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Trash or treasure? Woman says more needs to be done with items PSU students leave behind

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 6/5/19

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as the saying goes.

A lot of what hundreds — maybe thousands — of departing Penn State Harrisburg students dispose of each spring …

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Trash or treasure? Woman says more needs to be done with items PSU students leave behind

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One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as the saying goes.

A lot of what hundreds — maybe thousands — of departing Penn State Harrisburg students dispose of each spring isn’t trash, but treasure, if the experience of Middletown resident Chloe Buckwalter is any indication.

She says this treasure could be put to much better use on behalf of Middletown-area residents — and students — than piling the stuff high in Dumpsters to be picked up and taken to a landfill.

Buckwalter, 21, discovered this in early May, as legions of Penn State Harrisburg students were leaving after finals and the end of spring semester.

Walking back from Penn State Harrisburg after watching her brother give his graduation presentation, Buckwalter noticed Dumpsters that appeared to be overflowing in Campus Heights, the off-campus student housing complex next to the university.

The surrounding lawn became a dump site for all manner of items — furniture, clothing, laundry baskets, suitcases, household appliances, even containers filled with boxes of food and beverages.

Taking a closer look, Buckwalter found two perfectly good cashmere sweaters in a bag full of clothing.

“I thought, ‘What are these people doing?’” she said.

Over the next several days, Buckwalter made a number of return trips to Dumpsters at Campus Heights — about a football field away from her home on West Main Street.

She also checked out Dumpsters at Nittany Place, the other off-campus student apartment complex in the 600 block of North Spring Street.

Each time she retrieved more and more items, all of which in Buckwalter’s estimation had no business being thrown away.

Pillows and pillow cases, sheets, full-length mirrors, clothes racks, knives and other kitchen utensils, a small “Dustbuster”-type vacuum cleaner, lamps, pots and pans. A new suitcase, its only flaw being one broken wheel.

Brand new art supplies, including sketch books containing art work presumably done by the students.

Dozens of pairs of shoes, enough to fill a large laundry basket, all looking as if they had hardly been worn, if at all. Jackets, coats, blankets, pajamas, even a black woman’s corset. Three boxes of Tide laundry detergent that looked like it just came off the grocery shelf.

“I can’t explain to you how many comforters I have found,” she said.

Many clothing items had washing instructions in Mandarin, indicating they had been owned by students from China.

She found a box full of food items, still seemingly in the same container the items arrived in when they were shipped from China. Many of the items were sealed and had never been opened, with Mandarin brand names.

She never needed to bring a container. Every time she went out, she found an empty laundry basket or suitcase to carry back whatever else she found.

A lot of the stuff she liberated had been piled in the grass next to a Dumpster. Some of the bags filled with clothes were piled in recycling bins, reducing the value of some items.

“You throw in a pillow and after it’s touched enough ramen, it is no longer usable,” she said.

In separate interviews, the owners of Campus Heights and Nittany Place both took issue with Buckwalter’s description of Dumpsters overflowing with mountains of discarded items.

But both acknowledge there is some amount of valuable stuff going to waste. Both say they are open to any person — including Buckwalter — or group that has a good idea or two regarding what to do about it.

Living simply

She did some “Dumpster diving,” although only about three times.

“The first time I did it I felt very sheepish,” Buckwalter said. “I eventually got over that.”

One student who hadn’t left yet offered Buckwalter a drink, thinking she was homeless.

A man pulled up in a pickup truck as Buckwalter was taking things from a Dumpster site at Nittany Place.

He said he worked for Nittany Place and was taking stuff from the Dumpsters and putting them in the truck. He told Buckwalter he was happy to see her there helping him get rid of some of the items.

Buckwalter didn’t feel she was doing anything wrong. Instead, she felt it wrong not to do something about it.

“I feel like it is morally right to not be throwing away usable things,” she said.

She said her actions are rooted in an Anabaptist philosophy of living simply.

She tries whenever possible to avoid buying anything new, pointing to the Nike sneakers made in China she was wearing that she bought second-hand for $20. She said she misses the thrift store that used to be in downtown Middletown.

Buying used items reduces the nation’s reliance on foreign imports. It’s also good for the environment, she said.

Every time you buy something new, you are contributing to the labor and energy that goes into making the item, and the fossil fuels to transport the item to this country and beyond, Buckwalter said.

