Volume 78 | Issue 5
September 2010

Sustainability Revolution: Let the competition begin

Ryan Ihrke, Gregory T. Wilkins, & Elizabeth Stringer

In Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great,” the opening sentence of his first chapter states, “Good is the enemy of great.” In education we are in the business of doing good work, but how often to do we push ourselves to do great work? After all, a “C” meets standard; it may not be perfect, but we are at least in the running. Good work does not get us fired, but what if we were in the business of doing great work, exceeding expectations, setting the standard for excellence, being a catalyst for change, moving beyond the ordinary, and being extraordinary in all that we do? To live a life of superlatives impacting the lives of the one and the many would be the standard.

Colleges and universities as well as college unions do good work, and some of us are superlative. By witnessing excellence, we are able to strive to become better at what we do. Through benchmarked practices, new standards are set and opportunities to excel are brought to the marketplace. Competitions serve as opportunities for growth and improvement where students, faculty, and staff are able to set into motion a notion where change can take place, be assessed, and be repeated. As institutions face the task of reducing the consumption patterns of individuals and communities, ideas on how to engage others in changing behavior are necessary.

The impact of colleges and universities is immense and cannot be overlooked. The question then arises: What role can colleges and universities have in addressing the issues of decreasing resources of our planet? One way schools have been encouraging conservation has been through resource reduction competitions. The impact of these competitions is multifold. The amount of resources consumed decreases during the competition, and these competitions are strategies toward achieving behavioral shifts that ultimately lead to sustainable change.

Sustainability competitions

Often the best way to start working toward sustainability goals is with simple actions and activities that require limited investment. In working with others and building community, small actions such as shutting off lights or not using trays in the college union food court can have measurable impacts in both short- and long-term savings. What follows are some examples of sustainability competitions that might be replicated successfully at other institutions.

Energy competitions are popular because often data are already measured and the results can be easily converted into dollars saved and a lowering of carbon emissions. It is important to have good support from facilities management to assist with data tracking.

The Environmental Protection Agency is now conducting its 2010–11 College and University Green Power Challenge in which it tracks green power purchases. In 2011, it will recognize the athletic conference with the highest combined green purchases as the Champion Green Power Conference; the largest single purchaser from each of the participating conferences will also be recognized. At press time, the Ivy League schools were in the lead, followed by the Big Ten Conference and the University Athletic Association. Last year, the Ivy League was the overall champion, collectively purchasing more than 225 kilowatt-hours. 

The Minnesota Campus Energy Challenge is a student-run competition that pits Minnesota higher education institutions against one another to see which can conserve the most energy during the month of February. Eight institutions participated in the 2010 competition, and Bemidji State University emerged the winner in all three categories: overall energy reduction (13 percent), reduction in heating (12 percent), and reduction in electricity (14 percent). For its efforts, the university received a bicycle-powered blender.

Luther College and Wartburg College went head to head in an energy conservation competition in which student volunteers conducted “room energy audits” around campus. Luther was victorious, reducing the college’s overall gas consumption by 11 percent and keeping them from having to hang a “Wartburg Won” banner in their union.

Water competitions are similar to energy competitions and will require connecting with facilities management to measure water use. These are often grouped with other competitions.

Denison College’s Water Wars takes place during October as a competition among residence hall students. Winning residence halls have reduced their water usage up to 31 percent and saved over 22,000 gallons of water.

Indiana University’s 2010 Energy Challenge had three levels of competition. Residence halls, academic buildings, and greek houses battled against their counterparts to save energy and water. The water saved during the event’s month-long challenge was enough to fill four Olympic-sized swimming pools, not to mention the just more than 1 million kilowatt-hours of energy saved.

Recycling competitions measure the amount of waste recycled. These data are often already collected by schools and can be utilized for this type of competition.

Recyclemania is a national competition that pits schools against one another to increase recycling and reduce waste. Four categories are considered during the contest: largest amount of recyclables per capita, largest amount of total recyclables, least amount of trash per capita, and highest recycling rate. Started in 2001, Recyclemania’s first battle was between just two institutions—Ohio University and Miami University. But the 10-week competition has grown over the years; in 2010, more than 600 institutions participated, collecting more than 84 million pounds of material to be either composted or recycled.

A growing competition on college campuses is to encourage students to create art out of recycled products. Dickinson College held a recycled materials sculpture contest in 2006; the winning entries were displayed in the union. GreenFest 2010 at San Diego State University featured an Enviro-Fashion Show, where students created clothing out of recycled materials. Also, Indiana University recently hosted its third annual “More Art, Less Trash” competition, which allows students to compete for their design to be placed on recycling bins around campus.

At the University of Michigan, the fraternities and sororities have joined forces to create Green Greeks, a student organization that sponsors the Green Greeks Recycling Competition. The most recent event raised almost $1,500 and saved more than 60,000 cans and bottles.

Butler University uses a number guessing contest to educate students about water bottle usage. At a table set up outside the college union, a display featured water bottles Butler students trashed each day and offered information about the importance of choosing a reusable bottle instead. Students were asked to guess the number of bottles displayed (900).

A biking competition can provide an opportunity to engage students and employees in a sustainability competition that also encourages physical activity. With biking competitions, the data is less technical and lends itself better to self-reporting.

The University of Washington’s Ride in the Rain program encourages people to commute by bike despite inclement weather. All participants who ride a minimum number of days are treated to a luncheon at the end of the campaign. Points are awarded for each day biking with bonus points given for riding on rainy days.

As a team competition geared toward all workplaces in Oregon, the Bike Transportation Alliance’s Bike to Work Challenge gives anyone who bikes a total of seven times access to prize drawings and discounts at sponsoring bike shops across the state.

