With their husbands in school, Grace Huang and Lori Luo don't have a lot of money to spend furnishing their University of Minnesota apartments. But there they were, struggling to carry a 45-piece china set, some crystal bowls, a photo album and a candelabra to student family housing. The price tag? There wasn't one.
The duo went shopping at the neighborhood free store, a pilot program developed by the Southeast Como Improvement Association in an effort to keep unwanted furniture and household goods left behind by students off lawns and out of trash bins.
Piles of furniture turned garbage dot the streets of college towns around the country come moving day. With money tight and going green all the rage, college campuses and neighborhood groups are working to curb the problem. Some schools, such as West Virginia University, collect items for a massive rummage sale with the proceeds going to charity. Others donate unwanted goods directly to charity. Minnesota State University works with a local thrift store.
A neighborhood group bordering the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus created the MIMO free store (MIMO stands for "move-in, move-out") to keep the curbs clean and appeal to budget-conscious students.
With college debt at a record high and scant job opportunities for graduates, one would think students would hang onto their big-ticket possessions. But that's not always a possibility, Justin Eibenholzl, MIMO's coordinator, explained.
Maybe the truck that the renters planned to borrow falls through and they can only move what fits in their car. The friend who claimed to want their desk never shows. A roommate with a nicer microwave moves in. Or a lamp doesn't fit with the new design scheme. Whatever the reason, "the end result is it ends up curbside," he said.
The free-store idea is supported by a $25,000 grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, plus funding from the McKnight Foundation and the Southeast neighborhood group.
"Since about 40 percent of our nation's greenhouse gases are tied to producing products, it's really important that we get as much use out of the natural resources in those products as possible," waste-prevention specialist Madalyn Cioci said. It also keeps furniture out of city incinerators and is a fairly straightforward model to replicate.
This spring's effort kept 4,400 pounds of stuff out of landfills. For this round, volunteers picked up about 1,500 pounds of desks, lamps and coffee tables last Monday; hundreds of pounds more have been dropped off during store hours.
Without the free store, Anna Fowler isn't sure what she would have done with the futon that she had inherited with her apartment but her landlord now insisted she discard. But before she even pulled away from the ReUse warehouse loading dock, her problem morphed into a solution for an international graduate student, who'd already called dibs on the black frame and mattress. Other items, like the Bing Crosby Christmas LP, were still there for the taking.
Although the free store is designed for students and households in the neighborhoods bordering the university, the tough economic times have brought some shoppers from afar this year.