The Arizona Desert Lamp

RecycleMania: A dubious victory

Posted in Campus by Connor Mendenhall on 20 April 2009

Gorilla PrizeUniversity information organ UANews is pleased as punch about the University of Arizona’s recent fourth-place finish in the annual RecycleMania competition, which pits campus against campus in a cutthroat contest of collective can conservation:

With the nationwide RecycleMania competition complete, The University of Arizona is reporting that it recycled more than 1 million pounds.

And the UA placed fourth in the “Gorilla Prize division” of the competition.

“I am so proud of our campus efforts in terms of recycling habits and education ourselves around issues of sustainability,” said Liz Zavodsky, sustainability education coordinator for UA’s Residence Life.

“We had not formal budget, we had no formal program or marketing,” Zavodsky said. “We just tried to spread the word and get everyone involved. I hope our campus feels proud. This has been a great stepping stone. ”

The UA recycled 1,025,688 pounds of material during the 10-week competition, which involved schools across the United States.

The campus recycled aluminum, plastic, cardboard, paper, tin and chipboard, such as cereal boxes far exceeded the amount of material Residence Life recycled last year– which amounted to more than 65,500 pounds.

But here’s the 1,025,688-pound gorilla in the room: Some of that recycled stuff may be reclaimed, but it’s still a massive amount of waste. In fact, according to the RecycleMania website, the Gorilla Prize goes to “schools that collect the highest gross tonnage of recyclables, regardless of campus population.” It’s not indexed for school size. It’s not indexed to consider recycling tonnage as a percentage of total waste. It’s an all-out competition to see who can collect the most recyclable stuff, regardless of whether or not it would have been created without the prize.

It’s hard to imagine the allure of competitive recycling altering the average student’s behavior. (“Should I save this water bottle instead of chucking it in the recycling bin? Aw, hell, I want that Gorilla Prize!” “Might I fashion these aluminum cans into a crude carbon-neutral telephone? Screw it, it’s RecycleMania season!”) But incentives matter, and here they are clearly designed to encourage waste. It’s nice that recycling is widespread on campus, not least because it helps the university recoup some of its trash-disposal costs. But just because this waste is slightly less bad than it might have been if UA had participated in Trash-A-Thon 2009 doesn’t make the Gorilla prize any less facile.

One Response

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  1. mattstyer said, on 21 April 2009 at 7:45 am

    It’s hard to imagine that this really incentivizes more waste. People don’t really think “Aw, hell yea I’m gonna buy this useless stuff so I can recycle it for the competition!” If you want to get economistic about it, there are mitigating incentives for people not to waste more just to recycle it, namely, the cost of buying things.

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