Purdue University and West Virginia University both promote biking (or other forms of alternative transportation) through contests. At Purdue University, Alternative Transportation Week, which coincides with Green Week, encourages the campus as well as the greater community to not travel using a car, rather to use a bike or other form of transportation. West Virginia University holds an alternative transportation competition for the community called Go for the Groceries, in which participants are encouraged to use nonmotorized transportation for routine travel. For both events, participants are eligible to receive gift cards or other
small prizes.

Food waste
Food waste competitions can focus on both the environmental costs and social costs of wasted food. By weighing the food wasted and dividing it by the number of people attending a meal, events can track how much food  is wasted per person.

University of Texas–San Antonio’s Green Society sponsored a competition between itself and Southern Methodist University, called Weigh the Waste. One dining hall on each campus was monitored for food waste during the nearly month-long contest. On the first day of the competition, the wasted food total 0.173 pounds per person dining at the University of Texas–San Antonio and 0.131 pounds at Southern Methodist University. But on the final day of the competition, the University of Texas won, averaging 2.03 ounces of waste per person, while Southern Methodist averaged 2.36 ounces.

At Bucknell University, a contest aimed at promoting awareness about food waste puts a person’s personal food waste on public display. The biannual “Look How Trashy I Am” competition encourages students to wear a white T-shirt on which they write all items they throw away in a three-day period. After the contest, the shirts are put on display and participants are eligible to win gift certificates to local restaurants.

Conducting a sustainability competition

Think about what sort of behaviors you would like to increase to move your school from good to great. Perhaps it is conserving electricity, wasting less food, or having more people bike to campus. By framing these actions in a competition, campuses have the opportunity to engage multiple community members, provide opportunities for students to take on leadership roles, and foster behavior that leads to a more sustainable campus.

Although sustainability competitions can be complex and require significant development, this does not need to be the case. A competition can be created by following these four simple steps.
  • Identify campus partners
  • Create an action plan
  • Market and promote the competition
  • Collect data and communicate the results

Identify campus partners
The first step is to document a vision, expected accomplishments, and why a competition is beneficial to campus partners. After clarifying the project scope, ask participants how they would improve the project. Be innovative about who should be involved. Remember existing partners and reach out to a few new groups. Once partners have signed on or declined, always ask them who else would be interested in the project.

Create an action plan
It is helpful to define an action plan that is easily measured. Electricity use may be measured depending on how electricity is distributed to buildings on your campus. Check with the facilities management team to find out how the electricity is metered. It may be easier to select an action that can be measured by the participants such as biking to work. Instead of relying on meters for detailed information, simply having people report their actions can be an effective form of competition.

It is also important to select an action that can be controlled by the competition’s target participants. For example, it is unlikely students in a residence hall can control how much heat they use in their individual rooms, but they can easily determine how much food they take and dispose of in the dining hall.

Marketing and promotion

When promoting a sustainability competition, consider how your marketing can be consistent with the overall goals of increasing your campus’ sustainability. Printing a large number of posters, flyers, and other paper material is not environmentally friendly. Promoting through the university website/e-mails, attending campus meetings, or placing a small number of signs in high-traffic areas may be a better way to reach your constituency.

Prizes and awards can help engage the audience and maintain interest in the competition. Incentives such as traveling trophies and gift certificates from local sponsors are easy ways to encourage participation and reward participants.

Collecting data and communicating results
Typically, the results and winners of sustainability competitions are determined by the percentage of change individuals or groups make during the competition period. To accomplish this, data are collected before the competition or the starting point may be based on the average of the data collected over previous years. This baseline data is then used to compute the amount of change that occurs during the actual competition. The overall winner is determined by the group or individuals who achieve the greatest percent of change during the competition.

The more often data are collected and communicated to the participants, the greater the chance for increasing sustainable behaviors. By utilizing a website to communicate results, people will have 24-hour access and track the number of times data are checked. Regular communication can increase participation in the competition. It may also be effective to have the data presented in an area that does not need to be visited online.

Communicating results via school media such as radio, television, newspapers, digital signage, or a large poster or computer readout in central locations such as a college union may also be impactful. When the competition is complete and a winner has be named, be sure to broadcast results widely as a way to engage nonparticipants.

Collective change

All campus member have a role in advancing the community’s sustainability. In his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader,” Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term “servant leader.” The servant-first persona ensures that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. In his later text “On Becoming a Servant Leader,” Greenleaf speaks to this responsibility as the requirement that “a person think, speak, and act as if personally accountable to all who may be affected by his or her thoughts, words, and deeds.” The sustainability coordinator or members of the environmental committee are not solely responsible for creating a green campus; instead, each member of the community must identify areas of influence and responsibility.

Competition is an opportunity for members to come together and work toward a specific goal or task. It is through this relational process and formation of community that decisions are made to affect behavioral change. While someone may compete because of personal goals and recognition, the learning that occurs through the competition may lead to lifestyle changes that benefit others. And these behavior changes are not necessarily contained to the competition timeframe. For example, turning off lights when exiting a room may lead to personal financial savings on utilities and can become habitual, reducing energy consumed from the grid over the long term. By engaging students in structured activities that actively measure and communicate their consumption in relation to their peers, they learn ways to adjust their consumption patterns and gain a better understanding in how these patterns relate to the larger community.

Competitions have the ability to be a regenerative force. They place participants in a position of power to affect change for the many, and as a collective, the group has the ability to transform an entire community’s practices and behaviors. By bringing attention to issues such as sustainability, one has the ability to inform and inspire an organization or community to do things differently—a win for everyone.