Two years ago, environmental science professor Jeff Wilson was sitting at a Starbucks, revising a journal article, when he had what he calls a moment of clarity. "I looked out the window into the parking lot and saw an eight-yard dumpster and had some sort of strange flash that I was definitely moving into a dumpster," he says.
And so, when the lease ran out on his apartment a year later, he posted an announcement on Facebook: "Starting at 6pm, I will be selling all of my home furnishings, clothes, kitchen appliances, and everything else in the apartment for $1 an item." There was a five-item-per-person maximum.
By nightfall, his house was empty, except for a suitcase filled with dumpster-ready essentials, a Sun God totem from Kazakhstan, and a pair of lederhosen. "You never know when you’re going to need an authentic Alpine lederhosen," Wilson says.
He hadn’t lost his mind, or his job at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas. That was fortunate, since he spent the next seven months secretly sleeping on the floor of his office. "Keeping that secret for seven months, especially from the 3 a.m. cleaning staff and 24-hour security, much less the students and my colleagues, was interesting in itself," he says. But his long-held plan to move into a dumpster is now, apparently, university-approved: as an educational experiment in low-impact living. It's called The Dumpster Project.
"I'm essentially becoming part of the 1%," he deadpans. "This dumpster is 33 square feet, which is 1% the size of the new American home in 2011." His tiny residence will serve as a classroom, with students spending a year making it not only livable but environmentally sound. "The idea here," he says, "is to ultimately show one can have a pretty good life in a dumpster."
At first, though, life will be neither good nor sustainable. Wilson will start with a used unit: sanitized and safety-tested, but otherwise frill-free. "I will have to be hanging out initially with my sleeping bag on the floor," says Wilson. And at 6’1", he may be literally hanging out, sleeping at an angle just to fit inside.
Next, Wilson and his students will make it comfortable, but wasteful, installing modern conveniences like air conditioning, lights and a toilet. Its inefficiency will be carefully tracked in order to develop a baseline. "I’m actually going to, for a few days, carry all my water in five gallon buckets up from town lake, filter it, and use it in the dumpster," says Wilson.
Once it’s fully operational, they’ll take this deluxe dumpster and give it the full no-impact-man treatment. "I might say, ‘Looks like that drier is really hogging a lot of energy; What would happen if I just sold that on Craigslist and made myself a clothesline?’" Wilson says. He imagines proceeding from low-hanging fruit like energy-efficient bulbs to nano-insulation and energy-producing toilets, "until eventually, we get a completely pimped out dumpster."
But the project is much bigger than a single garbage can. "This is not," Wilson emphasizes, "just a one-guy-in-a-dumpster deal." For starters, he imagines a parallel process happening in the dorms themselves, replacing lightbulbs and installing low-flow shower-heads. The ultimate goal is to bring sustainability to the center of the college experience. "What we are talking about right now is to start a green movement within historically black colleges and universities, and become the flagship school of that, under an initiative called ‘Green is the New Black,’" Wilson says.
The plan is to eventually take the show on the road. They have a K-12 curriculum, which Wilson will participate in as the character ‘Professor Dumpster’ (a title which appears in his university bio, and above his name in his email signature, emails which are signed "at your disposal"). The dumpster itself could travel to different neighborhoods and schools while in "stealth mode," with its high-tech sustainable features concealed inside. "This will allow us to do some interesting experiments, [like] dropping it on a kid’s playground and seeing what happens," Wilson says. "Because they’re going to open the door and see an Xbox, a bed, a shower, all these things."
The ambitions seem outsized for a project whose primary assets are a staff of two, a 501(c)3 application in process, a sponsoring hardware store and a supportive university. Especially considering Wilson will have to continue to fulfill his duties as an associate professor, a dean—and also a boyfriend and a father. "My ex-wife did not express a lot of encouragement in our [6-year-old] daughter sleeping with daddy in a dumpster, he says. "So that’s not gonna happen."
The whole thing will be, as Wilson emphasizes repeatedly, a grand experiment. "It's going to be pretty overwhelming," he says. "I can't think too far ahead in this project and stay sane."