There’s no sight more emblematic of an Oakland summer than the massive piles of discarded couches, lamps, and desks lining the streets. Students, mostly from the University of Pittsburgh, who are moving, leaving for the summer, or leaving for good, abandon what they can’t or don’t want to carry. Many of the tossed items are in perfectly good condition, but without intervention, they end up in a landfill indefinitely, since much of cheap college furniture is made of plastic.
But as new generations move onto or around Pitt’s campus, many are doing so with the knowledge that waste is an urgent problem and major contributor to global warming.
Pitt’s Clutter for a Cause program is run by the Office of Sustainability, but it was started three years ago as a project by students who saw the need for a collection program to divert discarded furniture and home goods from landfills. Now, the program has collection sites both on Pitt’s campus and off-campus in Oakland throughout the summer to collect dressers, lamps, microwaves, shelves, chairs, textbooks, clothes, and even non-perishable food items. Clutter for a Cause sets up collection stations where people can drop items off, but they also give out tags so people can leave items on the sidewalk with a tag marking it for pickup.
“These students who initiated the project thought, 'How can we figure out a way to divert these items out of the landfill, or if they are too used to be used by anybody else, are there ways to recycle them and get them out of the landfill?’” says PittServes sustainability coordinator Erika Ninos.
According to Ninos, this year’s on-campus collection gathered 1,200 pounds of household goods and 800 pounds of clothing to be resold at Pitt’s on-campus thrift store, Thriftsburgh. Clutter for a Cause also collected 8,000 pounds of goods to be donated to St. Vincent de Paul Society, Goodwill, and the Free Stores in Wilkinsburg and Braddock.
Pitt is a member school of Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN), an organization that helps colleges across the country manage their waste and implement more sustainable practices, including changing the move-out process, implementing food recovery, and eliminating plastics. PLAN also hosts an annual Students for Zero Waste Conference, which runs Oct. 11-13 at the University of Pennsylvania. Young Grguras, a recent Pitt graduate who now works at PLAN, says that the weight of the problem shouldn’t fall solely on the individual students, but also the big box stores peddling cheap, poorly made furniture.
“These companies, not only should they stop using plastic and be looking for alternatives, but they should not be pushing the advertising as much as they do to make us feel like we need this item to be a full person,” says Grguras. “They want you to spend money on their item, throw it away, and buy a new one next year.”
When it comes to ethical consumption, in regards to both the environment and labor, there's frequent talk about the dangers of “fast fashion” (cheaply made, mass-produced clothing), but less so for "fast furniture" from stores like Target and Ikea, which lure young people in with affordable prices for items that are not built to last in the long-term and are often made of cheap plastic. If you’ve bought furniture from Ikea, you’ve likely also had broken furniture from Ikea.
“The more that we make and dispose of plastic, the more that we need to frack our natural resources and create facilities like the [ethane cracker plant] going up in Beaver,” says Grguras. “So it's not just the fact that it's going into a landfill and taking up space, but it's creating and enforcing the linear consumption economy that's making us continue to extract the natural resources that we don't have an unlimited supply of.”
But both Grguras and Ninos say that incoming students are increasingly aware of waste problems. Grguras says Clutter for a Cause has gotten proportionally fewer collections over the years, which they attribute to more awareness.
“They understand that there are implications to single-use plastics, that nothing really ever goes away,” says Ninos. “They're really the driving force behind it.”