The idea that Dumpsters are capable of sustaining much more than cockroach life is a stretch for most. But to one Austin professor and Texas State alumnus, life in a Dumpster is the key to sustainability.
Jeff Wilson, self-described hipster and cheerful adopter of the nickname “Professor Dumpster,” has been camping out in a 6-by-6-foot dumpster on the Huston-Tillotson University campus in East Austin since February. Wilson, who has taught environmental science at several Texas universities and currently serves as an associate professor and dean of Huston-Tillotson’s University College, feels right at home.
The Dumpster Project, as Wilson’s educator-gone-rogue adventure has come to be called, garnered much attention for Huston-Tillotson and its student organization for sustainability, Green is the New Black.
“It’s fresh, it’s new,” said Huston-Tillotson biology freshman and Green is the New Black member Antwon Burkhaulter. “I just thought it was a pretty neat idea. Nobody’s ever done it before.”
The project is currently in the “camping phase,” according to Wilson. Team members take turns spending the night in the metal box, while Wilson and his arsenal of imaginative colleagues suss out design and functionality of what will eventually become the “über Dumpster,” or “the most sophisticated 36 square feet ever built.” The highlights of the interior so far include a false floor with storage underneath, an Oriental-style rug and several extra-strength magnets.
But the ingenious storage solutions and feng shui elements of the miniature home pale when compared to the social topics the enterprise has brought to light, including some even Professor Dumpster himself may not have thought to address.
“Some people think it’s about sustainability and climate change,” Wilson said. “Some people think about it as commentary on homelessness, social commentary, less is more, Zen. It doesn’t really matter to me what people are talking about, as long as they’re having a conversation.”
The innovative endeavor has created quite a buzz in the local community on sheer novelty alone. But perhaps the most important contribution Wilson is making is to the students of Austin and the next generation.
“That’s one of the major parts, the education portion of Green is the New Black—to get it out to the people,” Burkhaulter said. “The best way to change Austin is to tell it to the people who are going to be here later.”
Wilson, whose Dumpster-dwelling doctrine came to him two years before his August arrival at Huston-Tillotson, said his intent is to transform science in the eyes of the public, from a topic that “hasn’t been made very engaging” to something radical and modern people want to talk about.
“I’d been thinking for a while, ‘What kind of crazy-ass living experiment could I do that would make things a little bit more interesting?’” Wilson said. “I just kind of glanced out the window and just had this epiphany, this flash of Dumpster brilliance, that I was going for insanity and going to move into one and do an environmental project on it.”
Wilson’s “Dumpster brilliance” has not lost traction yet. The project still has two major phases to go, including a three-month period to establish average American consumption patterns and the “über Dumpster” phase, which will aim to reduce Wilson’s water consumption, electricity usage and trash production to 1 percent of the American average by the time the project wraps up next spring.
“How do we reinvigorate sustainability and make it sexy, make it cool?” Wilson said. “The Dumpster Project is sexy.”