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Program Puts Student Discards to Use

It’s a yearly rite of spring on the Smith campus: as hundreds of students scramble to clean every trace of their existence from their rooms in the college’s 35 residences in preparation for their quick departure at the end of the school year, several tons of discarded clothing and shoes are left behind.

Thanks to a program coordinated by personnel in the Physical Plant and Residence and Dining Services, that discarded clothing—thousands of dollars worth—is now put to good use, donated to homeless shelters and people in need.

This year, Smith will collect between five and six tons worth of clothing, estimates Robert Dombkowski, supervisor of grounds for the Physical Plant, who oversees the pickup of the clothing. “It’s hard to believe how many clothes are left behind,” he says. One year, his department collected nine tons of clothing. “It’s all really good stuff, too. There’s nothing in there that’s not wearable.”

In the weeks following Commencement, Dombkowski’s crew retrieves the clothing, which is bagged by custodians in each house, and places it in large shipping containers. The clothing is then hauled away by the Institution Recycling Network (IRN), a 4-year-old cooperative organization based in Concord, New Hampshire, of New England institutions that generate recyclable materials on a large scale. The network aims to enhance its members’ ability to market and purchase recyclables.

The IRN will distribute the clothes to homeless shelters throughout New Hampshire.

Once upon a time, cast off student clothing would have gone straight to the landfill, adding substantially to the college’s waste tonnage—not to mention the cost of discarding the waste. Back then, every spring near the school year’s end, “Our waste numbers would go right through the roof,” says Dombkowski. “There was a lot of material going to waste.”

Each spring for the past four years, since the clothing recycling program began, students have been instructed to discard their unwanted clothing in common collection areas in each house, where it can be bagged and collected. As a result, the college’s percentage of landfill tonnage has been reduced, and clothing items are no longer thrown away.

New to the recycling program this year is an initiative to also include students’ unwanted athletic shoes in the discard piles. The IRN this year began a new endeavor to work with its members in recycling more than 50,000 pairs of athletic shoes through the Reuse-A-Shoe program run by Nike Inc. Nike plans to recycle the shoes into material for sports surfaces. About 30 organizations are participating nationwide. Smith joins Boston University, Boston College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Northeastern University in contributing.

Also new to Smith’s clothing recycling program is a collaboration with Gaia, the student environmental organization, which collected discarded student items to sell at a tag sale in the fall.

The clothing recycling program is only one aspect of the college’s broad effort to encourage environmental responsibility and sustainability throughout its departments and populations. Through various campus programs, Smith also recycles nearly 100 tons of paper each year, as well as many tons of plastic items; gives discarded furniture—including more than 100 mattresses each year—to nonprofit agencies such as Hospice and homeless facilities; and converts several tons of food waste into compost.

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