This is the time of year students move out of their rental housing near campus and off to other locales for work, or, failing that, back home. So this is the season I sidle down alleys, raking out the remains of their nests, muttering “perfectly usable” and looking — and sounding — thoroughly odd.

“Perfectly usable!” (Set of six cheery ceramic soup bowls.)

“Perfectly usable!” (Box of No. 10 business envelopes.)

“Perfectly usable. Geez!” (Stainless steel pet food bowls, nesting glass mixing bowls, pink lace high heels size 9 never worn and a complete set of stainless steel carving knives replete with maple case.)

The detritus left as nearby students graduate and/or move (University of St. Thomas, mostly, with a smattering of University of Minnesota and Macalester College) is enormous. I am not a child of wartime or the Depression. I am a child of peace and plenty, and this offends me.

For many students in this densely student-populated neighborhood, it seems too much effort to transport these useful goods to the Goodwill drop-off center five minutes away, to the community food shelves, or to deposit them in the reuse and recycle bins set up on their respective campuses.

Judging by my finds as neighborhood garbologist over the past decades, it is also too complicated for students to sort them into the blue recycling carts next to the trash containers, those blue or dark gray ones full of holes gnawed by squirrels tunneling after pizza crusts. So they chuck everything into either container.

They jettison masses of furniture (the Ikea leather sofa in chocolate brown is a popular one), reams of printer paper, massive numbers of three-ring binders replete with pounds of pages that could be recycled, and baking dishes filled with chili, hot dish and muffins that were apparently easier to throw out than compost, wash and reuse or pass along.

Then there is clothing, including silk ties, several still with tags and, once, a new Polo zip front navy cotton sweater in just my size — thank you!

The triumph of one recent hunting season was discovering an entire set of the works of Jane Austen bound in red leather with gilt edges and Italian marble end papers in perfect and seemingly unread condition. (No, you can’t have it back, whoever you are. You clearly don’t deserve Ms. Austen in any form.) So far this year it is the screaming pink formal hat worthy of wearing to the Kentucky Derby. (It looks great on me.)

Among the predictable takeout cartons, scented candles (girls’ houses), coffeemakers, blenders, microwaves, vacuum cleaners, mops, hanging shoe bags and duvets (from an all-girl house) and not-so-lovely blankets (at an all-boy house), there have been eggs still cool in their unopened cartons, jars of condiments, canned goods including quarts of organic pasta sauce, and trailer loads of ramen noodle packets. (I toted them to the food shelf.)

Not many years ago while trolling the deep strata of dumpsters in a nearby alley, I pounced on a set of neat little wicker chairs and then, delving into a cardboard box, I spotted an Apple laptop computer.

“I know this looks eccentric, but I’m a neighbor,” I said, somewhat shamefacedly, to the young woman rounding the corner to the dumpster with yet another load of good goods. ”Look what I found: Who would throw out a new computer?”

“Oh my god, that’s mine!” she exclaimed. “My life is in there.”

As good garbologists know, refuse tells tales: Who was linked to the cheesy Naughty Maid costume (worn briefly, one assumes, perhaps with the brand-new baby blue patent leather pumps with 5-inch heels)? What caused the red-wine stain on the full-length spaghetti strap spring gown? The splotch came off easily; a neighbor’s daughter has since enjoyed the dress for prom.

Mostly I am irate, baffled, bewildered: College kids who can’t, won’t and mostly just don’t recycle? Kids who put plastic bags of all sizes and colors directly into bins with a pictogram demonstrating No Plastic Bags?

Excuse me, I’m dashing out to the alley. I heard a lid slam, and a new load of perfectly usable stuff may have arrived.


Journalist and author Karin Winegar, of St. Paul, is a former Star Tribune reporter.