Stiff Competition from Pac-12 in Game Day Recycling

Fans segregate recyclables.

Fans in the tailgating lot segregate their recyclables to make collection easier.

By Shaun Daniel

The following look at recycling at Utes football games is a reflection of my personal experience in volunteering at the main tailgate lot in November. I salute all those who are working hard to minimize the waste stream coming out of the U’s sporting events.

“What a load of garbage!”

That’s the punchline to the question: What do a fan’s response to a bad call and the aftermath of game day revelry have in common?

What a load of garbage, indeed: 40,500 pounds of waste was hauled away from the Utah v. Oregon game on Nov. 8. At the tailgate alone, fans tossed 12,100 pounds of stuff in the trash. All told, just 3,880 pounds of plastics, aluminum, glass, and cardboard/paper were recycled, and that was in large part thanks to the amazing efforts of Recycle Rice-Eccles and Facilities Management volunteers.

recyclables in bags

Bags of recyclables at the Oregon game. ASUU director of sustainability Kelsey Paulding said it was volunteers’ best collection to date.

At that game, the University of Utah was participating in the GameDay Challenge, an annual recycling competition for colleges and universities. When the results of the Challenge were announced at the end of last semester, Utah emerged 48th of 53. (Granted, there were probably 900 or more schools who didn’t participate at all. But the point is to win, isn’t it?)

Here is how we stack up with other members of the Pac-12 who participated (percentages represent the rate of waste diverted from the landfill):

  1. University of Colorado Boulder – 90.98%
  2. Arizona State University – 77.35%
  3. University of California, Berkeley – 74.29%
  4. University of Washington-Seattle Campus – 69.44%
  5. University of Oregon – 58.09%
  6. University of Arizona – 40.37%
  7. University of Southern California – 32.21%
  8. Stanford University – 15.66%
  9. University of Utah – 8.74%

The Utah v. Oregon game was the first time I’d taken part in Recycle Rice-Eccles, but it was the fifth year of this worthwhile ASUU Sustainability Board-sponsored program to collect recyclables at the tailgating lots in order to divert waste from the landfill. Volunteers get a t-shirt, food, free admission to the game, and a chance to go out on the field at half time in exchange for patrolling for cans and bottles beforehand in the tailgating areas.

Some of the fans were great—appreciative of our efforts and helpful in either sorting out recyclables or aiding us in putting items into the right bags. Others? Not so much. They pointed to piles of empties kicked under RV tires or directed us to beer-soaked trash cans with a mix of hotdog leavings, wadded up napkins, and a hodgepodge of recyclables thrown in (“Just take the whole thing,” they’d say).

Just a thought: If you can manage a Ute-branded barbeque, pre-designed beer pong table, or a big-screen plasma TV in the back of your SUV/trailer/motorhome, you can also manage recycling bins for your crew. That’s just good sportsmanship.

How about some defensive blocks to prevent food waste contamination in recycling bins? Or how about a recycling version of cornhole at the tailgate? What if, like the First Down Chant or Third Down Jump, there were a comparable ritual for recycling during the game? Let’s say, the Second Quarter Sweep or the Hefty Half-Time Heave where fans pass recyclables down the line to bag-wielding staff and volunteers in the aisles. (If a Hefty rep is reading this, give us a call when you want to talk details.)

Excited to recycle!

Myron Willson, director of the Sustainability Resource Center, and David Proffitt, PhD student in planning, are enthusiastic about recycling.

In any case, my experience is probably more negative than most. For example, take Myron Willson, director of the Sustainability Resource Center. He has volunteered with Recycle Rice-Eccles at least once a year for the past four years. He says he enjoys the interactions with the student volunteers and fans, and the chance to provide a service while sending a message.

“It’s important to ‘walk our talk’ and show the importance of reducing waste and recycling what we can,” Willson says.

Considering Our Next Play

Currently there are no recycling bins in Rice-Eccles Stadium and, predictably, the stadium accounts for the bulk of the non-recycled waste stream coming out of football games. Things are a little better at the tailgating lots where Recycle Rice-Eccles’s impact has been growing every year.

Kelsey Paulding, current director of sustainability for ASUU, who was in charge of coordinating this year’s Recycle Rice-Eccles program, says, “It’s been a unique challenge, but we have found success.”

