Winning the waste game in higher ed

Bringing sustainability practices to stadiums and arenas by reducing, recycling and reusing what used to get tossed in the trash

“BEAT BAMA  … WE ALREADY DID!” reads a flier that Louisiana State University prepared for its incoming freshmen this year.

Wait, what?

LSU’s football team has lost its annual matchup with Southeastern Conference rival Alabama for each of the last six years. Keep reading, and you learn the Tigers’ victories were not on the field but in the stands and on the concourses of their stadium.

Sidebar: Waste providers on game day fumbles

In 2015 and 2016, LSU earned first place for total recycling in the national GameDay Recycling Challenge, the flier notes triumphantly.

Colleges and universities—longtime bastions of environmental sensitivity in dining halls and on quads—have turned their attention to areas on campuses that generate tremendous amounts of waste in small amounts of time: their stadiums and arenas.

After all, game days mean lots of fans—in some cases more than 100,000—and lots of chances to give an assist to Mother Earth. It’s not just about recycling, although that remains a key focus.

Sidebar: Does school size matter in game day sustainability?

The latest sustainability efforts cover reusable bottles, composting and non-disposable plates that go into the dishwasher instead of a trash can and then the landfill.

“The spread of zero waste—that’s the big thing,” says Julian Dautremont-Smith, director of programs for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).

“I think you’re going to start to see more and more institutions embracing it as a way to engage fans and improve their sustainability performance.”

There is no foolproof game plan to defeat the waste demon. It comes down to awareness-raising and relationship-building and rosters of all-star students with a unique ability to engage with fans.

Green on game day: Ideas beyond recycling

  • Arrange to donate leftover food.
  • Compost food waste, both in the concession kitchens and through fan-accessible composting bins.
  • Host a fan collection event (for items such as athletic shoes, electronics, canned goods or clothing).
  • Use LED lighting in your stadium and arena.
  • Use environmentally friendly cleaning materials.
  • Install bike racks to promote bicycle commuting to the venue.

Zeroing in on zero waste

So-called zero-waste events aim to limit garbage sent to the landfill to a mere 10 percent of disposed material, with the remaining 90 percent being recycled or composted.

Administrators say the best way to reduce game day waste is to reduce the amount of disposable products that show up in the stadium or arena in the first place.

Ohio University’s teams eat pregame meals on washable plates, not on plasticware that gets tossed into the garbage. Plates in the pressroom and VIP areas are compostable.

The drive even extends to university-approved tailgating parties, where a couple of thousand students gather before games, with refreshments from university catering and outside vendors provided at no charge.

They’re set up as “zero-waste events,” says Andrew Ladd, recycling and zero-waste manager at the institution. “Everything brought to the event is recyclable or compostable.”

Ohio’s diversion rate (95.6 percent) tied for first with Eastern Washington University in that category of last year’s GameDay Recycling Challenge. The competition to reduce and recycle waste at home football games launched in 2010.

Such initiatives require planning and coordination. When Scott Buck arrived at Eastern Washington as a waste management specialist and transportation supervisor in 2013, the green game day push didn’t go beyond the routine, he says. “We set up recycling stations and hoped people used them.”

But a lot of waste was still being generated on game days. The solution: Get a new commitment from dining services to purchase only products that are compostable or recyclable. The university also bought new collection systems for composting and recycling.

Sustainable students

College campuses are filled with one energetic source of labor with an almost built-in affinity for environmental advocacy: their students. Institutions that sustainably manage game days put them to good use.

For the GameDay Challenge tilt against Alabama, the call for student volunteers went out via social media channels, says Sarah Temple, LSU’s campus sustainability manager. “We offered $200 for any group that could bring at least 90 percent of their members to help us.”

While only the rowing club met that challenge, several other students stepped up to help.

Volunteer duties vary from campus to campus. At some stadiums, students staff waste stations to help fans determine if their materials can be recycled or composted, or whether it’s actually trash.

“If the folks coming to the stadium don’t understand the program or what goes in which bin, it’s going to break down,” says AASHE’s Dautremont-Smith. “Over time, that knowledge builds, and the hope is they perhaps start composting at home.”

On the Monday after a game at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, students join the composting coordinator to remove compostable material from trash. Elsewhere, such as at Eastern Washington, students pass out bags and leaflets with sustainability tips to tailgating fans.

Some institutions pay students as employees or offer them extra credit in certain classes. Students—whether they’re volunteers or somehow compensated—bring unique strengths to sustainability advocacy that administrators can’t match, explains Buck at Eastern Washington.

“The students can motivate their peers to think about what they’re doing more than we can,” he says. “With the tailgaters, 75 percent of them are in their mid-30s to their 50s. Students are able to go out and be energized about this stuff and get other people excited about helping out.”

As Jen Maxwell, sustainability program specialist at Appalachian State, notes, “Everyone is so happy on game days. The weather’s beautiful, they’re out of town. They’re really willing to engage in talk about sustainability.”

Flash it, don’t trash it

Being public about green game day initiatives is critical, so marketing offices should be enlisted to spread the word. Ohio U officials place announcements on stadium video boards and throughout campus. Appalachian State puts sustainability content in programs and other collateral available to fans.

LSU has placed neon flashing signs touting recycling in a few places on campus. The university also ran the Get Caught Green-Handed social media promotion: Whoever took the best recycling selfie won a football signed by Tigers coach Ed Orgeron.

Contest ads ran in the school newspaper, including in its special game-day issue, Temple says. “We did a radio spot for it. We blasted it out there on social media again and again and again and again.”

LSU’s winning recycling total for the 2016 GameDay Challenge was an astounding 78,200 pounds; the year before was even better, at 86,400 pounds.

“It’s just a good testament to what can happen when you go all-in with your resources—volunteers, staff, students, marketing,” Temple says. “If we had the resources to do that every single game, we certainty would.”

Thomas W. Durso is a regular contributor to UB as well as associate vice president for college relations and marketing at Albright College in Pennsylvania. 

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