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The Zero-Waste Sports Stadium: Pros and Cons

From university sports facilities to the Super Bowl itself, stadium managers continue to pursue ambitious waste-diversion goals. The gold standard of a zero-waste-to-landfill system has emerged as the ultimate prize in stadium sustainability — but as with any materials-management strategy, zero waste is a mixed bag of benefits and challenges.

Before we start tallying pros and cons, though, we’ll define precisely what we mean by zero waste in the context of large-scale sports venues. Actually, “zero waste” is a bit of a misnomer; the industry standard for the term aims for at least 90-percent diversion for all post-use materials. “Diversion,” by the way, refers to routing waste toward reuse/recycling processors rather than sending it to the landfill, where it piles up, decays, and emits greenhouse gasses. Zero waste is the realization of this 90-percent diversion rate.

Ohio State University’s Ohio Stadium holds the top spot for waste diversion among the Big Ten conference facilities, regularly exceeding its zero-waste goals through robust recycling and composting programs. But does this approach make sense for other stadiums? Here are the arguments for and against implementing a zero-waste program (as defined by the 90-percent diversion goal) at any sports facilities.

Benefits of Zero-Waste Goals at Sports Venues

The primary advantage of pursuing zero waste at any institution barely needs stating: Resources are finite, and if we don’t reuse them, we will run out. Just as crucially, landfills release huge volumes of the greenhouse gas methane; the more we reuse and recycle, the fewer GHG emissions our communities produce.

But there are other, more direct advantages to stadiums that pursue zero-waste goals, as well. For instance:

  • Reducing waste at popular sporting events helps to position institutions — universities, certainly, but also sports leagues and venue owners — as ethical leaders at the forefront of environmental sustainability.
  • Landfill access is expensive. By reducing waste through upstream strategies, stadium managers can avoid costly tipping fees.
  • Sports events provide an opportunity to engage with large, diverse audiences. By including guests in the zero-waste effort, stadiums serve the broader environmental purpose of educating the public on the real costs of a disposable lifestyle.

A glance over these arguments explains why university stadiums often lead the drive toward zero-waste sports. Universities see themselves as leaders, and their educational mission informs all of their efforts, even on the field.

Drawbacks of Stadium Zero-Waste Goals

At first glance, there don’t seem to be many arguments against zero waste in sports. The most common barrier to such action, of course, is the price of change, both in cash and in institutional resources. Even if a shift to more-sustainable waste management eventually pays off through the avoidance of tipping fees, there’s an upfront cost associated with making any institutional change.

However, even if your institution shares the values of sustainability, preliminary research suggests that zero-waste goals might be distracting us from truly effective change. A 2017 study from the University of Missouri in Columbia found that, of the many strategies involved in a zero-waste program, two disproportionately further the goals of GHG-reduction and energy conservation: eliminating food waste and perfect recycling.

While food reduction and recycling are cornerstones of any zero-waste effort, this study suggests that the most valuable statistics in terms of sustainability may not be the volume of waste sent to the landfill, but recycling rates and the reduction rate of food waste.

Whether you strive for zero waste or employ other sustainable waste-management strategies at your facility, however, you can always reduce workforce costs and injury rates with the right waste-handling equipment from Solus Group. Contact us at 314-696-0200 to learn more.


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