The mass exodus of college students in mid-May manifests itself in many ways: Traffic abruptly eases, the regulars get their stools back at the bars and, for a few weeks anyway, Missoula’s garbage cans overrunneth with students’ outcasts.
Go dumpster diving around this time of year and you’ll find what’s left over after they pick up their lives mid-stride and leave town with a few treasured items. You’ll uncover abandoned hobbies, not-so-necessary-after-all necessities and cast-aside keepsakes that didn’t fit in the back of the Subaru. And you’ll find whole forests in the form of notebooks and discarded handouts, stacks of textbooks with lessons learned and unlearned, and achievement certificates that have lost their luster.
Sunday morning after graduation, the streets were empty as students slept off their hangovers. A handful of parents helped carry out last-minute valuables and wedged them into the backseat for the drive home. They looked on, slightly appalled, as we rooted around dumpsters in University-area student housing, salvaging the weird and the possibly useful, the brand-new and the past-due. And yes, our on-the-ground survey yielded some interesting results.
Students are known to be a bit lazy from time to time, and the dumpster contents reflect that many of them hold little interest in the households they built piece by piece during their college years. We discovered most everything you’d find in a crash pad—stuff for cooking, cleaning, decoration and personal use—only all jumbled together, and smelly. Though many remnants make their way to thrift stores—Goodwill says it sees about a 40-percent jump in donations this time of year and the Salvation Army, too, takes in more than usual—it’s clear that many students don’t bother to carry their scraps beyond their alleys. That must be why we found a food dehydrator with unidentifiable goo still in it and bottles of cleaning supplies missing only the few squirts deemed necessary to satisfy landlord inspections. Outside one of the dorms we found a sagging armchair with the remote control still nestled in the cushion, waiting patiently for the evening news.
The little things that make an apartment livable during the school year get abandoned, too. A white needlepoint hanging with 10 “Rules for a Happy Home” sat stained in the piles. The Christmas tree stand and a stocking with a still-wrapped candy cane didn’t make the cut either. And who needs a first-aid kit once they’ve gotten a bachelor’s degree anyway? Ditto the iron.
Frenchy Michaud, assistant director for maintenance at UM, says garbage trucks came to campus twice a day during the last four days of school. Boxes destined for thrift stores were placed in dorms to encourage students to recycle instead of chucking it all. Still, he says, plenty is left behind. The more than 30 bikes typically abandoned at school year’s end will be auctioned in the fall. Massive populations of dorm refrigerators and shoes are left behind. By the time we hit campus, though, most of the big stuff had already been hauled away. We were left to imagine what we had missed, the piles of treasure and junk that had already hit the landfill.
Oh, but what we did find. All things school-related were ditched as soon as classes were no longer a part of reality. A brand-new backpack with an unopened pack of Sharpie pens and plenty of other school paraphernalia was nestled among the other cast-offs. A graphing calculator—those things are expensive!—even had its cover on, though the batteries were dead. The rest of the calculators we found weren’t as fancy, but they all worked.
It was entertaining, if not a little odd, to see that the trash bins behind the sororities and fraternities reflected standard stereotypes about our Greek brothers and sisters. Dumpsters at the frats were filled mostly with beer cans and pizza boxes—there were very few other items, and nothing we wanted to touch, much less resurrect. We discovered that sorority dumpsters are the place where untold thousands of Q-tips go to die, that it is possible to wear out curling irons, and that painful-looking high heels are better left to the buzzards. We were asked to leave one sorority dumpster—“Private property,” an apparent parent scolded from the balcony.
Back in non-Greek territory, we were surprised to find a freshly dumped bag full of still-frozen meat—a massive bag of chicken wings, some steaks, prepackaged lasagna. We hauled one keg out in hopes of exchanging it for cash at a grocery store and left its badly dented brother where it lay. A washer and dryer set looked like it might work, but it wasn’t promising enough to break our backs hauling it home. In most dumpsters we found the universal broken lamp—you know, that white standing floor light that invariably falls apart? We found a fresh-looking bottle of Liquid Skin, but we’re still weighing whether to use it. We were amazed by the number of small garbage cans we found within the big dumpsters, like Russian nesting dolls, but not as cute. And we came away with one disgusting handful of unidentifiable wetness.
Along the way we found many an item that radiated some untold story, but the hands-down winner was the posterboard we found on our last dive. “Happy Birthday!” was splashed across the center in bubbly, colorful script, but to either side were notes written to a roommate, requesting an end to the living-room orgies. The tone was simultaneously disgusted and nostalgic: “Don’t ever forget the gang-bang memories. Please go clean the toilet so I don’t get the HIV,” it concluded.
We puzzled over it for a minute, hoping maybe it was a joke, and then our curiosity abruptly dropped off. The message was too icky to wonder at for long, and we scooted back to the office to scrub our hands, having had enough of sorting through the stuff—frozen meat, memories—that people choose to leave behind.