University of Utah recycling coordinator and waste management supervisor Josh James last fall watched a man walk up to a recycling station in a tailgate lot at a U football game. The man proclaimed, “Recycling, that’s awesome,” and then proceeded to throw away his own recyclables in a nearby trash can.
The man’s garbage contributed that day to what James estimated is about six tons of trash generated before, during, and after each U football game. That adds up to about 36 tons of trash generated during the six home football games in 2011. About one quarter of that was diverted from landfills and recycled.
People power—or sometimes the lack of it—is the biggest reason those who are champions of improved recycling efforts at U athletic events aren’t ready yet to give an A grade for the University’s efforts to achieve greener games. The U often makes it easy for people to recycle at U football games, and yet it seems difficult for many people to take the critical next step, James says. “It’s really amazing.”
Still, James can at least feel comfortable giving a B+ these days to recycling work during U football games at Rice-Eccles Stadium and at gymnastics meets and basketball games at the Huntsman Center. “It’s catching on,” he says. That B+ is an improvement from the C that James would have issued just a few years ago. Since then, student volunteers have worked with U Facilities Management to take recycling to a whole new level at University athletics events.
Football, gymnastics, and men’s basketball are the three sports that generate the most waste out of all University athletics events; hence they are the three areas getting the most attention so far with the recycling efforts. Since 2007, the U has purchased two cardboard balers (think hay balers, only for boxes) for use campuswide, a battalion of bins for placing under desks, bins on wheels, and flatbed trailers to haul the bigger bins. Those changes have had a spillover effect on athletics events, but it was only minimal without a more collective endeavor on the part of students.
Winning ever more ground in the bin game, students came up with the idea of using three bikes with more bins on the backs. Previously, the bikes had been used elsewhere around campus but not at athletics events. Last football season, student volunteers rode the bikes around tailgate lots, mainly along Guardsman Way, spreading the green word and collecting recyclables.
Last year, U student Seth Crossley, who this past year has been associate director of sustainability for the Associated Students of the University of Utah, changed the game even more. Crossley showed what can happen when one person is able to mobilize more students than ever with the shared interest of reducing waste at athletic events. “He did a lot to get us where we’re at now,” James says.
Students in prior years had begun a “Recycle Rice-Eccles” petition drive to obtain signatures of people
who supported the idea of having paid facilities workers separate garbage from recyclables, as well as encouraging more people to be recycling volunteers, but the effort gained little traction.
As Crossley looked for ways to improve the U’s recycling efforts, particularly at athletics events, he researched what other Pac-12 schools were doing. And it turns out many are doing more than the U on that count. So to help bolster the work at the U, Crossley set out to find sponsors who could help incentivize recycling support by giving T-shirts to students who volunteer to help reduce waste at U games. The students help by standing at recycling stations, encouraging others to recycle, and sorting through garbage. Crossley found support from the U Athletics Department, the Office of Sustainability, ASUU, Coca-Cola, The MUSS (the U’s esteemed student cheer section for sports events), and alumni. Fans who participate in the recycling efforts are now issued Frequent Recycler cards and awarded prizes for their efforts. And the “Recycle Rice-Eccles” movement has evolved into an annual initiative complete with its own brand and logo.
“If you give T-shirts to volunteers, it unites them,” says Crossley, who was scheduled to graduate from the U this past spring with degrees in political science and environmental and sustainability studies. He has used social media, email, and old-fashioned word of mouth to find students to help out. Volunteers dubbed “green police” began to feel like they’re part of something “bigger,” Crossley says. “Branding and marketing were the biggest thing for me.”
Back in 2010, before his efforts, often only 15 or so volunteers would show up at an athletics event, and it wasn’t enough to make a dent in the mountains of garbage generated. Some games now draw 50 volunteers who collect and sort recyclables and help with getting the word out during the events. The volunteers often stand at bins and urge people to deposit their plastic, paper, and aluminum in the recycling cans. Students also stick around after games to sift through garbage in the stands for recyclables before paid crews move in to sweep up.
It’s that kind of people power that compels Crossley to raise the recycling grade at Rice-Eccles from what he thinks was a lowly D to a B+ and to a B at the Huntsman Center, where he says the older, indoor crowd isn’t as messy as football’s younger, outdoors audience and generates less garbage. The reason for the slightly lower grade at Huntsman, he notes, is because fewer student volunteers show up at events where the team (such as men’s basketball this past season) does poorly. “There’s a lot of work to do, but we’ve made up a lot of ground,” says Crossley.
The Sierra Club in 2011 ranked the U at 97 out of 118 colleges and universities that replied to a questionnaire looking at environmental issues such as energy use, transportation, and waste management. U Sustainability Coordinator Jen Colby answered in the questionnaire that 32 percent of the campus’ waste is being diverted from landfills. Vital to that percentage is what students have been able to help accomplish at football games, where volunteers helped divert an estimated 19,000 pounds of recyclables from landfills last season.
