RecycleMania began in January 2001 as a challenge between Ohio University and Miami University. Looking for ways to motivate student to recycle more, their recycling coordinators tapped into the existing sports rivalry to see which one could recycle the most per student over a 10 week period. Miami won that first year and the RecycleMania Tournament was born.

Over the next several years the competition grew informally, adding schools by word of mouth.

Beginning in 2004, RecycleMania partnered with the U.S. EPA WasteWise program to develop a website and for the first time provide dedicated administrative support for the program. In 2005 the program expanded to include the Recycling Rate category (later to be retitled Diversion), followed the next year with the introduction of the Waste Minimization, Food Organics and targeted materials categories.

RecycleMania has continued to grow. Since 2001 over 1,000 colleges and universities across the US and Canada have participated. During the 2018 competition 3.6 million students from 300 campuses recycled and composted 68.6 million pounds preventing the release of 94,152 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCO2E) into the atmosphere, which is equivalent to preventing the annual emissions from 20,160 cars. Schools from 46 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and Canada participated. 

RecycleMania, Inc. governs all aspects of the program including the rules and structure of the competition. National Wildlife Federation is the manager of the RecycleMania Program, and works in partnership with RecycleMania, Inc.