Professor Dumpster

Major life changes, a shift in living situations, a new season approaching—these are all factors that compel us to re-examine our lives and pare down the belongings we’ve collected. But Jeff Wilson took his “spring cleaning” to the extreme when he sold all his belongings for $1 and moved into a 33-square-foot dumpster in February.

However, change did not come overnight. Wilson first left his 3,000-square-foot house to live in a 600-square-foot apartment, then stayed in his 144-square-foot office before relocating to Austin, TX. In Austin, he couch-surfed before settling into his current abode. “I had a slow-trickle transition,” said Wilson, associate professor of biological sciences at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin.

This project is more than a post-divorce purge or yogi-caliber exercise in minimalism. It’s all part of The Dumpster Project, an experiment led by Wilson. In this project, he and his environmental science students are transforming a dumpster into a fully sustainable home over the course of a year. Wilson recently completed the first phase of the project, which involved camping out in the dumpster (since Feb. 4) with no connection to water or electrical utilities. He used the college gym’s bathroom and showers during the first phase.

On social media networks, Wilson has been going by his alter ego, Professor Dumpster.

Huston-Tillotson University

Jeff Wilson’s “home” is on the campus of Huston-Tillotson University.

Settling In

“An interesting thing about this project is that the whole city’s kind of become a living room—and a kitchen, bathroom, water supply, everything,” Wilson said. “And I think the surreal nature of being in the dumpster and the experience of sleeping there at night is really interesting because it plays off two things. You’re extremely safe, yet, at the same time, you feel in touch with your environment. People ask me if the dumpster is safe—well, it’s pretty hard to get into a locked steel box. It’s the only dumpster that I’m aware of in the world with interior locks!”

It sounds cheesy, but I’m a lot happier now with less stuff than I was when I started.
— Jeff Wilson

In the first phase, Wilson and his team made minor changes to the dumpster. They built in a false floor for storage, installed some weather stripping, added touches like a tiny mailbox and a garden gnome, and painted the interior white. “And they say when you paint things white, it makes them feel larger. … It’s kind of like being in that ‘Matrix’ room or something,” he said.

The Dumpster Project just moved into the second phase, which involves adding water and electricity to the mix—“ a big game changer,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s temporary house is looking more like a home with the addition of a lamp, carpet, tapestry, a houseplant and, most importantly in the extreme Texas climate, an air-conditioning unit.

Next, he and his team will build a pad made from magnesium oxide (a sustainable cement material) and a large dome that can roll up for sunlight or roll down to catch water and offer shade. The slab will house an outdoor shower, toilet and washing machine. Use of water and electricity will be measured daily.

‘The New 1 Percent’

Wilson and his students are testing a hypothesis he calls “The New 1 Percent” to find out whether someone can lead a good life while using just 1 percent of the energy, waste and water of the average American home—and all in a space that’s just 1 percent of the size of the average American home.

Professor Dumpster

Jeff Wilson is living in a space that measures 33 square feet.

“It sounds cheesy, but I’m a lot happier now with less stuff than I was when I started,” Wilson said. “Just a lot less to worry about.”

He now owns four pairs of pants, four shirts (two short-sleeve and two long-sleeve), three pairs of shoes, three hats, and eight or nine bowties.

“Another interesting thing is that I’ve been continuing to trim down. I gave away a pair of shoes last week—it’s almost a bit like an addiction,” Wilson said recently. “I think I’ve crossed the point of crazy into insanity and just keep reducing the amount of stuff I have.”

The third and final phase of the project will focus on creation of the “ultimate” dumpster home, a sustainable place with all the creature comforts of the typical American home. Everything on the pad will be moved into the dumpster, which will pop up vertically and feature a sleeping loft and solar panels.

Wilson’s “backyard” features a garden planted by members of Green is the New Black, a campus group aiming to turn Huston-Tillotson into the greenest historically black college. On the horizon for this project are an outdoor classroom, a composting program and street access for the public.

‘A Conversation Starter’

The Dumpster Project has drawn the attention of local and national media outlets, and the ensuing chatter is exactly what Wilson had hoped for.

“I want it to be a conversation starter and sustainer,” he said. “It’s obviously kind of a shocking idea and, initially, people think it’s a little bit crazy, but it gets the conversation started within and between groups and within and between ages.”

Professor Dumpster

The dumpster affords little room for storage of clothing and other items.

He added: “That’s really the ultimate goal of it—to spark whatever contextual conversation you want to have. If it’s about sustainability, if it’s about tiny houses, if it’s about the social implications of housing, if it’s about homelessness—start whatever conversation you want to have.”

Wilson doesn’t expect dumpster living to become the new trend. In fact, he notes that this actually would be illegal, if he weren’t living on the college campus where he works. However, he wants to get people thinking about how they live.

“When you downgrade your space, you pay less rent, you can live closer to your job—I have the shortest commute in Austin, just a minute and a half by foot—you get out into the world more, meet more people, interact more and know your neighborhood,” he said. “And I think it just gives you more freedom financially and timewise, which are primarily two of the most important assets, when you think about it.”

He realizes this type of extreme minimalism is easier said than done for the average American.

“It’s very difficult to expand space—and it’s one of the reasons people use storage units, right? To acquire more stuff,” Wilson said. “When you do the opposite and you actually shrink space, then at some point, even if you are a complete hoarder or have a little deer track through your living room, you eventually need to start getting rid of stuff.”