Dumpster-living professor out to make a point

Professor Dumpster is a combo of Bill Nye the Science Guy and Oscar the Grouch, and he wants to show us that living minimally can help save our cities. CNET Road Trip 2014 dives in.

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Jeff Wilson, aka Professor Dumpster, demonstrates how he makes his bed in his 33-square-foot home -- inside a dumpster in Austin, Texas. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas -- When you cross Bill Nye the Science Guy with Oscar the Grouch, you end up with a high-energy, charismatic character who is hoping to help change the world by living in a dumpster.

Meet Professor Dumpster, the university dean who's currently in the middle of spending a year with a glorified trash container as his home.

This, of course, isn't your everyday dumpster, filled with garbage and smelling like week-old fish. Professor Dumpster, whose real name is Jeff Wilson, and who teaches environmental sciences at the historically African-American Huston Tillotson University here, has outfitted the dumpster he's lived in since February with some of the niceties of civilized living: a couple of lights, stow-away clothing, and even a bed with the "Star Wars" sheets he had as a kid.

But the list of niceties halts abruptly when it comes to things that require even the average amount of energy or water used, or the amount of waste generated, in a typical American household. This is an off-the-grid home meant to help people understand just how unsustainable the average American lifestyle is.

I've come to Austin, the capital of Texas, as part of CNET Road Trip. Though I've been spending day after day at Naval bases, with the Air Force, and at a large airline headquarters, this visit to Wilson's 33-square-foot home seems to me to have every bit the national and international impact. As he puts it on the Dumpster Project's official Web site, "What does home look like in a world of 10 billion people? How do we equip current and future generations with the tools they need for sustainable living practices? [The] dumpster will transform from a barely habitable used garbage container to a sustainable house and interactive teaching lab."

Mr. Minimalist

Though this is the first time Wilson has lived in a dumpster, it's not his first shot at living minimally. A few years ago, when he got divorced, he began the slow process that eventually led him here. He moved into an 800-square-foot apartment, and when that lease ended, he sold almost everything he owned, and started living out of his University of Texas at Brownsville office.

But that was boring. He wanted to take his minimalism further. This is a man who met his current girlfriend on OkCupid and convinced her that their first date should be a three-week, eight-country adventure in which neither brought anything more than what they were wearing. Sound like a great story? New Line Cinema, the film production company, thought so. It has optioned the rights to the book his girlfriend, Clara Bensen, is writing based on the article about the date she penned for Salon.com.

One day in November 2012, sitting in a Starbucks, Wilson gazed out at the parking lot, and saw a dumpster. "I called my most sane friend," Wilson remembered, "and said, 'look, I want to move into a dumpster and do a project on it.' I was hoping she'd talk me out of it."

Her reaction was this instead: "It's on. Let's roll."

Energetic and charismatic

Back in Austin, it's easy to see why a wide range of people, from students to building design experts, have flocked to help Wilson realize his dream. Though he looks like a prototype nerd -- with thick glasses, an Oscar the Grouch baseball hat, and an overall Pee Wee Herman style about him, he's engaging, funny, and charismatic. He's also passionate about helping people understand that less can very much be more.

Here's the thing, he'll argue: An average load of laundry uses 40 gallons of water. Toasters are incredible power hogs. Air conditioning is both inefficient and bad for the environment. And just think about all the waste Americans generate every day.

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More adventures from Road Trip 2014

Check out the latest from Daniel's trip to the best tech spots in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and more.

    With the Dumpster Project, Wilson and his team want to show it's possible to live comfortably and safely with far less impact on the environment. Personally, though, he's taking it even further than most: He wants to show it's possible to have a home in the middle of a major American city using just 1 percent of the energy and water as does the average household.

    Few would recognize Wilson's home -- which he tries to sleep in as much as six times a week, taking nights off when he's got his daughter, or when he stays over at his girlfriend's -- as offering the kinds of comforts most of us consider normal. There's no TV. There's no sink. There's no furniture. There's not even a bathroom. There are however, a couple of LED lights, one of which is solar-powered with a built-in iPhone charger.

