Hippie Christmas transforms trash to treasure

Ho, ho, ho.

It’s time for Hippie Christmas in the capital city.

It’s the time of year when gifts are gleaned from tons of trash left by departing university students. Furniture, clothing, unopened food and more are collected from curbs before garbage trucks can intercede.

Given that 33,000 of UW-Madison’s 43,400 students live off campus, student moving day is a big deal.

“We’ve always called it ‘Hippie Christmas,’” said Anna Ostermeier, a Madison-area native and a University of Wisconsin junior. She helps coordinate a student-led recycling effort in conjunction with the holiday.

In 2015, more than a million pounds of garbage went to landfill just from student move-out days, according to statistics from the city of Madison.

But not all of what was landfilled was garbage.

“It pains me to see perfectly good things out on the curb to go to the landfill,” said Alderman Ledell Zellers, whose District 2 covers much of the Madison isthmus.

Something like Hippie Christmas occurs in many college communities.

However, the name — according to a Google search — is strongly associated with Madison, where most of the downtown apartment leases stop and start Aug. 15.

It can be a mad house.

With so much hubbub and such a narrow timeframe in which to move, perhaps it’s inevitable that some treasure ends up on the curb.

Merry Hippie Christmas!

“A friend of mine found — and kept — a tablet computer from a Langdon neighborhood dumpster,” said Sam Link, a member of Hypatia Co-op.

Many co-op members are up for the sport they term “dumpster diving.”

“I’ve also heard people report finding cash,” Link said. “Leading to the observation from co-op (members) that people around them, beyond overpaying for rent, are literally throwing money away.”

Dumpster diving dangers

But holiday scavenging is not without risk.

And the city has issued some cautions about dumpster diving.

Unlicensed commercial scavenging can present environmental problems.

“They’re grabbing material in the cover of night and some of the stuff has hazardous material,” said Bryan Johnson, recycling coordinator and spokesman for the Madison Streets Division. “People are out there grabbing a refrigerator off the curb. What are they doing with the coolant in there? Or in an air conditioner? We have no idea.”

Older model televisions may have tubes that contain lead and first-generation liquid-crystal-display TVs contain mercury.

“Just setting that stuff out at the curb is the absolute wrong thing to do,” Johnson said. “If it breaks, the lead or the mercury is going to end up leaching into the water.”

Other threats can be immediate — and more biting.

“People need to be extremely cautious if they’re picking up things from the side of the curb,” said John Hausbeck, environmental health services supervisor with the Madison and Dane County Department of Public Health. “Part of me feels badly about having to say that, because there are a lot of good things that people throw away at this time. Others can make use of it. But it’s just not worth the risk of bringing in bedbugs to your home.”

That’s right, bedbugs

Hippie Christmas

New generations of bedbugs resistant to pesticides are an increasing problem in municipalities. They can spread from a single apartment, infesting entire buildings.

And they love to hitchhike, especially in used furniture — wood, mattresses and fabric, but also in books and electronics. These bugs can fit into a crevice the width of a credit card.

And, worse than a lump of coal in December, items collected at Hippie Christmas may conceal cockroaches and fleas, as well as rodents.

“It’s definitely buyer beware,” Hausbeck said. “Or in this case, picker beware.”

He encouraged anyone disposing of items infested with bedbugs to mark them with a large red or orange “X” or, to be clearer, with “bedbugs.”

“The last thing people want to do is share that experience with another person,” Hausbeck said. “You do a good thing by helping them.”

Campus involvement

UW-Madison’s Office of Sustainability hosts a “by students, for students” recycling effort during moving days that involves local charities, including thrift stores and food pantries.

Collection bins are placed at many locations, including 17 large apartment complexes. Also, the university designates campus collection points for non-perishable food and items such as unopened toiletries.

At another site, students can drop off cords, batteries and electronics, including computers, monitors, phones, small appliances, game systems and TVs.

“It’s definitely an undertaking, but a million pounds of garbage is quite a bit and I’m sure quite a bit of that could be repurposed, reused, recycled,” said student recycling coordinator Ostermeier. “There’s definitely a huge need.”

She described the work of student recycling volunteers as a mission. “I think our responsibility as a university is to make sure that we are responsible stewards for the environment,” she said. “We want to reduce as much waste as possible. Our role is to make that happen.”

The effort includes a “Donate & Take” station, where students can drop off items and take clothing, furniture and other household items.

“We want to make sure students have these resources available to them if they need them,” Ostermeier said.

She added, “While we want to communicate a message of reuse, we also really want people to consider how much they consume in the first place, to reduce that amount. This student moving happens every single year. Every single year there are so many items.”

Ultimately, the city’s Johnson said, “Being mindful of your front-end consumption is always going to be a greener way of doing things, rather than waiting for someone to do something with it on the back end.”

Why Aug. 15?

The date of Hippie Christmas is an accident of history.

Well into the 1980s, registering for university classes had to be completed in person.

So the university set aside a week for the process: typically the last week of August. (Registration week has since given way to Wisconsin Welcome Week, an orientation period.)

Over decades, landlords learned to allow potential tenants another week before the registration deadline to move in and settle.

Thus the importance of Aug. 15 — and Hippie Christmas.

In recent years, local government has encouraged landlords to start staggering leases to allow city services to cope.

To accommodate student moving days, garbage and recyclables are picked up every workday Aug. 1–15. Also, a collection of all materials, including large items such as refrigerators, takes place Aug. 14.

For the most part, however, Aug. 15 still divides Madison’s rental year.

“The benefit of ‘one big day’ may be that we can concentrate our trash pickup to just a few days and take care of the discards more efficiently,” Alderman Ledell Zellers said.

Look it upHippie Christmas

UrbanDictionary.com defines “Hippie Christmas” as “the day following move-out day, in areas where most leases expire simultaneously, during which the curb is a treasure trove of discarded items.”

Use it in a sentence?

Ben: Dude, today I got this couch, a lamp and some old cassette tapes up by the corner.

Jerry: Dude, merry Hippie Christmas!

— Lisa Neff

On the web

For more information about donating, recycling and reusing, visit sustainability.wisc.edu/movingdays.

For information about guidelines during student moving days, visit cityofmadison.com/streets/refuse and click on “student moving days.”