Special edition! The McGill move-out day examined

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I didn’t work the end of April for the first time in a few years. I previously held a regular temp job – basically doing small moves in the McGill area – that used to keep me very busy the second half of April and first few days of May.

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The job helped me make a bit of extra cash, but it also meant I didn’t get to fully experience the phenomenon that is the McGill University move-out day. I’m glad I was able to go this time around, if only so that I could capture the experience as best I could and share it with you!

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Many students move away from the Milton Parc area (more commonly known as the McGill ghetto) when school ends for the summer. Some go back home for the summer, while others just upgrade to nicer apartments. Regardless of why they leave, the exodus results in massive amounts of trash.

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From what I hear this situation isn’t unique to McGill, and occurs in university towns all across the world.

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Move-out day one the most well-known trash days in Montreal, second only to Moving Day (July 1st) which often receives international media attention. There’s a lot more competition due to the day’s somewhat underground fame, and various types of scavengers descend upon the area.

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I saw a couple people, including a woman probably in her 60s, picking for cans. One man who I remembered from previous years walked around with a bag that held some wires, a modem, and a few other things I couldn’t make out. He asked what I was looking for. “I don’t know… iPhones!” I said after thinking about it for a second. He was looking for electronics.

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There was a guy a few years younger than me stuffing things in a large hiking backpack. Another person peered at the huge trash piles while carrying a painting and a little Ikea push cart. I saw someone else put a bag of clothes in their car.

A man came by and threw this wheelchair into his pickup truck not long after I snapped this photo. I imagine he wanted it mostly for the scrap metal. I saw another scrap metal collector working the area with both a pickup and a trailer.

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I also saw my first wasp of the year. It’s a scavenger too, I guess. Squirrels, cats, and raccoons (closer to the mountain) also enjoy the spoils.

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While there’s definitely a lot of good stuff to be found, I personally don’t take move-out day too seriously. The increased competition makes it harder to find anything that’s really worth the effort, and it’s definitely true that a lot of what the students throw out is pure junk. From a business perspective, I’m better off continuing on my usual routes. Lots of other people move at the end of the month too.

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Still, move-out day is a fun experience. There’s just so much going on. There are parents packing their cars full of their kids things, students walking pieces of furniture down the street, moving companies doing their thing, janitors and other workers trying their best to maintain order, and scavengers searching for whatever it is they’re most keen for. The ghetto becomes uniquely vibrant, and you kind of feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself. It’s nice too that garbage picking is totally normalized, if only for a day or two.

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The garbage truck apparently got a flat tire, which I’d never seen before. That almost certainly contributed to the high level of chaos, but likely helped the scavengers save more than they would have been able to otherwise.

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Move-out day has its own particular brand of garbage. It’s similar to the kind of stuff people leave behind when they move far away, but different because there are thousands of almost exclusively 18-20 years old students moving at the same time. There’s a lot of Ikea furniture, as you can imagine. So many bags are filled with whatever was left in the refrigerator and pantry.

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Binders make a regular appearance …

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… as do course packs and books. The concept of recycling seems to take a back seat on move-out day, though I can’t say this tendency is unique to McGill students.

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Many bags are stuffed with seemingly perfectly fine clothes …

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… and kitchenwares.

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There’s also a lot of random stuff, like this framed Pirates of the Carribean themed print …

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… a larged stuffed fish …

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… and a shopping cart adorned with tinsel garland.

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I didn’t have high expectations going into the day. I hoped to find a little silver or gold in jewellery form, maybe some loose change or a still valuable textbook. If I was lucky, maybe I’d come across a relatively modern laptop or iPhone (even broken would be fine!). I wasn’t too worried about bringing home a big haul, though. I ended up saving two pairs of pants (the corduroys fit nicely, the others need hemming) …

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… a few books …

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… a container full of decent spices …

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… some loose change, an iPhone cable, and a dumb pin that states “I heart buns.” I actually needed an iPhone cable, so that was handy.

A lot of useful things definitely met their demise in the ghetto the past few days in spite of the many scavengers working the streets. Binders, for example aren’t really valuable enough to take on a large scale, but are often in good enough condition to use again. The same is true for mugs, plates, other kitchenwares, and clothes. Leftover food, such as a half-full bag of macaroni noodles (a common sight in the ghetto) or half-used spices are still quite safe for consumption but not worth scavenging if you’re hoping for a bigger score.

I know McGill has some programs, particularly in their dorms that encourage students to donate what they can. However, this doesn’t apply to people living outside of dorms, and from experience I can say that a lot of good stuff still gets tossed at dorms as well. Is there a way we can get students to better reduce, reuse, and recycle? If you’re a student, does your university have a successful strategy for tackling this issue? I’d be interested in hearing your ideas!

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30 thoughts on “Special edition! The McGill move-out day examined

  1. Nancy says:

    Sad that so much can’t or won’t be recycled. There’s lots of nice furniture that could help a lot of families. Salvation Army will pick up decent furniture.

