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Monday, September 26, 2022

Furniture excess contributes to landfill waste, students weigh cheap, eco-friendly alternatives

Thrift stores, reuse communities and city government step in

<p>Furniture being thrown out at the Niche apartment complex during remodeling Aug. 18, 2022. </p>

Furniture being thrown out at the Niche apartment complex during remodeling Aug. 18, 2022.

Every summer, students moving out cram their cars with valuables, forcing them to play Tetris with their desks, chairs and mattresses. Whatever doesn’t fit has to stay. 

Sometimes, the furniture stands patiently by a dumpster, waiting to be picked up and transported to a landfill. Other times, the furniture sits comfortably in an air-conditioned thrift store, safe from wood-rot and curious critters.

Many movers aren’t aware of the environmental impact their choice to throw out furniture has, with bulk items packing landfills. In a city with a frequent base of students moving in and out of furnished and unfurnished apartments, strategies like furniture recycling and thrifting have become popular Gainesville options.   

Alyssa Soejima, a 21-year-old UF education sciences senior, was in Gainesville during quarantine when she passed by a turquoise glass cabinet by the Beaty Towers dumpster. It was just one of the hundreds of pieces of furniture thrown out by students in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.   

“Oh my god, that’s so cute,” she said to her roommate. “Let’s steal it.”

This wasn’t the first or the last time the dumpsters overflowed with discarded furniture. 

In 2019, furniture made up an estimated 2% of waste, by weight, sent to the landfill, according to a projection by a 2020-2021 Alachua County Waste Composition Study. The study also estimates that for every ton of new furniture purchased that year, Alachua landfilled one-third of the weight in old discarded furniture, said Dr. Timothy G. Townsend, the study’s principal investigator.

“There’s a lot of bulky items such as furniture that are currently discarded,” he said.  “And if there was a way to reuse those and offset the purchase of new furniture and the making of new furniture, that is a significant savings and benefit to the environment.”

The report makes several recommendations to reduce waste’s greenhouse gas emissions and energy use footprints. It suggests banning junk-mail, mandating food donations, mandating corrugated paper take-backs and instituting a building deconstruction mandate to recycle 70% of deconstructed buildings. 

In the late summer months, the city of Gainesville sees about a 10% to 15% increase in thrown-out couches, said Jeffery Klugh, Alachua County waste collection and alternatives assistant manager.

Although couches don’t weigh much, they take up a lot of space. When you’re transporting around 900 tons of garbage out of the county per day, space matters, Klugh said. This can result in an increased number of trips waste management has to make to the landfill. 

“We do see an increase in tonnages during move-outs and move-in,” Klugh said. “But it's really the volume increase that kind of messes with our operation.”

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Currently, there’s no citywide furniture recycling program for old furniture, and none of the waste collected is allowed to be used for waste energy, he said.

This June, however, the City Commission passed a new solid-waste ordinance requiring multi-family residential properties to submit a “Reuse Plan,” notifying residents of donation collection sites one month ahead of the move-out date. The plan aims to divert household goods, furniture and cardboard electronics from landfills.

The ordinance will become effective in 2023 for residential buildings with more than 200 units and 2025 for properties with more than 50 units.

This is exactly the kind of service Daryn Pearlstein, 23-year-old UF psychology graduate, wants from the city. The lack of an organized bulk pickup service during the summer months worries Pearlstein for the sake of students and maintenance people who have to deal with it all.

For Pearlstein and her boyfriend, a 23-year-old UF history student Alessandro Cepero, the rising popularity of second-hand furniture can be attributed to its unique aesthetics, finances and its environmental impact. 

Although furniture from big retail stores like IKEA might be appealing to Cepero, mid-century pieces have brought scratches, stories and scuffs from a different time into his home.

“You also don't get the quality,” Cepero said. “When you're talking about mid-century, a lot of things are handcrafted. A lot of things are made with these expensive, heavier materials.”

On an individual level, reusing furniture is a popular option to reduce negative environmental impact. Second-hand stores like Reuse Planet and the Habitat for Humanity ReStore thrive around the city. These stores divert hundreds of thousands of pounds of waste from landfills and nature corridors and provide cheaper alternatives to students, as well as low-income families. 

ReStore, located on 2301 NW 6th St., is an extension of Habitat for Humanity, an organization that provides families with affordable housing. It’s a place where families can buy modestly priced furniture, store director Gerald Garza said.

At ReStore, furniture that needs a touch-up will be fixed up, and what can't be sold will be scrapped for metal or parts to be used for arts and crafts projects, he said.     

Aside from a visit to the thrift store, there are other options for someone looking to reduce their waste.

Angela Cloonan, a 22-year-old UF entrepreneurship master’s student, is a member of the Buy Nothing Project. Several Buy Nothing Facebook pages in Gainesville are dedicated to different neighborhoods, and members can post gifts or asks. Everything is free. 

Although she wouldn’t call herself a minimalist, Cloonan said she loves getting rid of stuff.

“My brain is almost wired in the sense where I'm like, ‘Oh, if I get rid of things, I can get more things,’” she said. “It's so crazy, but I just really like owning things.”

In the midst of the desperation to get their cars packed before moving out, students will choose not to sort through their belongings and dump everything, she said. For Cloonan, this is an indication people own too much in excess but don’t realize it until it’s too late.

“I do think that individual action is important,” Cloonan said. “Even though you're not immediately seeing your impact, it also creates a sense of accountability and sharing with others.”

Contact Fernando at ffigueroa@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @fernfigue.

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Fernando Figueroa

Fern is a junior journalism and sustainability studies major. He previously reported for the University and Metro desks. Now, he covers the environmental beat on the Enterprise desk. When he's not reporting, you can find him dancing to house music at Barcade or taking photos on his Olympus.


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