Colleges and Universities Stop 380 Million Plastic Bottles From Going to the Landfill

Close to 300 U.S. and Canadian campuses recycled, donated, and composted 48.6 million pounds of waste and cut out more than 380 million plastic bottles from the waste stream during this year’s RecycleMania 2020 competition.

Beginning on February 2, campuses kicked off their competitions to divert waste, including food waste, and recycle their cans, bottles, paper, cardboard, and electronics. 

Due to COVID-19 pandemic early closings, many RecycleMania campuses were unable to complete the full eight-week competition so in an effort to provide flexibility and ensure a fair competition, the program made the decision to recognize campuses this year for the first five weeks of the competition only (Feb 2 – Mar 7).

Despite these unforeseen circumstances, this year’s competition engaged 4.5 million students and staff, and prevented the release of 70,875 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere, which is equal to avoiding the annual emissions from 15,047 cars.

Find out which campuses took the lead in the RecycleMania 2020 competition

Loyola Marymount University in California won two of the main RecycleMania categories – the diversion category (highest waste diversion percentage with 85%) and the per capita category (recycled the largest combined amount of paper, cardboard and bottles and cans on a per person basis). Stanford University in California took first place in Food Organics, for donating 11,100 pounds of food, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts received an Honorable Mention in this category. Michigan schools led the way in the new zero waste category with Aquinas College winning for their zero waste efforts in the smaller campus category (tracking one building), and the University of Michigan won for their zero waste efforts in the larger campus category (tracking five buildings). 

  • Top Ranking Recyclemania Campus Diversion: Loyola Marymount University Top Ranking Recyclemania Campus Per Capita: Loyola Marymount University

The competition also features special categories that required one time reporting during this year’s 5-week time frame. Southwestern College in Kansas won for the Electronics category for highest per capita, and Stony Brook University in New York won for total amount recycled; Georgia Institute of Technology won the Race to Zero Waste category for their efforts to significantly reduce their waste stream in one building over a one-month period; and The Ohio State University (highest diversion rate) and George Mason University in Virginia (highest per capita) lead the way for GameDay Basketball.

Here are some other ways in which campuses implemented innovative and creative practices to reduce waste and increase recycling this year: 

  • Rider University in New Jersey hosted a campaign in conjunction with World Water Day to promote drinking tap water and the use of reusable drink containers. 
  • Syracuse University in New York designed a recycling twister game to help educate students and staff on what can and cannot be recycled. Winners received a reusable straw.
  • University of Southern Mississippi’s Wanted campaign recognized and took photos of students and staff using reusable mugs with the traditional “Wanted” background.

Check out the complete 2020 competition results

The 2020 competition year also brought some exciting changes

  • In celebration of its 20th anniversary, the program announced the competition is changing its name to Campus Race to Zero Waste. The new name better reflects and reinforces the purpose of the program – to help colleges and universities find pathways toward zero waste on campus. The RecycleMania name and logo will slowly be phased out through summer 2020. 
  • A new competition category focused on zero waste made its debut. Competing schools tracked and reported on five campus buildings of diverse use (e.g. academic, residential, dining), provided data on recycling, composting, materials for reuse, and trash, and also received points for waste minimization activities and policies on campus. 
  • RecycleMania announced its partnership with Rubicon, naming it the competition’s official sustainability and technology partner. Rubicon, a technology company born in the waste and recycling industry that powers a digital marketplace, provides a suite of Software as a Service (SaaS) products for waste, recycling, and smart city solutions, and collects and analyzes data for businesses and governments worldwide. 

“Rubicon’s mission is to end waste and we are honored to play a role in helping America’s college students join us in this important mission,” said David Rachelson, Chief Sustainability Officer at Rubicon. “Seeing the future leaders of the sustainability movement engage in recycling and waste reduction best practices across their campuses makes me hopeful for the future of our environment, and the planet as a whole.”

Colleges and universities address global plastic pollution problem

Figuratively, and even somewhat literally, our planet is drowning in plastic. From 2002-2015, the global economy produced the same amount of plastic as in the period 1950-20021. Much of that plastic ends up in trash cans and landfills, or unintentionally makes its way from sewers into our rivers and oceans. As a result, plastics of different sizes are being ingested by billions of creatures; it is estimated that the ingestion of plastic kills hundreds of thousands of marine birds, mammals, and fish each year2. Humans are also ingesting plastic material daily through our diets, with unknown long-term health consequences. 

Top Ranking Recyclmania Campus Electronics Total Pounds Recycled: Stony Brook University

Colleges, universities, students, faculty, and staff have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to lead by example and challenge themselves to review their purchasing and usage of plastic materials and adopt new policies and practices to minimize where possible and ensure the proper disposal of plastics, including recycling efforts. College campuses are like small cities, with their residence halls, dining facilities, transportation fleets, and bookstores, and close to 20 million students and staff are educated and/or employed there annually3. With the average college student producing about 640 pounds of trash each year4, campuses need comprehensive waste management programs that provide tracking, reporting, education, awareness, fun, and creativity. 

The Campus Race to Zero Waste (AKA RecycleMania), America’s premier collegiate waste reduction and recycling program and competition, educates and challenges students and staff at college campuses to reduce and recycle waste during an eight-week competition. The competition framework measures on-campus factors such as percentage of waste stream recycled, percentage diverted, per capita results, and food waste abatement. The framework also provides a benchmarking tool for campuses to set waste reduction goals and develop more effective year-over-year plans. The competition utilizes a theory of change based on behavioral principles that examine how education can inform young people’s choices to avoid single-use plastics, and how we can most effectively influence behavior change to ensure that recycling behaviors stick. Since 2001, the program has engaged more than 1,000 colleges and universities. 

1 Geyer, Roland et al, July 19, 2017. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances –

2 Yoeman, Barry, June 1, 2019; A Plague of Plastics. National Wildlife magazine –

3 National Center for Education Statistics –

4 Curbing the college waste problem, May 11, 2015. Planet Aid –