  2. Woot! A bonus post! And a very enlightening, one, and well crafted. Excellent pics too. Thankee!

  3. Fonda Rush says:

    It’s easier to just shove all the stuff in garbage bags and get rid of it. It takes effort to pack up and bring stuff home or donate it or pass it on to someone who needs it. I think it would take a concerted effort to gather up what can be used again, but when everyone just wants to get the hell out, no amount of education in conserving resources is going to make them sort it all out before they go. If the city could employ some people who could sort the bags curb-side, that would probably be the only way to avoid everything going to the dump. But, it takes time and money. Once the landfills are in danger of being full will measures be taken to lift the burden. But, they don’t realize that the time is now, so the landfills will be filled at a slower rate. They just don’t get it.

  4. Galyn says:

    Personally, I’d have grabbed those spices. I cook several days a week and we never eat out- I use a lot of spices etc. The day will come when landfill owners will be mining the landfills for metals to start and go from there–they will sell the stuff out of their landfills and get the last laugh.

  5. willedare says:

    Thank you for this great post, which both sickened me (what mindless wasters we humans can be — so focused on what is easiest and most convenient) and inspired me (to know that some human beings were attempting to re-use/recycle stuff before the garbage trucks arrived. I walked through the Boston University campus recently and saw many, many signs encouraging students to take stuff to Goodwill rather than send it to a landfill. So at least there is an attempt to raise students’ consciousness and possibly influence their behavior at that institution of higher learning…

  6. I teach at McGill and am dumbfounded to learn that all of this goes to landfill. Thank you for this important post. I’ve already begun sharing it with the McGill community.

  7. One year in one of those alleys, I came upon a couple of raccoons scavenging the stuff.

    I didn’t see any this year, but for the past couple of years there have been posters up from some mcgill group wanting the junk rather than see it tossed. But it never was clear if they’d be offering it free, or hoping to sell it, to incoming students.

    What people miss is that there probably is a greater level of salvage in this Mcgill area than elsewhere. The students moving in, or moving a block away may be looking for the very stuff discarded. So there is more random “I’ll bring this desk home” than with the general public. Though, some of the students walking around with furniture are merely moving a few blocks. If there is a pile of books, that can draw a crowd. And so long s there re scavengers, it’s not really waste.

    On the other hand, when everything is in garbage bags,, that does limit participation. Boxes make it more accessible.

    It is a good place for staples, one year I couldn’t find my three-hole punch, and found for or five among the garbage. Cables like that iPod one may only be a few dollars, but often there are balls of ac adapters and cables, things that can actually be used, rather than “neat things”.

    Last year I found a bluetooth keyboard, intended for an iPad. Worked fine once I dried it properly, and it was great timing since I was waiting for the tablet I’d won in a contest.

    But there seems less electronics in recent years, especially as it becomes commonplace. I once found a laptop, but it looked like it had been thrown out a window, then run over by a car, but it’s been a few years since I’ve seen a computer. And it’s been a long time since I’ve found anything really exotic in electronics.

    It often starts earlier in April, but I can never see a pattern. Indeed, I thought of going over on Thursday, but then I missed the window before the garbage truck circulated and so didn’t bother. But I’ve been lethargic lately.

    It’s only two months to July 1st now, and there’s always lead up to that. Besides, the nice weather has arrived, and the garage sales have begun.

    Michael

  8. Matt says:

    I live in Guelph, Ontario and have found a lot of great stuff in the wake of the student move-out here. Finds this year included a digital camera, tons of kitchen stuff, space heaters, bean bag chairs, clothing, and today, a bunch of original prints and art.

    It does seem to be the same in every student town! My friends and I just do our best to normalize scavenging & get other people into it. We call this time of year “Hippie Christmas.”

  9. Shelley says:

    There is a BBC series on just now and the first episode showed the experience of bin men in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England (near where I live). Older people (like us) apparently use the recycling bin the most and my guess is that we buy less stuff and so have less packaging to deal with. Rich people throw away things like wide screen TVs! Students are the worst at recycling. The programme showed some students being ticketed by the council for excess trash outside their house around end of term. We did think that high occupancy housing like student rentals with five or six young people should possibly have more than one bin, as collection only happens fortnightly. I couldn’t tell if these young men had used their recycling bin or not… Strange, I would have predicted that youngsters had the most concern for the environment and so would be the most conscientious about recycling. Just goes to show…

  10. Fresca says:

    You probably know the blog “WASTED FOOD”?
    In case other readers are interested:
    http://www.wastedfood.com
    Blogger Jonathan Bloom writes that “Americans waste more than 40 percent of the food we produce for consumption.”

    And Canadians? I don’t know… Sounds like maybe about the same, based on college students anyway—college students do the same thing here you describe—and, hey, I did too!
    Like you, though, Bloom’s not into blaming people but in trying to help–his blog has oodles of good stuff about Food Rescue.

    Bloom also wrote a book American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It).

  11. Marci says:

    My daughter and two sons are all coming home this week from college and it is the same way here. So much furniture, food, clothing, all left out for the trash. Some recycle, and it is encouraged, but a lot of kids in that age group are just LAZY!

