As a student worker at Yale Recycling, the agency that coordinates recycling on campus, I’ve recycled everything from solo cups to furniture. But the piano was a first.
On a damp day last October, I walked into the Jonathan Edwards College courtyard to discover an upright sitting in the gazebo. Although the piano was missing a leg, the ivory keys were all intact, the wood frame was unblemished, and, amazingly, the strings were still in tune. When I asked a master’s aide about the piano, however, she told me that custodial services was going to “throw it away” because its old owners, students in the college, no longer wanted it. A beautiful 80-year-old upright, manufactured in Connecticut with New England timber, stood ready to be chopped to pieces and thrown in a dumpster.
“We can’t let that happen!” exclaimed CJ May, my boss at Yale Recycling. At his advice, I picked up the phone and called up every school and nonprofit organization in New Haven I thought might want a piano. Finally, an administrator from New Haven Public Schools informed me that Hillhouse High School had a music room but no piano and would be happy to take mine.
Of course, transporting the instrument from JE to Hillhouse was a bit more difficult. As I braved a new set of phone calls, e-mails and logistical hurdles to ensure a safe delivery, the piano continued to collect dirt in the gazebo, and its keys grew sticky from the outdoor humidity. But after I had nearly given up on the poor upright, I received an excited call from a music teacher thanking me for the delivery of one piano to Hillhouse High. She called me “her personal hero,” and asked for an address to which she could send a thank-you note.
We’ve all been told ad nauseam to recycle more, and I’m not here to preach about landfills or aluminum cans. Rather, I want to argue that the very concept of trash is obsolete.
One man’s trash really is another man’s treasure. During this year’s Spring Salvage, student workers salvaged more than $100,000 worth of furniture, electronics and clothing discarded by Yale students. This is a fraction of what could have been saved, but, even so, our unwanted stuff filled a warehouse larger than the Lanman Center at Payne Whitney Gymnasium, and most of it was eventually donated or sold to the New Haven community. During my freshman year, my suitemates and I made more than $3,000 selling unwanted card catalogs from Sterling Memorial Library on eBay.
I’m an economics major, so I’m not going to tell you to consume less, nor am I going to claim that our society is too materialistic. Rather, I merely hope that we can grow out of the teenage mentality of letting someone else deal with it and take responsibility for reducing our own waste. In a world with infinite wealth and infinite resources, waste would not be a problem. But we don’t live in that world, and, too often, we throw away perfectly valuable things, denying them to (often poorer) people who could use them and might even pay us to do so. We waste limited resources and pass the cost of disposal to someone else. Ever wonder why Bridgeport smells? It’s the smell of Yale’s trash being incinerated.
Yale and New Haven would benefit from a streamlined program that matches Yalies’ unwanted stuff with local nonprofits and schools. Such a program already exists in SWAP (also known as Surplus: Item Adoption Agency), but it lacks visibility, so few people take advantage of it. Although Ikea would hate it, Yale students would also benefit from a resale market during Camp Yale for used furniture and appliances collected at Spring Salvage. Regardless of the program we choose to pursue, Yale has room to reuse more, donate more and make trash a relic of the 20th century.
Ultimately it will be up to us, as individuals, to save our pianos from the dumpsters of the world.
Sam Massie is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.