the Los Angeles Times.