Ashley Patterson, the U Sustainability Office’s outreach and education coordinator, attributes last year’s success to Crossley and others including ASUU student volunteers Allison Boyer, a stalwart at the Guardsman Way tailgate lot, and Alec Van Huele, who was at every game and organized meetings to coordinate the efforts of the masses of green-minded student volunteers. “[Crossley] did a really good job of turning this into a collaborative effort,” says Patterson, who uses her office’s Facebook page (and its 830 or so followers) to help get the word out to rally volunteers. “Students say they want to do something, but they don’t know what to do or how to do it. Seth fully grasps all of that.”
Crossley pointed out in a presentation earlier this year to volunteers, “Fans’ views of recycling need to be influenced rather than forced—they have to want to recycle!” Even on a bad day at Rice-Eccles. James says that when the Utes have a big loss, fans are much less enthused about recycling. “Everyone says, ‘Leave me alone—I want to go home,’ ” he says. Happy fans are more apt to recycle.
Despite the U’s great strides with recycling at athletics events during the past few years, other Pac-12 schools get higher praise for their efforts, including the University of Washington, Arizona State University, and most notably, the University of Colorado at Boulder, which on its Web site lists 1976 as the year it officially began an on-campus recycling program. In 1991, University of Colorado student government leaders and campus administration officials became partners in recycling with the signing of a memorandum of understanding. Today, the students’ fingerprints on recycling are all over campus, not just at sports events. “Students here have a rich history of speaking up and putting their money where their mouth is,” says Ed von Bleichert, Colorado’s environmental operations manager for Facilities Management. “It really comes from our student body, and it has permeated up.”
From the first minute students hit the Colorado campus in the fall, they are met by “zero-waste ambassadors” at residence halls, where students are educated then and throughout the semester about how to recycle. Between 25 and 30 ambassadors, also known as “goalies,” are also at each football game at zero-waste stations, and each volunteer receives a shirt, hat, meal ticket, and entry to the game. In order to get fans to use recycling services at games, von Bleichert says, “you’ve got to make it easy.” The university also touts a $470,000 facility built in 1992 near the football stadium, Folsom Field, to help with campuswide recycling. And Colorado collects a small fee each semester from its 30,000 students to support education and outreach about recycling at the university.
The recycling facility today employs about 25 students to help divert recyclables from landfills, which accounts for the university’s overall 42 percent diversion rate. “We’re shooting for 90 percent,” says von Bleichert. The current diversion rate puts Colorado in the middle of the pack among other colleges and universities, he says.
A big key to the recycling success at Colorado, von Bleichert says, is the full support recycling efforts receive from the university’s athletics department. Planning goes into what type of packaging will be used at concessions during football games, and garbage cans inside the stadium have been eliminated. All waste from inside the stadium, even while a game is still being played, is sorted by students at the nearby recycling facility.
Other institutions, including the University of Utah, over the years have sought to emulate what’s happening in Boulder. “They definitely get the most attention,” James says. “They have a very well-designed program.” Students from other places in the nation tell James that Utah as a state is behind the times on recycling, and they’re upset that more people are not doing it. James says it will take continued student support to sustain and improve the U’s current recycling efforts at athletics events.
Steve Pyne BS’11, director of events and facilities for the U Athletics Department, says he supports the work of James and the student volunteers to improve recycling at athletics venues. “Whatever they recommend, every football game, I support them,” Pyne says. As part of those efforts, Pyne notes, vendors for games are now making sure boxes they use for supplies are being broken down and recycled instead of simply thrown away. “In my mind, I think we’re doing everything within the resources we have that we can do,” he says.
Universities including Colorado and the U have seen a spike in recycling at football games when sponsors such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the ESPN television network create a competition among institutions to see who can recycle the most. Crossley said earlier this year in a report to student volunteers that an ESPN game-day challenge at the U motivated the crowd to get involved without feeling forced, and volunteers were excited to be working alongside ESPN employees. “Much more fun than Dumpster diving,” Crossley says.
With the U as a new member of the Pac-12, James predicts audiences—and their trash—will increase at all U sporting events, requiring an even more expanded recycling effort on campus. When crowds again roar inside Rice-Eccles and Huntsman Center for the 2012-13 season, James and Crossley are planning on more outreach and more student volunteers. But success will depend once again on two words: people power. “People complain there are not enough bins, but at some point you’ve got to take responsibility for yourself and your purchase,” James says. “You are the consumer; you bought the product.”
—Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City-based writer and photographer and a frequent contributor to Continuum.
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