Recycle U

Standing in the midst of 80,000 screaming college students during a football game, two questions spring to mind: Can this limitless enthusiasm be tapped for a worthwhile cause? And just who is going to pick up all of these empty beverage cups? Enter the annual RecycleMania challenge, which engages colleges and universities in an environmentally friendly rivalry to determine which school can recycle the most items and generate the least amount of waste.

What began in 2001 as a friendly competition between Ohio University and Miami University recycling coordinators has now expanded to include more than 200 schools located in 42 states. With support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's WasteWise program and the National Recycling Coalition, the competing schools include two-year institutions, Ivy League universities and military academies, who each can compete in a variety of challenges. Over a 10-week period — Jan. 28 to April 7 — participating schools compete in the Per Capita Classic, which determines the amount of recyclables per person, and the Waste Minimization challenge, which recognizes those schools that generate the least amount of waste. Schools also compete to determine who can recycle the most of a specified material, such as paper, corrugated cardboard, and bottles and cans. Each week, the standings are posted on the RecycleMania Web site,

This year, RecycleMania's participation rate nearly doubled, and organizers say they plan to use college-friendly outlets like MySpace and YouTube to entreat more schools to compete.

But, RecycleMania is a unique rivalry, distinct from the competitiveness associated with collegiate sports and academic tournaments. Rather, participants, which include faculty, students and high-ranking officials, such as presidents and provosts, assist one another and promote the free exchange of ideas to increase recycling habits. “Part of why [RecycleMania] works is it's peer-led and peer-driven, so there is a level of equality and support,” says NRC Executive Director Kate Krebs. “The competition doesn't get to the point where one campus that's competing against another won't share ideas. In a lot of other competitive kinds of situations, you don't see that support and that encouragement that you see within this competition.”

The RecycleMania challenge addresses waste reduction at campus residence halls, cafeterias, offices and classrooms, placing bins in these locations to collect recyclables. In addition to these efforts, many schools, particularly well-known athletic institutions, are increasingly focusing on waste reduction and recycling at tailgating events.

Although the RecycleMania winners will not be announced until April, competitors are surely gearing up for the top prize: bragging rights. “I would say there aren't many places [where] bragging rights work as an incentive to do something,” Krebs says. “[The recycling coordinators] are working to win bragging rights, which to me, is what makes it so magic. It's not money [and] it's not a big trophy.