From trash to treasure

by Vicky Tobianah, BA’11

When Shira Abramowitz, BCom’12, was graduating from McGill, she was struck by the realization that she would have many things – everything from almost-new binders and functioning calculators to toaster ovens and printers – that she didn’t know what to do with. It’s a dilemma that many graduating students face: after three or four years of apartment shuffles, they’ve accumulated a lot of stuff they no longer need.

The result: the streets of the McGill Ghetto are piled high each spring with garbage bags, couches and old TVs. And, eventually, it all ends up in landfills.

Abramowitz decided to create a more sustainable system, so that graduating students wouldn’t throw away perfectly good items, and new incoming students could purchase these things at extremely low prices. She called it “Campus Swaps” and recruited Christian D’Andrea, BSc’12, to help launch the idea.

During their first year, they worked 14 to16 hour days, driving around a SUV with a trailer attached, collecting non-furniture items that graduating students no longer wanted. They ended up with more than 4,000 pounds of stuff. In their second year, that grew to 7,000 pounds.

“People were pretty surprised that [something like this] didn’t exist already and loved the idea of their things going somewhere other than in the trash,” says D'Andrea. “We actually had professors call us too, to pick up old things from their office.”

In September, they hosted a big sale for new McGill students. The first year, about 300 people showed up. The second: more than 500.

The items range from household goods, to school supplies and even brand name clothing. “True Religion jeans are worth, I’ve been told, a couple hundred dollars and we might only sell them for 10 dollars,” D'Andrea says.

The Campus Swaps founders are happy with what they’ve achieved so far, but their ambitions extend further still. The goal is to transform their small one-campus operation into a sustainable international initiative.

To help foster that ambition, Abramowitz recently sailed across the world with Unreasonable at Sea, a 100-day trip across 13 countries, where 11 entrepreneurs dealing with social and environmental challenges, were selected to learn from mentors in the field.

At every stop on the world-tour, they had the opportunity to pitch their ideas to world leaders.

“In each port we hosted a mix of pitch events, receptions and design-thinking workshops led by [people like] George Kembel from Stanford's design school, Tom Chi, the guy behind Google glasses and the self-operating car, and Daniel Epstein, founder of the Unreasonable Institute,” says Abramowitz.

The plan now is to expand Campus Swaps to university and college campuses across North America. It’s already in place at San Jose State University in California, where Abramowitz is originally from.

“University is such a temporary existence and lifestyle, and these goods tend to be purchased with that in mind,” says D’Andrea. “But there needs to be a way to keep those goods cycling through that same system.”