  12. Nancy says:

    Am I mistaken that these types of areas are more prone to bedbug infestations? I’ve never seen piles of furniture in the McGill Ghetto, aside from this time a year, but in the Concordia area (just west of it) I often see what are seemingly whole-apartments-worth piles. I always wondered why so many people were being kicked out of their apartments there… Then, I visited a school friend in that area who admitted he’d had to get rid of all his stuff once for this reason. I was thankful I didn’t have a car to scavenge some of the good furniture.

    • martng says:

      That’s true. Apartment buildings are especially prone to this type of thing. Bugs can spread between apartments, for one, and people (particularly when they’re not well-off) will scavenge infested furniture not being aware of the bedbug issue.

      Once you know what to look for, I think you can safely take furniture from the streets (after a fairly thorough look-over). You also have to vigilant about other things too. For example, I put the pants I found in the dryer (along with the bag I stored them in – the heat kills bedbugs better than anything) and inspected the books along in edges and in the pages. Better to be safe than sorry.

      On the most part, I shy away from apartment building trash unless I get a good vibe from it. Most of the times it’s just not worth the stress or effort.

      • The problem with bed bugs is that you can’t always clean things. Yes, clothing is no problem, just keep it outside until you’re ready to wash it. But mattresses and chairs and sofas can’t be thrown in the washing machine. And if you don’t get it all, cleaning some things won’t fix the problem.

        They aren’t the problem that some would make if them, except if you can’t clean things properly, they persist.

        Michael

  13. Julia says:

    I live in the McGill ghetto and am an out-of-province student.A lot of wealthy students look down on scavenging and dumpster-diving;student grants or wealthy parents bankroll their education-hence there is so much waste every year.Many students think only the poor scavenge—that those with education are too important or bright for that.Even some poor students look down on scavenging.Some students do scavenge freely though-I saw one student in the McGill Ghetto fo around with a plastic bag and take out many cans and beer bottles from several black garbage bags—I recognized him from campus.Why do young men and women not scavenge for bottles and cans more often ?Most of the bottle and can scavengers seem to be older men and women or middle-aged men and ladies.I want to see young men in their twenties collecting bottles and cans more often.I do.

    • Cans and bottles take a lot of work and little return. This is why they don’t get returned in the first place. Every time I have some to take back, I make some excuse, “I’m in a hurry, what if someone with a big bag of cans is already there?” A knapsack worth of cans will barely bring in $2.00, great if you’re desperate, but not otherwise. There are easier ways to get money.

      What doesn’t make sense is why the cans and bottles don’t land in recycling bins, though like the rest of it, there is that last minute rush to clear things out.

      Michael

      • martng says:

        I don’t even like returning my own cans, ha ha. However, several can pickers work in my part of town so they don’t last long when I leave them on the curb.

  14. I live in a college town in Georgia and it’s the same here in many ways. Students often don’t have the cars or trucks to take furniture to the thrift shops. Hopefully there are some places that will pick up but when the school year is over the students are so ready to leave they just dump stuff. I’ve found a few curb side bargains over the years, but I’m careful about what I pick up.
    (I came to visit from Eddie’s blog)

  15. Emil says:

    Books usually do not have bedbugs.I lived in a downtown apartment for 4 years and moved because bedbugs were discovered in my apartment and on my floor.I had more than 200 books and did not throw out any of the books.I moved to Montreal West and still live there happily 5 years later.I have been bedbug-free since then.My books of those days are still there with me.I did throw out my mattress,some chairs,bed frame and some furniture.But I did not junk my knick-knacks,vinyl records or other stuff.There is too much anti-bedbug hysteria.

    • martng says:

      It depends where you put your books. If you have any near your bed, they might be infested. Libraries have bed bug issues partly because people often read in bed and leave them on their nightstand. It’s good to check regardless, particularly around the edges.

    • bostonlily says:

      books absolutely have bedbugs! Bad advice! People have been known to get them from bringing home library books

  16. Jane F says:

    I did some work for a cool non-profit, PLAN: Post-Landfill Action Network (postlandfill.org), that trains student leaders to organize collections (on and off campus) during move out, sort and clean over the summer, and then sell at a yard sale during move in.

    I think it is great because it prevents waste, builds student leadership and consciousness, saves the school on disposal costs, and saves family money. It also captures an reuses a lot of low value items like binders that garbage pickers overlook.

  17. Harriet says:

    Move out day is really interesting. It is amazing how many useful things you can find on the dumpster in this period. Thanks for the interesting post! Greets!

  18. Guadalupe says:

    This is really unacceptable. It is true that many people are moving out at the same time but they leave so much trash (and good stuff).. this is not the way….

  19. bostonlily says:

    We have a massive move out week here in Boston since we have so many universities. City officials walk around placing large neon orange bedbug stickers on beds, rugs, upholstered items, etc. to warn people (trying to stop infestations). It’s not a good idea for students to dig through the trash piles and bring stuff into their apartment their moving into for this very reason. That free chair isn’t worth the hell of bedbugs, sorry.

    • martng says:

      That’s a good idea. I still think though it’s safe to take furniture if you thoroughly inspect it beforehand (I have a section about how to spot bedbugs in my resource section). However, most people don’t know how to do this, and some don’t even know what a bedbug is. It’s the ignorance of the matter that’s making bedbugs such an issue today.

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