    Wilson doesn't try to deny that he's able to pursue this project because his (huge) university office, complete with air conditioning, an iMac, and several comfy chairs, is about 100 yards away, and because the school also has bathrooms and other services of which he avails himself. He also frequently spends time in nearby hotel lobbies reading and even napping, and he gets his drinking and cooking water by pulling a 24-gallon barrel known as a Hippo Roller, an hour each way to Lady Bird Lake.

    Yet the point is still relevant: He sleeps most nights in the dumpster, wakes up, makes coffee, and spends a whole lot more time in it than you'd think was possible. "I spend as much time in here as I would in my normal home," Wilson said, adding that "I'm a homeowner in Austin, and I have the shortest commute in Austin."

    Part of his commitment to the project stems from the fact that there's a lot of people who have been inspired by it, mostly kids. He's been giving about a talk a week at different schools, and the interest children have for the project is reflected in many of the amusing drawings of the dumpster he's been given, and which he now has up on the interior of the dumpster's west-facing wall.

    In August, Professor Dumpster will also install a bit of luxury: a set of home appliances that he'll run for a few months in an attempt to establish a baseline of how much water and energy those machines -- a fridge, a washer and dryer, and others -- use. That will then be his comparison point. Of course, he'll probably have a hard time letting go of the machines.

    'It's an outlier'

    It's clear that Huston Tillotson University is very much behind Project Dumpster, even though Wilson, who was hired only last year, didn't initially tell the school about the initiative. But the project has brought the small university -- which is older than the nearby University of Texas at Austin, but clearly in that giant school's shadow -- a lot of notoriety, despite its being so outside the norm of typical American life. "It's an outlier, and outliers get attention," Wilson said. "We would never expect anyone to be insane enough to live in a 33-square-foot dumpster."

    In fact, Wilson's goals are pretty abstract. He's trying to come up with lessons on design and building dense housing that can be used in cities like Austin. He believes if he can live comfortably in a dumpster, he can help people understand how to live well in 120-square-foot studio apartments. "You could solve a lot of transportation and energy problems" if people lived more densely in cities, Wilson argued.

    Luckily, no one is breathing down his neck, demanding he meet preset milestones. Though Project Dumpster has an official timeline, which lays out its growth and educational expectations through 2015, he's got a lot of freedom. "We're thoughtfully playing," he said, "to where we don't have hard design deadlines or carved-in-stone blueprints for what a dumpster home would look like. It's an evolution."

    'I'm pretty darned happy'

    As Wilson sits on a small bench outside the dumpster, the project's flourishing garden just a few feet away, he looks pretty content. Dressed in a khaki shirt and pants, but wearing coordinated green sneakers and the Oscar the Grouch cap, he's relaxed as he heats up water for Turkish Coffee on a small propane burner.

    I asked him what had surprised him most about his experience living in the dumpster. After thinking for a moment, he said, "What's most surprising is I'm pretty darned happy."

    He's also become an expert in sizing up any space he visits -- so when he walks into any closet or bathroom he automatically starts doing space calculations.

    The hardest thing about the project may even have had more to do with climate than space. Americans are used to living in 72-degree environments, he said. So in the early months of living in the dumpster, he had trouble sleeping when temperatures inside rose even to 75 degrees. But gradually, as summer has begun, he's gotten comfortable as the mercury rises. Now, even when it's 81 degrees inside, he's not hot.

    Yet this is Texas, and it is summer. Though it's been temperate so far, it's unlikely to stay so. Can he stick it out? "I want to get to triple digits in here," Wilson said, "before I wuss out."

    Keep an eye out for more behind-the-scenes stories and photo galleries as I travel throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kansas during this year's Road Trip. I'll seek out most interesting technology, military, aviation, architecture, and other destinations our country has to offer. From U.S. Air Force basic training to NASA's Johnson Space Center and FedEx's massive package-sorting hub, and much more, Road Trip 2014 will take you along with me.

     

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