Friday, July 27, 2007

The Throwaway Society: Moving Week in Iowa City

The Throwaway Society: Moving Week in Iowa City

The lifestyle changes involved in growing up can make once-treasured possessions -- the beer signs, the comfy old couches, the beanbag chairs, the computer from freshman year -- seem juvenile and useless.

Combine that with the time pressure of moving, and the fact that college town leases all tend to start and end on the same day -- Aug. 1 -- and even a recycling-conscious community like Iowa City winds up with mountains of trash on the curb.

Graduates often relocate long distances with little more than a carload or what they can carry on a plane. Our mobile, drive-through, plastic-cup, single-use, throwaway society conditions us to discard what we can't carry with us. But much of what gets tossed during moving week has a useful second life, and some of our disposable habits have innocent victims.

Leanne Sommers, who works in communications and marketing for Goodwill of the Heartland, said the agency plans for a busy late July and early August. She encourages people to donate "used, but usable items," and suggests a guideline. "Think about whether you would give it to a friend."

The former drop-off bins outside Goodwill stores are now gone because too many unusable items were left and Goodwill was stuck with the disposal tab.  Donations now have to be made during store hours, which have expanded. "Every dollar we have to spend is less for us to put toward our mission," said Sommers, adding that the mission is to provide jobs and training for persons with disabilities and difficult circumstances.

Old computers are difficult to donate, discard or sell, but Goodwill has a partner in Fostering Technology, a project started by Dave and Sara Schwindt. Dave is an Iowa City police officer who specializes in computer crimes; Sara is a Cedar Rapids middle school teacher. Dave fixes and upgrades the computers, while Sara processes the applications. Full-time students 18 and under are eligible for computers said Dave Schwindt, who has donated about 40 computers to children since the project started last year.

This month, Fostering Technology earned Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher status, which allows the nonprofit to buy licenses for Windows XP and Microsoft Office for $5 each, as opposed to the commercial price of hundreds of dollars. "The nearest computer recycler is in Walford, and they charge $20 or $30 to recycle a monitor," said Dave Schwindt. "We're asking folks when they drop off a computer to consider donating just $10, which will pay for an operating system and Office suite."

Dave Schwindt said Goodwill has made his job easier by donating space. "I used to have to make appointments with people, but now you can just drop computers off at Goodwill during regular hours." He's looking for Pentium III or better computers, and monitors that are at least 17 inches for CRTs or 15-inch flat screens. "People are so generous with donating fantastic systems. But we get a lot of junk, too."

The throwaway attitude extends to the kitchen cupboard. "Many of our clients see food and other usable items thrown away," said Dayna Ballantyne, food bank director of the Johnson County Crisis Center. The center encourages donations of unopened food and cleaning items. "There's definitely the potential to increase donations at this time of year," said Ballantyne. "Towels and linens and curtains -- so many of our families do without so much."

Sadly, the throwaway society has some innocent victims.

The Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center gets a big influx of unwanted pets as leases expire and people move to new places that don't allow pets. "Usually a week before and a week after moving day, we get animals dropped off outside in carriers," said animal control officer Chris Whitmore. "They get dropped off anonymously, but they've been in a house; you can tell."

Most of the pets abandoned at the shelter are cats. "People try harder to find a home for a dog," said Whitmore.

The problem is mainly with people who have been less than responsible about adopting a pet, Whitmore said. "People think, 'we can have the cat now.' Then they move, but they don't think twice about the poor cat. It's really frustrating."

June, July and August are typically the months that see the most solid waste deposited in the landfill. In August 2006, more than 12,000 tons of solid waste were deposited in the Iowa City landfill, 1,600 tons more than an average month.

Jennifer Jordan, landfill recycling coordinator for the city of Iowa City hopes to reduce that with a citywide recycling event called "Rummage in the Ramp. The event encourages renters to donate -- rather than dump -- their usable furniture and household items. Donated items will be sold to the public, and proceeds will be divided among several local nonprofit organizations.

"Many items that end up at the landfill are still usable and viable, so we're organizing this event as a means to recycle these resources by putting them into the hands of people in the community who need or want them," Jordan said. "Everybody wins - renters get rid of items they no longer need, people who want the items can buy them at low cost, the volume of trash headed to the landfill is reduced, and local nonprofit organizations benefit from the sales."

The cost of cleaning up curbside piles is passed on, Jordan said. "The city bills the landlords. Ultimately, they either pass that on to the tenants or eat the cost."

Iowa City also has a more permanent opportunity for people wishing to donate items. The Furniture Project provides good used furniture to local households in need at no cost. Drop-off is by appointment, and the project offers limited pickup.  Bill Hardy of the Furniture Project said the most-needed items are kitchen tables and chairs, dressers and beds.

Some people try to make money off their old stuff at rummage sales. But surprisingly, moving week is a slow one for the Saturday bargain-hunting crowd. "We have about 20 ads running this weekend," said Katy Kubera of the Iowa City Press-Citizen's classified department. "Typically it's more like 30 or 40. Usually, June and July are huge."

Less formally, there's the phenomenon of "curb shopping," individuals driving around the campus neighborhood and scavenging the piles. Sometimes FREE signs decorate the piles. Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsey says in most cases, curb shopping is legal. "As long as the person abandoning the property sets it legally on the curb, once property is abandoned it can be taken," he said, adding that most court rulings on abandoned property are from drug search cases. Dumpster divers, however, should try to be considerate when they're scavenging on private property, Kelsey said. Some landlords have complained that scavengers leave a mess or don't place trash back in the dumpster. Still, he says, most property owners are happy to see the trash go for free.

"Personally, I don't care if someone's taking something, or even if they sell it at a flea market," he said. "If it's not going to the landfill, and someone else can use it, that's great."

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