Buying used avoids all that. One person buying a pair of second-hand shoes may not make much of a difference, but a whole bunch of people doing so can have a positive effect, including reducing carbon emissions, she said.

Buckwalter is keeping some of the items to reuse them  herself. Others she has already given away.

Her mother got a small fan to cool her at her new job. A 5-gallon fish tank, with decorative rocks and pebbles, a water purifier and a heater — all but the fish and water — Buckwalter gave to her next door neighbor who has a 3-year-old child.

Some of the art work and notebooks she wishes she could return to the students. If not, she might hang the drawings on her wall, but wonders about “the ethical implications” of displaying someone else’s work without their permission.

There must be a better place than the trash, however, she said.

She is certain many of the items would benefit Middletown-area residents. Some could be re-used by Penn State Harrisburg students returning in the fall.

If all these items came from just a few Dumpsters, how much stuff is potentially available — but going to waste — when Penn State Harrisburg students depart each spring?

Student efforts

Campus Heights and Nittany Place rent to about 1,000 Penn State Harrisburg students between them, said Tim Sipe, CEO and co-founder of College Town Communities, which owns Campus Heights.

Campus Heights rents to 450 students. About a third stay in Middletown year-round, but roughly 70 percent leave each year, either in May when the spring semester ends, or in July, Sipe said.

Campus Heights has tried a number of things over the years to put to better use the items students leave behind.

Some Campus Heights did on its own, others in partnership with Penn State University. For one reason or another, nothing has taken hold as being successful.

Several years back, Campus Heights approached a local food bank, Sipe cannot remember which one, about donating canned goods from students at the end of the semester.

The food bank said it couldn’t accept the items because they were coming from a “third party” and not directly from students, Sipe said.

He thought that odd, given all the canned goods and other food items food banks routinely accept from collection drives run by the Boy Scouts, the U.S. Postal Service, and other groups.

About five years ago, Campus Heights held a festival-type block party at the end of the spring semester. To get in, students had to donate at least one nonperishable food item for Campus Heights to donate to the community.

“We maybe raised about 80 pieces of nonperishable food. It didn’t have the legs,” Sipe said. Campus Heights held another food drive this past Thanksgiving, but only about 80 items were donated.

Penn State Harrisburg some years back partnered with a group to rent a box truck parked at Campus Heights that students could load up with household appliances and other items they wanted to donate.

That was abandoned after two years, Sipe said. Students had to bring their items to the truck, which probably didn’t help, and the truck wouldn’t accept clothing.

A big couch was in one of the Campus Heights Dumpsters near Buckwalter’s house when the Press & Journal accompanied her recently.

But Sipe said all Campus Heights apartments are furnished and students are not allowed to bring their own furniture.

He said Dumpsters at Campus Heights were not overflowing and there wasn’t “tons of stuff” being left over.

A great deal of cardboard is discarded. Often, students throw away their winter coats.

“We find a lot of stuff,” Sipe said. “Do we throw away an astronomical amount? No. A moderate amount — maybe enough to fill a pickup truck.”

He’d like to find a way to put the items students leave behind to better use, but Campus Heights needs a dance partner.

“We don’t have enough staff at our properties to fully run philanthropic events. We need to figure out the organizations that have enough manpower, and provide access to our student residents,” he said.

‘Ghost town by Memorial Day’

Shortly after speaking to the Press & Journal for this story, someone told Sipe about the Great South Side Sale, an event Lehigh University holds each year where items donated or discarded by departing students and other members of the Lehigh community get sold to local shoppers at a massive tent sale held the first Saturday in June.

“It sounds awesome,” Sipe said. Could that be the answer here at Penn State Harrisburg in Middletown? Sipe doesn’t know, but it seems an idea worth exploring.

“I’m thinking it could work anywhere, with the proper support and administration.”

Matt Tunnell is a partner in the company that developed and owns Nittany Place, home to up to 567 Penn State Harrisburg students during the academic year.

Most of them leave for the summer in the first few weeks of May, after finals. “This place is a ghost town by Memorial Day,” Tunnell said.

Nittany Place has seven Dumpsters throughout the complex. None are ever overflowing, Tunnell said. He does bring in the trash hauler for “extra dumps” when students are leaving in the spring.

That’s expensive, because the more times a hauler dumps a Dumpster, the more it costs Nittany Place — giving Tunnell and his staff an incentive to have students recycle and donate as much as possible.

Students already recycle as much as they can because they grew up with that mindset, Tunnell said.

When it comes to trash and discarding items that can’t be recycled, students often leave bags of stuff next to the Dumpster instead of putting it inside, making it look like the Dumpster is full, Tunnell said.

Nittany Place sends emails to students who live in the complex, asking they put their trash in the Dumpsters and not on the ground next to them.

Nittany Place is also “not supportive of Dumpster diving” because it is a liability issue in case someone injures themselves, Tunnell said.

If Nittany Place sees someone Dumpster diving they tell them to stop. If they keep doing it the police are called.

People who don’t live at Nittany Place sometimes use the Dumpsters and surrounding pad as their own illegal dump, Tunnell said.

For example, he tells of how a security camera caught someone who wasn’t a student leaving an air conditioner. A short while later someone else came and took it.

Returning students

Students leave a lot of items behind in their apartments when they leave; clothing, bicycles, pots and pans and such.

This time of year, when Nittany Place is going through and cleaning up all the units, staff bags up these items and puts them in storage. Nittany Place tries to contact the students who lived there, to arrange to return the items to them if possible.

About 25 percent of students who live in Nittany Place return in the fall. Nittany Place allows these students to store their items in their apartment for free over the summer, Tunnell said.

Otherwise, if Nittany Place can’t return the items to the owners, a woman who works at Nittany Place donates the items to a big yard sale, with the proceeds going to a nonprofit organization on behalf of a local school district, Tunnell said.

He and others who work at Nittany Place also take it upon themselves this time of year to drop off bags of unclaimed clothing and other items suitable for re-use to donation bins and collection sites throughout the area.

Three years ago, all the beds and mattresses were replaced at Nittany Village, the other student housing complex owned by Tunnell’s company until September 2018, when Penn State Harrisburg bought Nittany Village for $21.9 million.

The used bedding was in “fantastic shape” and Nittany Village donated some of it to Bethesda Mission, Tunnell said.

The rest Nittany Village piled in its parking lot, and promoted on Facebook as being “free for the taking.” It was all gone in a short period, Tunnell said.

In his opinion, the amount of stuff students leave behind each spring isn’t “overwhelming,” but “we can always do better.”

“We’re willing to work with any organization” that can help Nittany Place with re-using and donating the items students leave behind, Tunnell said. “We are open to having that conversation.”

He wasn’t certain, but Tunnell believes he may have spoken with Buckwalter about the issue. He said he offered to work with her.

Buckwalter’s efforts

Buckwalter said she went into the Nittany Place office to talk with someone about donating bicycles students had left behind at the apartment complex to Recycle Bicycle, a Harrisburg nonprofit organization that accepts used or abandoned bicycles, repairs them, and donates them to people in the community who lack any means of transportation.

She doesn’t know if the man she spoke with at Nittany Place was Tunnell. However, Buckwalter said she is willing to work with Nittany Place in coming up with ways to put to better use the items students leave behind.

Besides Nittany Place and Campus Heights, there are also Penn State Harrisburg students who live in on-campus housing, and who make the same spring exodus.

According to Kalisha Ann Devan, a campus spokeswoman, Penn State Harrisburg once had a program called Trash 2 Treasure to provide a way to re-use and donate items the students left behind.

There is talk about starting the program up again, Devan said.

More can and should be done to make better use of what students leave behind, said Riley Cagle, president of the Penn State Harrisburg Student Government Association.

More information about donating items at the end of a semester should be included in the orientation for international students, as many of them can’t take these items on the plane with them to go home, Cagle said.

Students can donate food items to WE cARE, a food pantry that opened on campus in September 2018 for students having a hard time affording food for themselves and their families, Cagle said. SGA needs to do a better job promoting awareness of the food pantry among the student body.

He’d like to explore the idea of having a clothing bank on campus to benefit students, adding “I would love to have a clothing drive.”

Penn State Greater Allegheny campus has a clothing bank. But that campus only has about 800 students, compared to close to 5,000 at Penn State Harrisburg, so the logistics of how to do it could be a challenge, Cagle said.