The football teams start their drills. The marching bands begin marching. And, at about this time every year, college students everywhere begin making their lists: What to bring?

Will they need a fridge? A microwave? Will their sheets fit those college dorm bunks?

Not as many of them think about the end of the school year and everything they will be bringing home, taking elsewhere or throwing away.

“Everything they brought in, they had to take out,” said Roger Barr, a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Big Rapids, Mich., of students at Ferris State University in town. “A lot of them were just dumping it into these dumpsters, and it was thrown in the landfill.”

In 2004, Immanuel proposed that the university of nearly 10,000 students let church volunteers collect the clothes, toasters and unopened groceries that routinely spilled out of dumpsters each spring all over campus. University officials were game. “We said we’d be happy to collaborate with them,” said Fonda Kuzee, Ferris State’s manager of building services.

Before Immanuel’s offer to collect each year’s throwaways, the university routinely hauled in extra dumpsters each spring to handle the load from the school’s 14 residence halls. The throwaways were stunning, Kuzee said, sometimes drawing the attention of dumpster divers who learned that valuables could be found outside college dorms during finals week: mini-fridges, bicycles, computers, clothing and, of course, plenty of cases of ramen noodles.

In the first year of the “Dump & Run” program, Immanuel volunteers carried out 100 banana crates of clothing and small donations from the dorms. This year, 40 volunteers and Ferris State staff collected nearly a ton of discarded items from students, who are often happy to give them to a good cause. In record years (before the COVID-19 pandemic), nearly three tons of food, clothing and appliances made their way to Big Rapids’ food pantries and Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity clients.

“What a great ministry that is, to not have things go to waste,” said Bonnie Clark, executive director of the Manna Pantry of Big Rapids. “That it’s shared among people is wonderful.”

“What a great ministry that is, to not have things go to waste. That it’s shared among people is wonderful.”

A community favorite

The program, orchestrated every year by Barr and Immanuel’s social concerns committee, isn’t unique in college towns. In Illinois the annual Dump & Run sponsored by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and neighboring University YMCA has kept tons of items out of landfills and redistributed them to charities for 20 years. As at many other colleges large and small, items collected on campus each spring are sorted, tagged and then made available an inexpensive rate to others each fall.

The effort there, though immense, is a “community favorite,” among volunteers, said Ann Rasmus, associate director of University YMCA and a member of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Champaign.

“It’s the biggest garage sale in town,” Rasmus said. Word has spread to other universities in the Big Ten athletic conference; Rasmus said many have inquired about Dump & Run and then “run with it” on their own campuses.

Though the popular name of this effective and growing recycling program paints an image of college students eager to dump their dorm leftovers each spring and run for home (or elsewhere), such a stereotype may not be accurate.

“It amazed me that the students put their clothing in clean,” said Leah Monger, a member of the social concerns committee. “I’d say almost 96% of clothing that we received had been through the washing and drying process.” Gen Zers, she suggested, know a worthy cause when they see it.

Michael Weaver
Michael Weaver is a past newspaper reporter, a dad to two teenagers, and a Lutheran pastor in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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