In the evenings leading up to garbage collection, Northwestern University graduates Conor Metz and Geena Vetula go on “dumpster dive dates” in hopes of finding furniture for the Chicago apartment they will be moving into next month. .
With contracts ending and Northwestern students moving out, discarded household goods pile up near off-campus housing. With a keen eye for abandoned furniture, Metz and Vetula explore alleys and side streets, particularly near Evanston’s most expensive apartment buildings.
“I feel like there’s a connotation that the stuff you dump in the trash is dirty or broken, but it’s all perfectly fine,” Metz said. “We get so much furniture diving in the trash.”
Some of their most impressive finds include a desk, an air freshener, a chair, a coffee table, several large fake plants, and a lamp, which they are bringing to their new apartment. Vetula said that many Evanston dumpsters present this type of finding at the end of the school year.
Summer means full bins
City data confirms that dumpsters are particularly full at this time of year.
City officials keep a record of all apartment buildings and condominiums with overflowing garbage containers. In 2021, the city recorded about 30 dumpsters overflowing per month in winter. The number jumped to 80 in the summer months.
“There’s a tangible trend that we see when we anticipate entry and exit,” said Brian Zimmerman, Solid Waste Coordinator for the City of Evanston. The city typically sees an increase in dumpsters overflowing between May and October, he said.
When dumpsters overflow, or when furniture is left on the curb as garbage, the city sends workers on a designated route to collect the bulky garbage, Zimmerman said. “It’s an increase in service,” he added.
Save, sell and donate
But students who know they will be moving soon may take longer to make arrangements for used furniture and household items, Zimmerman said. There are resources available to students, but they require planning, he added.
Cara Pratt, the city’s Sustainability and Resilience Coordinator, said overflowing dumpsters are just another example of planning convenience, but this trend trumps only the student community.
“I understand why a lot of our dumpsters and dumpsters are getting filled with college student belongings,” Pratt said, “but I think it’s a reflection of our culture as a society and how we don’t always take the time to dispose of these items carefully.”
Pratt said he recommends that students use Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist to sell, buy or donate items.
If students need to dispose of, Zimmerman suggested students keep their property managers informed of check-in or check-out times as they can provide bins or plan a more flexible trash or recycling schedule.
“I really advocate for students to get into the habit of trying to communicate with their property owners or property management groups,” he said.
Landfills: the final dead end
It takes time, energy and extracting raw materials to create household items, Zimmerman said. When items are thrown in the trash, they end up in a “complex and elaborate hole in the floor,” so they should be used for as long as possible, he added.
Wasteful behavior also contributes to climate change. “Material breaks down in the landfill by compaction or just decomposition,” explained Zimmerman. “This emits greenhouse gases that often seep into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.”
Reusing or recycling an item extends its lifespan. This is beneficial for the environment and the community, as many donation centers and charities find productive ways to support the local community using donated goods, said Zimmerman.
Donating items also reduces the need to craft new items, Pratt said. “If you have a blender you don’t want anymore, it’s much better to give your blender to a neighbor than your neighbor to go to Amazon and buy a new blender,” she said.
Resources for students
Students hoping for a change can sell items online through the Northwestern Facebook group Free & For Sale.
Students can also try to sell products on Facebook Marketplace, eBay, Craigslist or Mercari.
Those wishing to donate furniture and household items can drop them off or schedule a collection with the following local organizations:
Art Makers Outpost. This environmentally conscious art studio, located at 609 South Blvd, is dedicated to reusing materials to create art. Over 75% of the materials used in the studio would end up in landfills.
- what to donate: The studio accepts used art supplies, but also a variety of other supplies, including shoeboxes, tools, safety pins, clean food containers, Styrofoam wrappers, and silverware. A more detailed list can be found here.
- Getting there: Most donations are dropped off at the art studio, conveniently located just behind the South Boulevard CTA stop. Students can also email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a pickup.
Good will. Located at 1916B Dempster St., Goodwill accepts a wide variety of homewares, making it a great place to drop off any items that students were unable to sell or donate to nonprofits.
- What to donate: Goodwill is a great place to donate clothing, games, housewares, electronics, trinkets and other household items. A more detailed list can be found here.
- Getting there: Donating to Goodwill can be tricky for students who don’t have access to a car, as the nonprofit doesn’t offer pick-up. The Goodwill on Dempster Street is a 10-minute drive from the campus.
The Salvation Army. An alternative to Goodwill, students can donate items to the Salvation Army at 4335 Oakton St. in Skokie.
- What to donate: The Salvation Army accepts clothes, books, bicycles, pots and pans, furniture including beds, mattresses and tables, and some appliances including air conditioning and microwaves. A more detailed list can be found here.
- Getting there: The nearest Salvation Army is located in Skokie, about a 15-minute drive from the Northwestern campus. Pickup is currently unavailable due to a lack of drivers, but could start again in a week or two. Salvation Army officials recommend that students call (570) 371-4180 to see if pickup is available.
brown elephant. Proceeds from this thrift store go to Howard Brown Health, a health center that offers health and wellness programs to the LGBTQ+ community. The Brown Elephant has several locations in Chicago.
- What to donate: Similar to Goodwill and the Salvation Army, the Brown Elephant collects clothing, jewelry, decor, household items, and furniture, including dressers, tables, bookshelves, and sofas.
- Getting there: The nearest Brown Elephant is located at 5404 N Clark St. in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, but the store will also collect furniture and household items. Email BEdonate@HowardBrown.org to schedule a pickup.
The rebuild exchange. With one location in Chicago and one in Evanston, Rebuilding Exchange is a non-profit organization committed to sustainability and the reuse of building materials. The non-profit organization offers workshops and a training program, while operating a retail store for home goods and building materials.
- What to donate: The non-profit organization accepts appliances such as a fridge, air conditioner, electric kettle and wooden furniture such as dressers and kitchen tables in good condition.
- Getting there: Students with cars can drop off furniture at the Evanston location at 1245 Hartrey Ave., and those without can schedule a pickup on the nonprofit’s website. for pickups,
Evanston Community Refrigerators. This mutual aid project combats food insecurity by encouraging the community to donate food to four public refrigerators located in Evanston.
- What to donate: Community fridges accept food including fruit, vegetables, cheese, bread, sauces, sealed yogurt and milk, eggs and sealed milk.
- Getting there: The closest community fridge is Soul Fridge at 1601 Payne St., a five-minute drive from campus, but Sunrise Fridge at 717 Custer Ave is located two blocks from the CTA main stop, making it easy to access without a car.
With some planning, students can divert household goods and furniture from landfills. “We would love to see people send usable material to these local establishments and make it a more common practice,” said Zimmerman.