Christine Wallace is just glad kids aren't lighting their couches on fire anymore.
Wallace is the neighborhood outreach manager for the San Luis Obispo Police Department, and keeping the city's neighborhoods clean and safe is her main charge. Just a few years ago, flaming abandoned couches were one of her biggest concerns.
Year after year, at least one student towed a beer-stained couch out into the street, doused it in gasoline, and lit a match. The couch fires had long been an unwritten end-of-year tradition for some Cal Poly students, but by 2011, it was becoming dangerously popular.
Around that time, the city made neighborhood wellness a priority in its budget. Wallace and her team launched a stern education and media campaign against the couch burnings, with one key message: If you burn your couch, you'll be caught and charged with felony arson.
The SLO Police Department found that if couches aren't left out for long, they won't be tampered with. The department coordinated with San Luis Garbage and set up an online reporting system where city staffers can report couches or piles of furniture they see out on curbs. A "roving trash truck" with no particular route is readily available for those pickups, Wallace said.
San Luis Garbage also aligned its Cleanup Weeks, when the company picks up extra trash and discarded furniture items at a discounted price, with the busiest lease turnover times for college students. One Cleanup Week is scheduled for late June and another for early September, and although that's not when everyone in the city is moving, Wallace said, "that's when the majority of the junk we were dealing with was happening."
There hasn't been a couch burning in more than three years, according to Wallace, but the sheer volume of furniture left out at the beginning and end of the academic year is still an issue for the city.
It's seemingly inevitable. A visit to the dump can be expensive, and not everyone has access to a truck. There are always some unlucky souls who are forced to study until the bitter end of finals week, for those godforsaken tests scheduled on Friday evenings. In many cases, Wallace said those kids are left by their roommates to move couches and other miscellaneous furniture alone.
"So by the time they get to the end of that space," Wallace said, "there's exhaustion, apathy, and definitely there are maybe some lack of resources getting it to the thrift store."
Come early June and September, grimy mattresses, coffee tables, and chairs that couldn't be sold pile up on curbs. Broken lamps, fans, and bookshelves spill out from the dumpsters of apartment complexes. Weathered couches end up abandoned in empty fields and on sidewalks, hiding behind "free" signs scrawled out on cardboard.
Twice a year every year, San Luis Garbage collects roughly 240 tons of material from the street, according to Peter Cron, a sales representative at Coastal Rolloff who has worked in waste management for years.
"If it's out, we pick it up," Cron said. "That's what we do."
Even with the increased manpower, added routes, and additional flatbed and garbage trucks that hit the streets during Cleanup Weeks, Cron said the city still faces its share of challenges.
It's not just college students who use, and sometimes abuse, Cleanup Weeks, but Cron said where students are involved, the city ends up hauling whole living rooms and bedrooms to the dump. Each residence is limited to 12 additional bags of trash free of charge, a maximum that is often surpassed, and San Luis Garbage will take only two bulky items—TVs, couches, water heaters, washers—at the discounted price of $10 each. Extra items are more costly.
Some residents put their trash out too far ahead of Cleanup Weeks, creating code enforcement issues and general confusion, and many others don't call to schedule pickups for their bulky items as required by the garbage company, which Cron said makes it difficult to know which crews and trucks should be going to which residences.
San Luis Garbage recycles what it can, and different items require different equipment. Knowing ahead of time what will be needed during Cleanup Week is helpful, Cron said.
"It's really difficult," he said, "and it's something we've struggled with over the years."
Billing is one of the more daunting tasks the city faces during moving season. If the trash maximums are surpassed during Cleanup Weeks or if furniture items are left out any other time of the year, the city automatically bills the owner of the house or apartment complex where the trash was found. If items are cleared out of empty fields or vacant lots, the city itself foots the bill.
For property management companies and landlords, tenant move-outs tend to be a raw deal.
Becca Boyd, an office assistant at McNamara Realty, said that if the property management company is billed for additional trash cleanup at a house, where it's obvious who left the garbage, McNamara will automatically charge the tenants. But if the bill is for an apartment complex dumpster, it's almost impossible to know who left the trash, and McNamara pays.
McNamara tries to discourage its tenants from leaving furniture behind, but with more than 350 properties, it's difficult to enforce.
To keep trash off the streets and continue the arson-free Cleanup Weeks, the city is trying to find a way to make it easier for students to donate unwanted furniture. Cal Poly University Housing is working on a similar initiative, and in June, the university collected more than 8 tons of food, clothing, and other goods from residents moving out of student housing and donated it to various San Luis Obispo County nonprofit organizations.
Some items collected during Cal Poly move-outs are donated to CP Thrift, a student-run campus thrift store, and the store hosted its first resale fair at the beginning of last year. CP Thrift will be hosting another resale fair for students on Sept. 14 in yak?ityutyu and Sept. 16 in Poly Canyon Village.
Wallace, the manager of neighborhood outreach for SLO PD, loves the idea behind that program, and although the city hasn't made anything official yet, she hopes to do something similar soon.
"Next year we're doing a bigger and stronger push toward donation," Wallace said. "We know there is some room to do better at avoiding the landfill." Δ
Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.