RecycleMania encourages competitive recycling

Syracuse has come in 48th place in the eight-week competition which keeps track of the recycling data of 207 schools nationwide.

It started 15 years ago with a friendly competition between two rival Ohio colleges. Both Ohio University and Miami University had similar recycling programs, and both wanted to increase their recycling rates in dining halls and dorms. So the schools’ recycling coordinators decided to motivate students by channeling their competitive spirits — and RecycleMania was born.

“Because we’re being measured, the competition holds people accountable, saying, ‘Let’s see what we can do together.’”
Alison Gibson, graduate student and public relations intern in the sustainability department

“We didn’t know if it would work or not,” said Stacy Wheeler, president and co-founder of the tournament that became RecycleMania. “After the second week, I realized that we had created a monster.”

After a successful first year, the eight-week collegiate tournament decided to let other schools in. Since its conception, millions of students at more than 750 schools nationwide have participated, Wheeler said.

Feb. 7 marked the start of the 16th annual RecycleMania tournament, which concluded with the publication of the final results Monday. Syracuse University did well in the competition with an average recycling rate of 46 percent, earning 48th out of 207 schools and generating 25 pounds of recycling per person during the eight weeks.

SU first became involved with RecycleMania around 2005, said Melissa Cadwell, marketing manager of the sustainability department at SU. It was a test at first, and because the sustainability department was new at the time, it was not fully prepared to give time to the tournament. After getting away from RecycleMania for a while, SU rejoined a couple of years ago with a new excitement for the program, Cadwell said.

RecycleMania’s weekly reports help SU’s sustainability department see how it is doing and evaluate how it measures up against other schools so that it can focus on improvements, Cadwell said. The department can then take that information and give it out to the campus so that all students are on the same page when it comes to recycling.

“It is about taking the mystery away from recycling,” Cadwell said. She wants to ensure that students are not confused with different messages about what can be recycled and how to properly recycle.

SU’s great recycling results may be due to new efforts by the sustainability department. Alison Gibson, a graduate student and public relations intern in the sustainability department, said that she designed table tents and digital ads for the dining hall tables and monitors with information about RecycleMania. She created new informational designs each week with different focuses on ways to recycle and the progress of RecycleMania.

“I think we can increase our recycling rates if people understand what to recycle,” Gibson said. “Because we’re being measured, the competition holds people accountable, saying, ‘Let’s see what we can do together.’”

The sustainability department also promoted RecycleMania through social media, which Wheeler said is one of the most effective ways to spread the word about the competition. Wheeler said that the changes in social media and technology have been one of the biggest evolutions in RecycleMania from its humble start to its current magnitude.

The other key change in the tournament over the years is the level of recycling, Wheeler said. When she started in 2001, a 20 percent recycling rate was considered good. Over the years, it quickly jumped up to 25 percent and now an average of about 30 percent. Beyond that, she said that several schools are recycling well over 50 percent, and some have created waste-free campuses, which require diverting 90 percent or more of the waste stream.

Although SU is doing relatively well with almost 50 percent recycling, there is always room for improvement. Unfortunately, there are some limitations. SU has to comply with Onondaga County recycling laws and participate in Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency’s mandatory recycling program, Cadwell said. She said that recycling is a commodity; everything they send has to be sold. There are a lot of plastics that Onondaga County chooses not to recycle, and until the county changes that, SU cannot be a waste-free campus, Cadwell said.

Kristen Lawton, a spokeswoman at the agency, said that the agency constantly looks at the needs of the community and strives to adapt to fulfill them. Over the 10 years Lawton has been with the agency, she has seen several items added to the blue bin as recyclables, she said.

When deciding which items can be recycled in Onondaga County, Lawton said the agency works with other organizations to decide if something will be a sustainable long-term item to add to the law that mandates which items need to be recycled. Although current markets are not very good, Lawton said that the agency still plans to accept and recycle the items that the law currently allowed.

Lawton said the agency would never want to remove something from the blue bin, which is why finding market-sustainable items for the bin is important. Certain plastics or other items that will only sell for a short time are not worth putting in the bin if they would later have to be taken out, as doing so sends mixed messages to the community, she said.

These mixed messages are a focus of both RecycleMania and SU’s sustainability department. With so much information and regulation around recycling, it can be really difficult, Gibson said. As she has studied sustainability, she has developed a goal of two-way communication: informing the public and getting feedback from the public. Overall, she said she wants people to know that making sustainable efforts is really simple.

If RecycleMania inspires even just a few students to recycle more, it is worth it, Cadwell said. “If we don’t recycle, we have to use virgin materials, and there’s only a finite amount of those materials out there – natural resources like timber, water, oil – things this planet has given to us as a gift,” Cadwell said. “If we don’t recycle, we are wasting that gift. We need to get students to start thinking about sustainability in their own lives; it is their planet, and they’re the future.”

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