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Cleaning up the mess: How one local organization turns student trash into community treasure

Volunteers load donated items into the back of semi trucks before they are brought to partner organizations. Photo provided by Rob Abowitz
Volunteers load donated items into the back of semi trucks before they are brought to partner organizations. Photo provided by Rob Abowitz

At the end of the spring semester, Miami University students begin the mass migration from campus to their homes all around the country and even the world for summer. A byproduct of the end of the academic year is more than just empty dorms and off-campus housing: students also leave tons of “garbage” back in Oxford. 

Not all of the waste left behind is truly garbage. From perfectly functioning furniture lining the streets off campus to unopened food tossed into dormitory dumpsters, each year many items could be given a second life. 

Working to combat this problem is ShareFest, a local non-profit organization that offers drop-off locations for unwanted student items and works with partners to deliver the items to those in need in the Oxford community. Since its creation in 2005, volunteers with ShareFest have assisted in diverting hundreds of tons of waste from landfills. Rob Abowitz, the associate director of residence life and a board member of ShareFest, has been involved all 19 years of its existence and has seen firsthand the non-profit organization’s impact on the community.

“Last year we diverted over 70 tons of materials [from landfills],” Abowitz said. “To put that another way, imagine a 53-foot trailer [truck] that you see on the highway. We filled five of them, floor to ceiling.” 

The total tonnage of items collected and the number of drop-off locations steadily increased pre-pandemic, but Abowitz does not view an ever-increasing amount of waste diverted from the landfill as the end goal of ShareFest. Although he is happy that ShareFest can provide this service for students, the amount of unwanted items left behind can still be viewed as a problem. 

“The goal would be for students to just buy less stuff they don’t need or to pass it on to other students who are going to need it next year,” Abowitz said. “... It would be nice to see the numbers go down and to see the trash piles and the dumpster piles go down. That would be the ultimate goal.”

On the other hand, ShareFest’s role does not stop at keeping waste out of the landfill. By taking still usable food, clothing, furniture and household items they can bring them to the community. Beginning this year, they will also be accepting mattresses in good condition. 

A pile of donated items in a residence hall. Photo provided by Rob Abowitz

In Oxford, 46% of the population lives below the poverty line and as of 2019 over 45,000 people face food insecurity in Butler County. ShareFest partners with local businesses and organizations such as Goodwill, the Talawanda Oxford Pantry and Social Services and the Open Hands Food Pantry in Hamilton to take the items from Miami’s students and bring them to Oxford residents in need. 

The process of finding organizations is handled by ShareFest volunteers. Sam Perry, the city of Oxford’s community development director and member of the ShareFest board, explains that they ensure partner organizations are truly giving the collected items to those in need. 

“There is a process where it's kind of like dating in a way,” Perry said. “Where it's like, are we a good fit? What are you doing with the items? And are you truly a nonprofit?” 

Beyond the environmental and social aspects of collecting and donating unwanted items, Perry sees ShareFest as a way to clean up Oxford. He sees the piles of trash that end up on curbs during move-out as a bad image for Oxford and is happy to see that those piles have gone down.

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“When people are coming to graduation, that image of a community that throws things away and is wasteful is not the kind of image we want to present ourselves to the rest of the world,” Perry said. 

Abowitz and Perry believe the program has been incredibly successful, with student and community engagement increasing significantly since it first began. He also revealed that other universities and small towns have modeled programs after ShareFest. Moreover, he hopes that when students donate their unwanted items, they may start to question their consumption habits and look into reducing what they buy as well as increasing what they donate.

“It’s a reminder that wherever they live, if they live in Chicago or if they’re home to rural Indiana, there are people who are in need around them and they should do what they can to help,” Abowitz said. 

This year, ShareFest will be offering drop-off locations at every residence hall, some beginning as early as May 6 and all going through May 13 at the latest. Students can bring unwanted items to the designated location and volunteers will come through and collect them when students leave. 

For off-campus students, ShareFest will be opening up a drop-off location at the Chestnut Fields Parking Lot beginning Thursday, May 16 until Tuesday, May 21. According to their website, some off-campus apartment complexes will offer designated donation locations, but ShareFest will not be doing any scheduled off-campus pickups.