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Cheering for a Greener Stadium


Recyclemania 2011 at the University of Utah has begun with the goal of getting students and staff working closer to the University’s goal of reducing or diverting almost 50 percent of its overall waste – as stated by the 2010 Climate Action Plan.  This is a pretty substantial goal, as the U currently recycles only 27 percent of its solid waste stream.

This is the first essay of a three-part series on recycling and waste reduction efforts at the University of Utah.

This past football season the Utes ended with 10 Wins, 3 Losses, and roughly 104 tons of garbage in the Salt Lake County landfill.

I know what it’s like.  When I’m at football games my trash is furthest from my mind.  That pizza box, or hotdog wrapper, or that sticky soda cup gets tossed under my seat, and becomes someone else’s problem.  When I was younger I knew people came through the stands later and picked up our trash, but I never knew – much less cared – where it went.  It’s estimated that each home game generates roughly 8 tons of trash, and the landfill – where it all ends up – is a prolific emitter of greenhouse gasses like methane, which is contributing to global climate change.

So obviously, we football fans should reduce our collective stadium waste. Or recycle it.  Or compost it.  But how best to do that?

In the fall of 2010 some ASUU students created an online petition calling for better recycling at Rice Eccles Stadium.  They called for student volunteers to help collect plastic bottles and cans into red and white Coca Cola bins, as people entered or exited the stadium.  Other volunteers ventured into the tailgating areas and faced a “harsh environment” of boisterous and inebriated fans, by some accounts.  After games they also tried gathering recyclable materials in the stands before the trash crews got to them. Norah Olley, the Board Director of Sustainability for ASUU, says the biggest challenge has been getting fans to think about recycling and make the extra effort to do it.

About 90% of the time, people were excited to see students volunteering to recycle and they thanked us.  But most of the people we interacted with didn’t even know the red and white Coca Cola bins were for recycling.”

Despite these efforts U Recycling Coordinator Josh James was disappointed with the season.  “It was a difficult situation because students put out a petition calling for more volunteers for recycling at the stadium, but then we only got 15 people showing up every game.  It wasn’t enough.”

Indeed this problem is not just about trash.  It’s about changing social attitudes and cultural habits.

Recently I decided to search for examples for how the U of U might reduce stadium waste and improve its “recycling culture.”  One inspirational model is what the University of Colorado at Boulder (another PAC-12 competitor) did only a few years ago.

How CU Forged the First “Zero Waste” Football Game

The "zero waste" event. Photo by Doug Grinbergs.

By 2008 many Colorado students were fed up with the mountains of piled garbage outside their Folsom Field, all of it destined for a landfill.  With the help of CU-Boulder’s Environmental Center, Recycling Coordinator Dan Burrow says they approached the Athletic Department for help.

“Basically, we had to get Athletics on board first, because they managed the contracts with the concessionaires and dictate what needs to happen (during home games),” Burrow says. “Athletics worked out the logistics and financials with the vendors and we guided them through it.”

CU-Boulder’s food service contractor, Centerplate Inc., arranged with stadium concessionaires and outside

vendors to use only refillable, recyclable or compostable materials and containers.  Boulder-based Eco Products, a national distributor of compostable products, was also more than happy to be a partner. Their compostable food packaging is made from cornstarch (polylactic acid or PLA), Bagasse sugarcane, or plant starch materials (PSM) – all of which are biodegradable disposables or “compostable.”

Next they replaced all the stadium trash containers with recycle or compost containers placed at selected locations around the stadium.  The Student volunteers became “goalies” who tended the bins and educated fans on what materials were recyclable or compostable (Having volunteer perks, like free game tickets, a T-shirt, a hat, and a free meal also helped). Eventually because of the large volunteer turnouts CU hired a volunteer coordinator to manage the 35 to 40 volunteers they needed for each home game.

Following the game students haul the recyclable materials (aluminum cans, plastic bottles, clean and balled foil, cardboard, and light-colored paper) back to their campus sorting facility and remove any possible food contaminants.  From there they are taken to a local Materials Recovery Facility in Boulder.

The compostable material is picked up by the nonprofit Eco Cycle, and taken to a commercial composting facility outside of Boulder called A1 Organics.  The materials are heated, grinded, and reduced back to organic compost and eventually returned to the University for campus landscaping.

CU Students sorting materials during a football game. Photo courtesy of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Since CU-Boulder began its “zero-waste” stadium initiative they have averaged a 75 percent diversion rate at each home football game (meaning 75 percent of the waste gets “diverted” from the landfill).  And even though they’re still sometimes dealing with contamination issues, they’re likely improving techniques with each game and season.

To help offset the extra costs the University found some outside sponsors to help support the student’s efforts.  In the long-run CU-Boulder expects the zero-waste program to save money as reduced trash disposal costs are offset by the returns of recycled and composted materials.

The overall initiative was a bit more costly, Burrow says, and Athletics shared some of those costs.  “But it was some tremendously positive PR for them,” he says. “We were the first stadium of that size in the nation to create a zero-waste game.  It was a huge deal!  It really helped us lead the way.”  (Colorado’s Folsom Field seats 53,750 people, while Utah’s Rice Eccles Stadium seats 45,634 people).

OK, Utes, What’s the Game Plan?

As sustainability becomes deeply embedded in everything we do as a University, Athletics must be a critical partner.  The Athletics Department is in a strong position for helping students transform Rice Eccles into a “zero waste” stadium.  As Norah Olley of ASUU says, “we just need more… more volunteers, more marketing and more inspiration. We need the Rice-Eccles Stadium to find value in recycling.”

Admittedly, the University of Colorado at Boulder has several decades of recycling investments and infrastructure available, which has helped them make their zero-waste stadium a reality.  But as the Utes begin its first PAC-12 season what better way to earnestly begin reducing all game-day waste than through inter-school competition.  For example, many other schools in the PAC-12 participate in the EPA’s Game Day Challenge.

Working to reduce stadium waste also brings tremendous opportunities for new partnerships between University departments, student groups, local businesses, and even progressive corporations.  For example Coca Cola, one of the U’s biggest sponsors, should definitely be part of it.  Students and Utah fans already express tremendous support for reducing waste and recycling.  And fun innovations are already happening: the Recycling Program has received some fancy new bicycles (purchased through the SCIF program) specially equipped for collecting materials.

Obviously, Utah is not Colorado, and not that we want to be.  But as a leading university we need to show we value stewardship as much as we value football.  The U has its own unique traditions and culture, and our student body is constantly creating new approaches to the environmental challenges facing us.  So it just makes sense, that even our football stadium should be a sustainability laboratory.