With two years of involvement with Recycle Rice-Eccles, Paulding has identified ways to further improve the program. For example, since the ASUU’s director of sustainability position turns over each year, Paulding is compiling a document of best practices and lessons learned in order to help train new program directors and bring them up to speed earlier in the season.

Other challenges include a lack of access to the stadium to collect recyclables—after the game volunteers are allowed to gather plastic bottles only until the janitorial teams come through—as well as limited staffing and funding. At present, Paulding and two other part-time employees coordinate these events, a definite challenge when you consider the logistics involved in putting on an event for around 50 volunteers every other week throughout the football season.

The program has grown since its inception. ASUU communications advisor Tom Hurtado remembers an average of six volunteers per game in the first year of Recycle Rice-Eccles. Of this, ASUU programming advisor Erica Andersen says, “Recognizing how far [the program] has come, it’s awesome.”

Recycle Rice-Eccles volunteers at a football game in 2012.

Recycle Rice-Eccles volunteers at a football game in 2012.

On the other side of the Rockies, CU-Boulder offers a compelling example of just what can be accomplished. Claiming the nation’s oldest university recycling program, CU-Boulder has also set itself the goal of a zero waste campus by 2015. The Environmental Center’s website describes the zero waste approach with a quote from the City of Berkeley’s own policy, stating, “If a product can’t be reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned, or removed from production.”

CU-Boulder has made great strides at sporting events, through a combination of recycling, composting, and take-back programs, including an expansion of the zero waste program to basketball games. Real progress has been measured with over 82% diverted from the landfill during the 2013 football season and over 90% at the recent GameDay Challenge.

To accomplish this, CU-Boulder built on its earlier recycling work. The university’s Board of Regents passed a resolution in support of the state’s own zero waste goals and called on all affiliated campuses to do the same. The student government continued to build a partnership with Facilities Management and Housing and Dining Services, and in 2008 it passed a bill to implement zero-waste standards for all student fee-funded events.

Andersen visited CU-Boulder and was impressed by not only the extensive recycling but the presence of composting bins at every stadium portal. The coach and players promoted the zero waste program in videos during breaks in the game. She is now looking at ways to bring U of U student leaders there to see the possibilities and learn how CU-Boulder does it.

Hurtado acknowledges these are all steps that the University of Utah could take. “The students drive this,” he says.

Counting on the Fans

“Ultimately, it’s the students who happen to care about these issues … who pick up all the slack,” explains Paulding.

Recycle Rice-Eccles volunteers show their support for the University.

Paulding and other Recycle Rice-Eccles volunteers show their support.

“The students are doing an amazing job to collect what they can,” Willson says. ”We need help to get the message out to fans to sort waste ahead of time. In addition, we won’t make real progress at the stadium until we move towards compostable products and can eliminate waste altogether.”

Such a change might require looking at the contract language for concessionaires, much as CU-Boulder allowed for procurement preference in awarding contracts to vendors and required compliance with zero waste standards for student-fee funded properties and events.

“Since we recently joined the Green Sports Alliance, there is a little more room for conversation,” Paulding confirms. She is working with other ASUU representatives and sustainability leaders on campus to develop policies that would support expanded recycling at athletic events and beyond. Hurtado suggests the U could do a test-run of expanded recycling and waste reduction at next year’s GameDay Challenge.

Adds Willson, “When the whole fan base takes pride in seeing how the waste impacts of games can be reduced, we will be more competitive with other efforts around the country—especially other schools in the Pac-12.”

Sign up to volunteer at Recycle Rice-Eccles and help divert more waste from the landfill.

Sign up to volunteer with Recycle Rice-Eccles and help divert more waste from the landfill.

If anything, the GameDay Challenge results are an indication that more can be done. University Athletics and Stadium & Arena Event Services can make it a priority to run sporting events that are mindful of the waste they are generating. Concessionaires can switch to food packaging that is either recyclable or compostable. Community partners can help fill some of the current gaps. And the fans can do more. Recycling at this year’s football games totaled 20,750 pounds. Let’s at least double or triple that next year.

We can make zero waste football games happen if the U and the Utes fans step up. After all, it’s the Muss, not the mess.

Shaun Daniel is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities.

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