After ten weeks of planning, promoting, tracking and measuring, you can call yourself a winner in this year’s RecycleMania. In this competition, there are no “losers,” since recycling and reducing waste are achievements in themselves. But is the achievement merely the end until next year, or is it a means to a larger sustainable effort that takes place both on and off college campuses?
The official RecycleMania website states:
“RecycleMania anticipates that environmental messages cannot always motivate action by themselves and seeks to present waste reduction in terms any college student can appreciate: beating the cross town rival! In the process, participation in the competition familiarizes students with a campus’s environmental programs and hopefully instills in them a life-long habit.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of the word “cycle” is the Greek word “kuklos,” which means “circle.” A circle has no beginning or ending. Combine this with the prefix “re” and we have a word that by its very nature implies repetition and continuity. So to stop efforts once the competition ends would be defeat.
But “recycle” is not the only word in the famous three-word phrase: “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Waste reduction starts with just that – reduction. The RecycleMania competition hosts several divisions within its main competing category, including the Waste Minimization division, which focuses on overall waste reduction instead of recycling. Nearly 200 schools participated in this division, along with several of the other recycling-focused divisions, making all three “R’s” part of their main goal. As director of Waste Services at Union College in Schenectady, New York, Terry Miltner, states:
“Reduce, reuse and recycle are written in sequence of importance but become distorted in the RecycleMania competition. The true winners are the schools that pay attention to the waste minimization, because the true goal is to reduce.”
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rebuy
The “R4” sustainability program at the University of California at Davis adds a fourth “R” to this phrase – reduce reuse, recycle and rebuy -claiming that buying recycled products makes the whole process economically feasible. Virginia Commonwealth University’s Recycling Coordinator, Steve Heinitz says that, “We need to purchase products not just based on price or convenience but also based on the resources that are used to make them, how it is packaged and how it will be disposed of.” Purchasing recycled products is one way to reduce disposal and is the fourth link needed to keep the “3R” cycle moving.
This cycle is in full swing during the competition’s ten weeks. According to the RecycleMania website, “past surveys have indicated, 80 percent of participating schools experienced a noticeable increase in recycling collection during the competition.” Still, the question remains: how do we carry out this momentum and ensure waste reduction during the months between RecycleMania’s annual feats? Interviews with several Waste Minimization division participants reveal a basic school infrastructure that emphasizes four main values typically held by students, faculty and staff at colleges and universities across the country: education, incentive, convenience and fun. Playing upon these values may be the key to keeping schools motivated to do their part to help the environment outside of the yearly RecycleMania competition.
Educating and Inspiring Your University
R4 RecycleMania Team Leader at UC Davis, Maddison Greaves says that, “education is key.” Since learning is obviously valued in any educational institution, her statement comes as no surprise. The most obvious form of education takes place inside the classroom. Union College Professor, Jeffrey Corbin, for example, used his environmental studies classroom as an opportunity to analyze waste generation during the school year, identifying the fall move-in weekend as a time when the numbers were especially high:
“We thought that the cardboard boxes that people brought to campus might be the culprits. Terry Miltner, the Director of Waste Services, enlisted the help of the Union lacrosse team to direct students and their parents to appropriate recycling areas and even dumpster dove to retrieve recyclable material in the trash. By the end of the weekend, our waste was one third lower than what it had been the year before.”
In addition to hands-on experimentation, education on the benefits of recycling and waste reduction may provide students and faculty with more incentive. The University of North Florida’s RecycleMania Coordinator, Colleen Herms thinks that “education about landfills is an interesting and effective way to motivate people to recycle along with making it easy. The stats on landfills are huge and they have a great impact on our land usage. Plus, many people don’t know we’re running out of room for landfills.”
Advertisement is another form of education. Posters and other displays strategically placed in school buildings express the importance of recycling while reminding others to recycle. Nils Anderson, a student at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, advises schools to “get the word out about RecycleMania, even before the competition begins, by advertising all over campus.” The RecycleMania website has several tools that participants can download and use to promote awareness about the competition, including E-cards, posters, web banners, flyers, table tents, presentations and videos. Harford Community College has “signs about recycling in every classroom.” College Life and Student Government at Harford made a symbolic tree out of office paper for RecycleMania, as well as a tree out of bottles and cans for Earth Day.
Educating students at sporting events is one strategy that helped Miami University win the competition three years in a row, and has since been adopted by other schools. Greaves confirms that the zero waste sports stadium at UC Davis “helps R4 educate a large amount of people during a game or event on recycling, composting and reducing waste.” Schools may implement these tools year-round to ensure that waste reduction and recycling become a regular habit among college students.
Empowering your Student Body
In some cases, a student-driven initiative may be more successful than a staff-driven initiative, according to Linda Robson, Sustainability Coordinator at Case Western Reserve University. This engineering and physics-focused campus takes a more interdisciplinary approach, empowering students to come up with solutions for waste management.
“We allow them to be brilliant and creative and give them a really fun playground, our campus, and we let them do it all with great success,” Linda says.
Catching Students “Green-Handed”
Though education is important, Greaves argues that, “It is not as simple as telling someone that programs exist, or that they should reduce their waste because it is the ‘right thing to do.’ There needs to be a reason that people believe in and that makes them actually want to reduce their waste.” Often, specific education about the benefits of recycling provides some incentive. But not all college students are quite as enthusiastic as Herms who identifies “peer pressure and culture” as large factors “determining whether or not people participate in recycling.” For students stifled by peer pressure, sometimes a little extra incentive is needed. In a receding economy, this often comes in the form of money or “free stuff.” Taking some of the advice given on the RecycleMania website, many schools have found creative ways to motivate students to reduce, reuse and recycle, including competitions among residence halls and academic buildings. At SUNY College at Brockport, the first place prize for hall winners was a “home-cooked meal,” something no college student who is used to eating Ramen several times a week can deny.
