May 2022 | Post-Move Out Dumpster Study at Cornell University

Cornell University is a ‘Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System’ (STARS) Platinum certified, Ivy League school that claims to be a “living laboratory for sustainability innovation, progress, and learning”. Yet after the Spring semester student move-out, the campus and area dumpsters paint a different picture. Countless eight foot deep industrial dumpsters are piled with still usable and often brand new clothes, electronics, furniture, food, and other valuables, all destined for the Ontario County Landfill.

It is difficult to calculate the tonnage and value of the materials cast off by departing students and the University itself, but to communicate the extent of it we want to share some of the photos taken by members of Ithaca’s dumpster study group.

The following photos were all collected in May 2022 in and around the Cornell campus. These photos only scratch the surface of the several dozen dumpsters that dot Cornell’s campus, University Avenue, and Collegetown, during the move out season.

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Please click on each photo to expand, and scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page to see all the photos from the dumpsters and to read some local lores.

While Cornell University proudly touts its sustainability efforts, dozens of dumpsters containing useful, edible, and perfectly functioning items are all going to outside of our county to the Ontario County Landfill during the move-out period from its Ithaca campus. 

By these actions, Cornell University continues to be a significant contributor to regional pollution.  In March, 2022, a renowned local environmentalist Peter Mantius reported that leachate from landfills is contaminated with PFAS chemicals (“forever chemicals”) at hundreds of times the state’s drinking water limit around New York State. Food and organic waste to landfills is a major source emission sources of methane, a greenhouse gas which is 81% more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20-year period. In addition, residents near these landfills must live with the horrible odors emanating from the landfill. 

For those who are unfamiliar with the problem of landfill contamination, this approximately 4-minute primer about the problems with landfills from The Story of Stuff Project may be helpful. The other mainstream way of waste disposal – incinerators, including WTE (waste-to-energy) incinerators – also have serious issues, such as making PFAS go airborne. As a GAIA member, Zero Waste Ithaca opposes incineration as a method of waste disposal.

In a broader view, Cornell’s waste shipments to landfills affects climate justice communities. Most of the communities that have landfills and incinerators are environmental justice communities consisting of BIPOC, and/or otherwise of low-income populations.

Zero Waste Ithaca works closely with Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice. The Coalition has been a strong force in successful closure of an incinerator in their neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut this July, 2022. Similar battles are waged in Baltimore, Maryland against its incinerator, and in Long Island, against its landfill, and many more around the country. 

And we haven’t even started talking about waste colonialism through illegal export of US waste abroad. 

A tweet from #StopWasteColonialism campaign, July 8, 2022.

What makes this even more damning is the thought of all the human labor and environmental resources that go into creating all these objects that are thrown away after single use, all to pollute and poison water, land and air that our future generations of humans and other creatures that we share this planet with depend upon for survival.

From the study groups’ on-the-ground reports, we estimate that at least 60% of the materials in these Cornell dumpsters could have been reused, donated, diverted, or otherwise properly composted and recycled.

It is not only students who are throwing away things – perfectly good furniture is disposed for a presumed appearance “upgrade” rather than diverted to the community. Photo taken at a dumpster behind Ujamaa Residential College, May 22, 2022.

While Cornell has a program called Dump & Run that diverts some material from the landfill to raise funds for local charitable organizations, we estimate that this program manages to capture less than 10% of materials that could be diverted.

Other universities have simple end-of-semester material management systems, such as covered tents next to dumpsters where students can leave usable items that are free to take for community members who can use them. At St. Michael’s College in Vermont, trucks will go around throughout the week to pick up and divert usable items to local pantries and reuse centers. SUNY Oneonta has its own student-run second-hand store on campus to divert materials.

Cornell runs a campaign called Beyond Waste that is a part of the national Recyclemania program. However, as a curious coincidence, the program only runs from mid-February through March and fails to account for the astounding amount of “waste” generated in May during move-out period.

In March 2022, we met with a clearly well-meaning individual staff member from the Sustainability Office and had a very good conversation. Unfortunately, the university as an institution has again failed this year to make the much-needed changes in the way they handle this situation.

Instead, these materials head to the landfill and it falls on community members to salvage what they can. Our study group met an 88-year old and her daughter who annually salvage items to distribute to community members and organizations in need.

An Ithaca local, who lived in Collegetown in the 1960s, shared that the move-out waste generation has not changed since their time there.

To put it differently, this problem has been known in the community and to the Cornell administration for nearly half a century and the university has not taken adequate action to address this hugely unethical first-world problem.

The amount and quality of “trash” in the Cornell move-out dumpsters is so egregious that it has become a well-known scavenger event; we talked to dumpster divers from as far away as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Maine.

In other words, Cornell’s dumpsters have become a seasonal tourist destination.

During our study, some locals even asked our group not to draw attention to the exorbitant Cornell dumpster problem, because some community members have come to depend on these annual “gifts” from Cornell students.

But collecting these ‘gifts’ puts community members at risk of arrest or ticketing, when they are simply diverting waste from the landfill.

Instead, we recommend that discarded items be made freely available for community members at tents set aside for the specific purpose of end-of-semester diversion. This is a simple and actionable recommendation we feel Cornell could implement today that would begin to address the overwhelming quantity of salvageable material heading to the landfill.

We also recommend that Cornell work closely with Finger Lakes ReUse Center to divert any remaining items at those tents to minimize the amount of materials that go to the Ontario County Landfill.

We also believe student community education could go a long way to address waste on campus, especially for the first-year Cornell students. Screening and community discussions of animated film series from the acclaimed Story of Stuff Project founded by Annie Leonard (a renegade Cornellian, and now a co-executive director of Greenpeace), seems like a great and fitting start.

Our group also enthusiastically welcomes more Cornell students to get involved with Zero Waste Ithaca. Our efforts are both fun and serious, with the ultimate goal to help bring about much needed changes on campus, in Ithaca and beyond. Please do not hesitate to get in touch with us through social media (DM is open!) or email address below, and bring your friends. Get your mind off from your usual work and let’s have a good time causing ‘good trouble’!

If you have photos and videos you’d like to share about campus dumpsters, or any waste issues that require public attention, please share them with us (with dates and locations) at zerowasteithaca@gmail.com.

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