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On evenings before trash collection, recent Northwestern University graduates Conor Metz and Geena Vetula go on “dumpster diving dates” in hopes of finding furniture for the Chicago apartment they’re moving into next month.

With leases ending and Northwestern students moving out, discarded home 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 more expensive apartment buildings. 

A chair awaits trash collection on Foster Street. Credit: Adina Keeling

“I feel like there’s a connotation that things you dumpster dive are dirty or broken, but they’re all perfectly good,” said Metz. “We got so much furniture through dumpster diving.”

Some of their most impressive finds include a desk, an air purifier, a chair, a coffee table, several large fake plants and a lamp, all of which they are bringing to their new apartment. Vetula said many Evanston dumpsters boast these kinds of finds around the end of the school year.

Summer means full dumpsters

City data confirms that trash bins are particularly stuffed this time of year.

City staff keep a tally of all the apartment buildings and condos with overflowing trash containers. In 2021, the city noted about 30 overflowing bins per month in the winter. The number jumped to 80 in the summer months. 

Part of a bed frame emerges from a recycling bin. Credit: Adina Keeling

“There is a tangible trend that we see when we anticipate move-in and move-out,” said Brian Zimmerman, Solid Waste Coordinator for the City of Evanston. The city typically notes an increase in overflowing dumpsters between May and October, he said. 

When trash bins overflow, or when furniture is left on the curb as trash, the city sends workers on a designated route to collect the bulk garbage, said Zimmerman. “It’s an increase of service,” he added.

Salvage, sell and donate

But students who know they’re moving out soon could take more time to make arrangements for used furniture and home goods, said Zimmerman. 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 convenience over planning, but this isn’t limited just to the student community. 

“I understand why a lot of our bins and dumpsters are getting filled with college student move-out belongings,” Pratt said, “but I think it’s reflective of our culture as a society and how we don’t always take the time to dispose of those items thoughtfully.”

Pratt said she recommends students use Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist to sell, buy or donate items.

An old couch discarded behind the Foster el station. Credit: Adina Keeling

If students do need to dispose of but goods, Zimmerman suggested they keep their property managers in the loop about move-in or move-out times, as they may be able to provide roll-out dumpsters or plan for a more accommodating trash or recycling schedule.

“I really advocate for students getting in the habit of trying to communicate with their landlords or property management groups,” he said.

Landfills: the ultimate dead end 

It takes time, energy and the extraction of raw materials to create household items, said Zimmerman. When items get tossed in the trash, they end up in a “complex, elaborate hole in the ground,” he added, so they should be used as long as possible.  

Wasteful behavior also contributes to climate change. “Material breaks down in the landfill from compaction or just decomposition,” Zimmerman explained. “That emits greenhouse gases that are oftentimes seeping into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change.”

Reusing or recycling an item extends its life. This is beneficial to the environment as well as the community, since a lot of donation centers and charitable organizations find productive ways to support the local community using donated goods, said Zimmerman. 

Donating items also reduces the need to create new items, said Pratt. “If you have a blender that you don’t want anymore, it’s so much better to give your blender to a neighbor than it is for your neighbor to go on to Amazon and buy a new blender,” she said.

Resources for students

Students looking to offload their bulk items can go to Facebook Marketplace, eBay, Craigslist or Mercari.

Those looking to donate furniture and household goods can drop them off or schedule a pickup 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. More than 75% of the materials used at the studio would otherwise end up in landfills.

  • What to donate: The studio accepts used art supplies, but also a variety of other materials including shoe boxes, tools, pins, clean food containers, packing styrofoam and silverware. A more detailed list can be found here
  • Getting there: Most donations are dropped off at the art studio, which is conveniently located just behind the South Boulevard CTA station. Students can also email info@artmakersoutpost.com to arrange a pick-up. 

Goodwill. Located at 1916B Dempster St. in the Evanston Plaza, Goodwill accepts a wide variety of home goods, making it a great place to drop off all items that students fail to sell or donate to the nonprofits.  

  • What to donate: Goodwill accepts used clothing, games, housewares, electronics, knickknacks 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 does not offer pick-ups. 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 clothing, books, bikes, pots and pans, furniture including beds, mattresses, desks and some appliances including air conditioners 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. Pick-up is currently unavailable, due to a shortage of drivers, but may start up again in a week or two. Salvation Army employees recommend students call (570) 371-4180 to see if pick-up is available.

Brown Elephant. Proceeds from this thrift store go to Howard Brown Health, a health care center that provides health and wellness programs to the LGBTQ+ community. The Brown Elephant has several locations across Chicago. 

  • What to donate: Similar to Goodwill and the Salvation Army, the Brown Elephant collects clothing, jewelry, decor, housewares, and furniture including dressers, desks, bookcases and sofas. 
  • Getting there: The closest Brown Elephant is located at 5404 N Clark St., in the Andersonville neighborhood in Chicago, but the shop will also pick up furniture and household items. Email BEdonate@HowardBrown.org to schedule a pickup. 

The Rebuilding Exchange. With a location in Chicago and one in Evanston, the Rebuilding Exchange is a nonprofit committed to sustainability and reusing building materials. The nonprofit offers workshops and a training program, while operating a retail store for home goods and building materials. 

  • What to donate: The nonprofit accepts appliances including mini fridges, air conditioners, electric kettles and hardwood 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.

Evanston Community Fridges. This mutual aid projects fights food insecurity by encouraging the community to donate food items to four public fridges located across Evanston. 

  • What to donate: The community fridges accept food items including fruit, vegetables, cheese, bread, sauces, unopened yogurt and milk, eggs and sealed milk. 
  • Getting there: The closest community fridge is the Soul Fridge, at 1601 Payne St., a five-minute drive from campus, but the Sunrise Fridge, at 717 Custer Ave. is located two blocks from the Main CTA station, making it easier to reach without a car.

With some planning, students can divert household goods and furniture from landfills. “We’d love to see people sending usable material to those local establishments and making it more common practice,” said Zimmerman. 

Adina Keeling

Adina Keeling is a photojournalist and reporter, covering city news, sustainability, schools, and art. She also investigates mental health systems and environmental injustices in Evanston, and puts together...

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  1. freecycle.org is another resource for giving away or receiving used (or even unused) items. This is from their home page: “We are a grassroots & entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving and getting stuff for free in their own Towns. It’s all about reuse and keeping good stuff out of landfills. Membership is free.”