College Rivalries Grow into Recycling Competition

Millions of Students in 48 States Participate in RecycleMania

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Stacy Wheeler is president and co-founder of RecycleMania.

Alec Cooley is director of recycling programs at Keep America Beautiful.

Posted: Wednesday, February 11, 2015 2:10 pm

From beer cans crushed and tossed during tailgating to apple cores and potato skins thrown away in the cafeterias, university students create a lot of trash. But a national competition – RecycleMania – is working to increase recycling and composting on college campuses.

The success of RecycleMania, now in its 15th year, hinges on the cooperation among the student bodies, the custodial staff and university facility managers at participating institutions.

When these three groups work together in tandem toward a self-generated sustainability goal, RecycleMania is more than a pat-ourselves-on-the-back recycling competition. It’s a grassroots program that stacks up impressive statistics and in-depth case studies documenting environment-friendly behavior changes.

Since RecycleMania launched in 2001, millions of students from 727 colleges and universities have recycled and composted roughly 653 million pounds of material during the eight-week RecycleMania tournament time. Working together, participants have prevented the release of nearly 900,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, which is comparable to removing 7 million passenger vehicles from the road for one year, RecycleMania Inc. President and Co-Founder Stacy Wheeler said.

“When we first started RecycleMania, universities on average recycled about 20 percent of their waste,” Wheeler said. “Now because of the sustainability movement and state laws and I would like to say RecycleMania, the average amount of recycling increased to 30 percent in 10 years. That’s where it remains today.”

RecycleMania was conceived when Wheeler, the recycling coordinator at Miami University, and her counterpart at Ohio University brainstormed ways to increase recycling at their colleges. Playing on the existing rivalry between the universities, the coordinators made it a 10-week competition.

In the end, Miami won the bragging rights by recycling 41.2 pounds per person. Ohio documented 32.6 pounds per person of recycled materials. The second year, more schools were added to the grassroots competition.

This year, 392 schools, 4.5 million students, and 1.1 million faculty and staff are participating in 48 states, the District of Columbia and Canada. New York leads the pack with 34 colleges participating, followed by Texas (25) and Massachusetts (25). In 2014, 86 million pounds of recyclables and organic materials were recovered, which prevented the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to removing 24,846 cars from the road for one year, according to RecycleMania.

“I don’t think we knew this idea had so much potential,” Wheeler said. “But we found that positive peer pressure between rival universities can be a very powerful motivator. That’s why the program has succeeded from day one. It’s college against college. That rivalry has been the No. 1 motivation.”

And once the competition is over, students continue their habit of recycling.

“When the competition was over, the students continued that behavior. They incorporated recycling into their daily behaviors,” Wheeler said.

Changing behaviors to increase recycling and reduce waste is one of the overarching goals of RecycleMania, said Alec Cooley, director of recycling programs at Keep America Beautiful. Keep America Beautiful manages the day-to-day responsibilities of the nonprofit RecycleMania.

RecycleMania also aims to be a catalyst to grow and improve awareness of existing recycling programs.

“If recycling is on the front page of the student newspaper, students are more likely to pay attention,” Cooley said.

RecycleMania runs an inclusion systematic competition that allows colleges and universities to create their own recycling goals and benchmarks. It’s not a one-size-fits-all competition. It’s a robust program that is constantly evolving to incorporate thousands of private colleges and public universities in all 50 states.

“I find it gratifying the diversity of the schools participating at all stages,” Cooley said.

RecycleMania includes 10 distinct categories. The categories range from the original Per Capita Classic, where schools compete to see which can collect the largest combined amount of paper, cardboard and bottles and cans on a per person basis, to the new social media-centered 3R Actions Challenge. In the 3R Actions Challenge, students take a selfie of themselves doing a waste reduction action and then tweet the photo of their action with the coordinating hashtags. It’s a different type of recycling competition, but it reinforces the goal of using peer pressure to change behaviors long-term. That combination of savvy public relations with tangible actions is what makes RecycleMania effective.

Recycle-Bowl and Campus Conservation Nationals are both sustainability competition built on the RecycleMania model.

RecycleMania provides the framework, Cooley said, but the real success hinges on the universities and their students.

“RecycleMania does not work when schools sign up but do not have a good plan for a public relations campaign. A single email push has a limited to no impact. They (recycling coordinators) will say that no one’s paying attention. For the schools without a strategy, it (RecycleMania) falls flat,” Cooley said.

Wheeler said there are similarities among the “die-hard” schools that have participated annually for a decade.

“Schools that have a dedicated staff actively promoting RecycleMania tend to have the better results. You need to have university buy-in and use the program as a tool. And you have to have a student component,” Wheeler said.

So what prize does the national winner of RecycleMania receive? Bragging rights. And an opportunity to say to their rivals, “my college recycles more than your college.”

“That’s the whole spirit behind RecycleMania,” Wheeler said.

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