Other schools offer giveaways to those who “get caught green-handed,” recycling. Suffolk University in Boston “most recently launched a Spot-a-Mug program,” handing out vouchers for a free beverage to those students using travel mugs. According to Erica Mattison, the school works year-round to promote programs like these. Xavier University gave away t-shirts that offered information about what to recycle. Sustainability intern, Laura Wallace says, “These were key, because I still see many people wearing them around campus. They serve as constant reminders to recycle.” The RecycleMania website offers more ideas for campus giveaways as incentive for students and faculty to recycle.
Since waste reduction is also an important factor for many participating schools, faculty and staff members have found creative ways to motivate students to reduce waste and protect the environment. Steve Heinitz, Recycling Coordinator at Virginia Commonwealth University, suggests that schools should “encourage more car pooling and fuel efficiency by giving discounts on parking for people that car pool and use Alternative Fuel Vehicles, bicycles, etc.” At some universities, the cost of parking is tremendous, and space for parking is limited. This practice frees up space, and benefits the environment, while saving students money.
At Moody Bible Institute in Chicago Illinois, incentive comes in the form of internal reward, brought on by religious convictions. Facilities Sustainability Coordinator, Oakley Smith summarizes these beliefs:
“One of the ongoing challenges on campus is maintaining and communicating the synthesis between earth care and careful obedience to the message of the Bible; in short, that being a good steward of earth is a very integral part of a God-honoring life, and not (as is sometimes perceived by some) a nod to a lesser or contrary cause. Since this is the case, much of our creative thinking (and we need much growth in this area) would go to establishing identity of the unity of ‘God and green.'”
Make Wastefulness Inconvenient
With fast-food chains, gas stations, bank teller machines and drug stores on nearly every corner, some would argue that we live in a culture of convenience. According to Wallace, “we have to create a culture of sustainability.” Many schools show that this can be accomplished by making recycling and waste reduction a convenient and thoughtless act. “Of course most people want to do good for the environment, if it’s easy,” says Herms.
Some school buildings are set up to encourage this, including UC Davis and Harford Community College, both of which boast Green LEED-certified buildings. According to Greaves, “This means that 75 percent of waste coming from new buildings is recyclable and 50 percent from renovated buildings.” In addition to a LEED-certified building, Harford Community College has waterless urinals in many buildings and a system that collects rainwater for flushing toilets in two buildings.
Along with sustainable building structure, many campuses offer convenient opportunities for waste reduction and recycling within school buildings. UC Davis has implemented several recycling programs, including: “an e-waste program that is active across campus,” for the disposal of small electronics, batteries, ink jets and CD’s; “a pipette box recycling program” and “a desk top battery recycling program.” In addition, according to Greaves:
“Students, staff and faculty are able to request to have any of their events be made zero waste. For this they pay a fee depending on the size of their party and custodial delivers all compostable utensils, plates, cups, napkins and trash bags. Custodial will also set everything up for the party and come to collect it and take it to be composted.”
Virginia Commonwealth University recently installed water bottle filling stations in its Main Recreation Center and eliminated plastic cups at all sporting events, replacing them with biodegradable paper and corn starch products. Union College offers a reuse program called “U Exchange Website – an on-campus craigslist that finds new homes for good stuff that would otherwise get thrown out.” Reuse is also implemented through “Union Campus Kitchens” which converts leftover food from dining halls into meals for the needy. Similarly, Trinity University in San Antonio, gives students the option to donate household items and leftover non-perishable food items when they move out. These items are then delivered to a local home and transitional living ministry.
In the case of waste reduction, the solution lies not in increasing, but in decreasing convenience, according to the University of Connecticut’s Emily Galanto, who argues that “we have to somehow make wastefulness inconvenient. For example, UConn uses Xpress Nap napkin dispensers that make grabbing excessive napkins more inconvenient.”
Students can also do their part off campus, by making sustainability a convenience in their own homes. At Purdue University student, Carmen Martin’s house, recycling is not just convenient; it’s a house rule: “when new people come over they get a tour and the recycling bin is on the tour!”
Above All, Have Fun
Wallace argues that, “Sustainability has to be fun.”
There may be, perhaps, nothing more valued on a college campus than fun, creativity and self-expression. Many schools, therefore, are trying to engage students in the sustainability process in fun, creative ways.
Wallace considers Xavier University’s community garden to be one of its most exciting initiatives: “This will engage members of the university as well as the community members to grow some of our own food,” she says. Union College has implemented a similar strategy with its “Octopus Garden,” an organic garden on campus.
Students can also do things on their own to encourage waste reduction, while simultaneously encouraging self-expression. Martin advises: “Take a reusable bag and cup with you everywhere you go – don’t think of it as a burden but a way to express your personality. My cups and bags are decorated with sayings or designs that are unique and personalized and I get compliments on them all the time!” Martin’s goal appears to be similar to that of Angelina Mackewn, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Tennessee at Martin who says, “We’re hoping to make ‘going green’ sexy and not lame.”
Of course, recycling competitions between residence halls and academic buildings, as mentioned before, are also fun, while providing incentive. Classroom analyses, such as the one undertaken by Corbin’s Environmental Studies class, which involves faculty members diving into dumpsters, are fun as well as educational. These, along with other creative initiatives, must be implemented all year to ensure that RecycleMania continues on college campuses beyond the annual competition. The four values discussed overlap in many areas, and by playing upon these values, schools can work together to increase awareness and promote sustainability year round.
RecycleMania is a “friendly competition” that encourages participating schools to share their strategies and offer advice in order to promote sustainability on campuses all over the country. Thanks to all school participants who were willing to provide the information used in this article: