The heaps of chairs, futons, bookcases and appliances left behind by departing students is an annual spring eyesore at the University of Minnesota.

But this year, the student throwaways are not all headed for the landfill or outside charity. Under a new program aimed at turning trash into treasure, the castaways are being hauled to the U’s ReUse Center, where students can “shop” for free stuff this week.

“I don’t even know where to start, there’s so much stuff,” said student Lexis Manzara, surveying the furniture, electronics, coffee makers, clothing and more at the free store, which opened Tuesday. “I just called my roommates and said, ‘You need to be here!’ ”

Manzara was among the first students to take advantage of the pilot project, “Pack and Give Back.” It was modeled after similar efforts at Michigan State University and Washington State University, said project director Stacey White.

Phase One began May 8, when trucks began hauling student throwaways to the ReUse Center. They also picked up clothing, school supplies, shampoos and even canned goods that students dropped off at collection bins in their residence halls.

To date, they’ve retrieved 43,000 pounds, “and the drivers are still making pickups,” said White.

ReUse Center staff spent a week sorting through the stuff and creating the free store, which will be open only through Friday of this week. It then closes for the summer.

In the past, the furniture would have been donated to an outside charity, said White. But given tight student budgets and similar student needs, why not keep the goods recirculating on campus? organizers asked.

“You go to Target and you buy the same toaster, the same refrigerator, the same TV, the same stuff every year,” said White. “How can we reuse within the university first before we buy new? This is one way to do that.”

Chairs, chewy bars

Manzara, who graduated from the U this month, arrived about 11:30 a.m. with her friend Joe Widing. She made a beeline to the electronics section, picking up some pink headphones for her iPod and an iPod docking station. A rare find.

She headed to the clothing section, claimed a wool jacket and then strolled to the grocery shelf. Rummaging through a basket of chewy bars, she scored a half-dozen gluten-free chocolate chip bars.

“Normally these are really expensive!” she said.

Widing, meanwhile, grabbed some mac and cheese and a box of oatmeal. Hesitating at first, he opened his backpack and shoved them in.

“I guess this wouldn’t be stealing,” he said with a smile.

Widing also collected hangers, a water bottle, winter hats and mittens before heading to work at the recycling center across the street.

In fact, Widing said, he learned about the free store from his boss at work.

“This is really cool,” he said. “More people should know about this.”

Slow start to the week

On this first day of business, Widing was among a trickle of students walking through the door. A small “rush” of students was waiting when the doors opened at 8 a.m., grabbing some of the bigger household items, said staff. But the rest of the day was slow.

White attributed the slow start to it being a new program. Plus, it’s a bit offseason. Students generally unload goods in spring, and stock up in the fall. She has posted information on Facebook and other social networking sites, hoping to bring in more students.

The pickups will continue this week, when the Salvation Army joins in. The Army is deploying its trucks to the Marcy Holmes and Southeast Como neighborhoods — which are participating in the program — to pick up furniture left by students and others, said White.

The trucks will arrive the day before city trash pickup days, she said.

The project is a collaboration between the two neighborhoods, the city and Hennepin County, said White.

“This is a city-county-university effort to divert waste from the landfill,” she said.

Likewise, U students in the “Social Change Management Project” joined in, conducting research into similar projects at universities around the country.

One thing they learned is that other universities had an educational component, said White. That is something the U will look at in the future.

In the meantime, students will be able to shop through Friday at the ReUse Center at 883 29th Av. SE. Then the goods are stored until next September — when the real demand for sofas and chairs begins.