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Fast Furniture Is Ruining Our Climate Change Agenda

By Shanivi Srikonda
By Sharon W.S. Lai, Contributing Opinion Writer
Sharon W. S. Lai is a Mid-Career Master in Public Administration student at Harvard Kennedy School. ​​​​​​​

When I moved into my Harvard University Housing residence last summer, I had to furnish an entire apartment for a family of four. I would only use the apartment for 11 months.

My strategy was to try to live as minimally and cost-efficiently as possible, which meant regressing to college-style sleeping on a mattress and drinking from containers not meant for beverages. In the dead of the summer humidity, I dragged downstairs a poorly-made secondhand table by myself and spotted a neighbor similarly battling a mattress to the curb all on her own.

The number of furniture items casually abandoned on the streets of Boston and Cambridge during move-in and move-out season is a novelty for newcomers. Neighbors call it “Allston Christmas.”

Many items seem to get picked up, but many others still end up in landfills. We have all heard of ‘fast fashion’ and the negative impacts this kind of consumerism has on the environment, but it seems that there’s a culture of ‘fast furniture’ here as well. This collective annual repetitive waste is a disaster for the environment, and universities should take action to prevent it.

Harvard University Housing provides approximately 3,000 units of housing to graduate students, faculty, and staff. But currently, only around 250 of these units can be identified as furnished. Most units require occupants to acquire furniture when they move in and dispose of it when they leave. Approximately 50 percent of the units turn over each year, which means this phenomenally wasteful practice of fast furniture can be repeated regularly.

Producing the average piece of furniture generates 47 kilograms of carbon dioxide — the equivalent of burning approximately 5.3 gallons of petrol. One of the worst offenders is the mattress, whose foam material is conventionally made of nonrenewable virgin fossil fuels. Producing one full-size mattress costs approximately 79 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions, and according to IKEA, only 13 percent of the foam can be recycled.

If each savvy renter buys just one mattress and one other piece of furniture during their transient stay in Cambridge (an optimistic assumption), that would result in 126 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions. This is the equivalent of powering 77.1 gasoline-powered vehicles a year for the total approximate 2,750 unfurnished units of housing.

The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference’s commitment to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require us to reduce emissions globally by 43 percent by 2030. But simply attending my one-year program at the Harvard Kennedy School has increased my share of emissions more than reducing it.

To be fair, the city of Cambridge overall does a fairly good job of diverting and recycling waste. Many lucky renters inherit free items by simply walking around during Allston Christmas. Harvard’s Recycling and Surplus Center provides free, used University furniture, and there are free service organizations that arrange for group furniture donation pickups. There are also various informal and formal private marketplaces to upcycle secondhand.

But this obvious strategy is frustrated by the time and cost burden placed on students. The leakage in refurnishing rental units is not absolute in every situation, but simply seeing the items left on the streets of Cambridge and Boston will affirm that there’s room for improvement.

Too many graduate students take the path of least resistance. Facing limited time, logistic, physical, donation, and priority restrictions, many of us — particularly families — buy far more than a few mattresses. Aside from environmental impacts, the amount of money, stress, and time this pattern of fast furniture generates is frustrating and unnecessary.

Rather than contributing to fast furniture, Harvard University Housing should increase the number of furnished units, providing students with basic pieces of furniture such as beds, desks, tables, and chairs (which every student needs) — similar to what undergraduates receive. Not only would providing (partially) furnished units lift the unnecessary and regressive burden of furnishing units from students, but it would also be more in keeping with Harvard’s own sustainability goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by “the maximum practicable rate.”

Harvard University Housing has said that the number of furnished units they provide will likely not change over time. Is the current low percent of furnished housing really the maximum practicable rate?

As I get ready to leave Harvard at the end of the spring term, it’s time to figure out what to do with the fast furniture and household goods I myself bought less than a year ago. Some of the items are so poorly made that I’ll probably have to pay someone to take them to the dumpster by June 31 when my lease expires. And when July rolls around, there will be a new crop of graduate students who will face the same dilemma and hassle all over again.

Until Harvard University Housing decides to address the climate impact of furniture waste systematically, it is up to each of us to consume less to stop the planet from overheating: one mattress at a time.

Sharon W. S. Lai is a Mid-Career Master in Public Administration student at Harvard Kennedy School.

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