Mizzou Athletics explores ways of creating ‘zero waste’ at Memorial Stadium after study released

The study found that Memorial Stadium generates over 47 metric tons of waste over five games, most of which is unsold food from concession stands.

Researchers in the College of Engineering released a study in July about the waste produced at sporting events, leading to an effort to reduce food waste.

The study, “Achieving Sustainability Beyond Zero Waste: A Case Study from a College Football Stadium,” audited the landfill-destined waste generated at Memorial Stadium in 2014. The team of researchers, led by assistant professors Christine Costello and Ronald McGarvey, worked with the MU Sustainability Office and the Intercollegiate Athletics Committee on the study.

Tony Wirkus, director of event management and sustainability coordinator for Mizzou Athletics, said Memorial Stadium is trying to achieve “zero waste,” much like other college stadiums. Zero waste is achieved when 90 percent of the waste generated is sent to recycling or composting and is essentially diverted from the landfill.

The team began in 2014, collecting and then auditing trash from five of the seven home football games. During the game, they collected bags from the various trash chutes located around the stadium. The researchers did not audit the blue recycling bags or any bags from bathrooms.

The next day, the team set up tables in the stadium’s parking lot for a team of eight to 10 students hired through the Office of Sustainability to wear gloves and dig through the trash, encountering cockroaches and contraband along the way, McGarvey said. The students were paid by Mizzou Advantage, a health research program that funded the research project.

The students’ task was to separate the waste into three different categories: food waste, recyclable material and trash to be sent to a landfill.

“The idea was to see how much of it was plastic and how much of it was chicken bones or how much of it was paper,” McGarvey said.

McGarvey said the two biggest categories in these bags were food waste and recyclable materials.

According to the study, 47.3 metric tons of waste were generated over the five games. The majority, 29.6 metric tons, was food prepared in the week prior to the game that was uneaten during the game.

Of the remaining 17.7 metric tons of waste, recyclable materials accounted for 43 percent and food waste accounted for 24 percent.

This was what surprised McGarvey when he saw the compiled data; that, despite the recycling cans in the stadium, people will still throw recyclable materials in with the rest of their trash.

“I’ve been to football games before,” McGarvey said. “I know you’re in a rush to leave and you just dump the whole tray in the trash can, so I understand why it happens. But it was surprising to see that there was so much recyclables in the trash.”

Wirkus said the stadium officials do their best to keep the trash and recycling cans together to make them more obvious so that people will be more likely to put a recyclable item in a recycling container. However, sometimes the cans are moved or misplaced.

Costello, meanwhile, was more surprised at the amount of food waste generated.

“There’s just a lot more work that would need to be done to figure out how to deal with that problem,” Costello said, referring to identifying a plan to produce less food waste. “It’s really complicated.”

The food waste has two parts to it: pre-consumer and post-consumer. Pre-consumer is food the kitchen made in advance that wasn’t bought so it’s thrown away. Post-consumer is food bought by someone, partially eaten and thrown away.

McGarvey said the pre-consumer food waste is easy to reduce by donating to food banks and various charities as long as it’s edible. The inedible pre-consumer food, such as banana peels and potato skins, can be composted.

The post-consumer food is challenging to deal with, however, McGarvey said. The problem is in “contamination,” as any trash that is with the food can’t be composted and affects the process.

Wirkus, on the other hand, anticipated more post-consumer food waste. And it was because he was wrong in this estimate that he said the study was so important, so intercollegiate athletics knows exactly what to focus on in order to achieve zero waste.

Costello said that involving student athletics in the issue of reducing waste is important in order to expand the interest in the food waste problem.

“This [study] was a really good opportunity to reach out with athletics and we hope that people talk about it so maybe people who are not naturally inclined to concern themselves with environmental issues will start,” Costello said. “So using athletics as a venue to reach a broader audience is critical.”

The project took off after Costello and McGarvey audited the food waste at MU Campus Dining Services locations. They found the waste generated was higher than they imagined and began looking at other big waste generators on campus.

“The broad question was just how much food waste is generated on campus, and so after we looked at dining, we looked at athletics,” Costello said.

Soon after, they reached out to the intercollegiate athletics program and found that it had been looking for a way to generate zero waste.

Costello said that, since intercollegiate athletics had already been interested, “it sort of just worked out.”

Wirkus said he was glad to hear the research team wanted to study the waste generated at the stadium. He called it a “win-win” and said it was a good opportunity for both parties.

“We wanted to learn what our waste stream looked like because we’ve never done anything like that and it was great to also partner and help with a campus research project,” he said.

When the team initially reached out, Costello said Wirkus and others at intercollegiate athletics were helpful in showing them around the stadium in order to point out where the trash and recycling cans are and the trash chutes.

In addition, the Office of Sustainability allowed the researchers to use carts to transport the trash, loaned their tent out for the team to set up a “headquarters” area and provided passes to exit and enter the stadium throughout the game.

Costello said the Sustainability Office has already been active in outreach during games to promote recycling, so the office and the research team shared volunteers and information throughout the project.

Intercollegiate athletics have begun composting much of its inedible pre-consumer food since the study began and has been working on different messages to display in the stadium that would encourage recycling. McGarvey also said that, with the new construction in the football stadium, there will most likely be an easier method to recycle.

Wirkus said intercollegiate athletics don’t yet have any specific plans for how to reduce waste. He said he wants to look at the waste stream and then identify what actions are possible with reducing the major problems, such as post-consumer food waste.

As for how to move the recyclable materials to the recycling container, Wirkus said a lot of that is just communication and knowledge. Informing people is the first step, he said.

Manager of the Sustainability Office Srinivasan Raghavan said the office is working with the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System to promote sustainability. This system works to incorporate sustainability in school curriculum, engagement with the college campus and engaging with operations, which includes waste management.

The office’s goal is to reduce waste at the source. Two industrial engineering students are currently working with the Sustainability Office on their capstone project to look at possible recycling and compost logistics on campus.

Raghavan also said MU is fairly good at recycling and keeping waste down, but the university still has a ways to go and it’s “a work in progress.”

The office also promotes the benefits of recycling through social media and flyers on campus, Raghavan said. In addition, Raghavan said the office is speaking with students affiliated with Greek Life to encourage them to recycle more.

“[The Sustainability Office] wants to continue to work with the awareness students on campus have about the importance of recycling and waste management,” Raghavan said.

Edited by Olivia Garrett | ogarrett@themaneater.com

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