Photo by Jilly Burns
It’s game day. Fans prepare themselves with hotdogs, hamburgers, chips and a few cases of their favorite beer. Meanwhile, their team is suiting up, blaring music and preparing to leave it all on the field.
Fans might bring jackets to stay warm and athletes might wear ankle braces to protect themselves from injury, but do the spectators or the competitors stop to consider the quality of the air they breathe during the game? Or what kinds of chemicals were used to clean the bleachers in the stadium? According to Michael Pfahl, they should.
“While people typically do not attend sporting events for a science lesson, sport has shown itself to be an important platform to discuss, to embody and to reflect societal issues,” Pfahl, associate professor in Ohio University’s Department of Sports Administration, says. “Our relationship with the natural environment is shown clearly in the sports we play and watch.”
For more than five years, Pfahl has been studying the impact sports have on its players, spectators and their shared environment. He currently works with a group of fellow researchers from around the country and the world who study how strategic planning of environmental strategy and implementation of tactics to achieve environmental goals impact the fans and their behavior, both at the sporting events and in their personal lives.
“It was a simple matter for me to see the power and impact sport of all types has on people and to make the link with environmental issues,” Pfahl says.
According to the nonprofit organization Green Sports Alliance, nearly 400 sports teams and venues from 15 different sports leagues and 14 countries are consciously making efforts to promote healthy and sustainable communities where they practice and play. Those efforts include advocating for energy and water efficiency, renewable energy, sustainable food, responsible procurement and socially responsible practices.
“At the intercollegiate level, we see a wide variety of actions being taken,” Pfahl says. “… we see recycling efforts leading the implementation efforts, which can be seen here at Ohio with its strong recycling program for the university itself and its athletics events.”
In 2015, Ohio was one of the national winners of the GameDay Recycling Challenge, a waste reduction and recycling competition held every fall between 99 colleges and universities. Ohio won the diversion rate category with a diversion rate of nearly 96 percent, a measurement of recycling and organics recovery as a percentage of total trash. Ohio Athletics, The Marching 110, Ohio football fans, The Appalachia Ohio Zero Waste Initiative, local Boy Scouts and student volunteers made the national recognition possible.
“Ohio was able to successfully divert more waste than other institutions by significantly increasing the number and type of bins at the football tailgates and game,” Kate Blyth, a Senior Student Zero Waste Coordinator with the Ohio Zero Waste Initiative at the Vonovich School, says. “This included adding compost to nearly all the “Zero Waste Stations” that had previously only had recycling and landfill bins.”
Blyth, a former student of Pfahl’s and senior studying environmental geography, was involved in the planning and preparation of the GameDay Recycling Challenge in 2015. Blyth has worked with departments and event planners to improve waste management for other Ohio University events. Collaborating with Campus Recycling and the Office of Sustainability, the Zero Waste Initiative in a campus-wide project aiming to expand sustainability at the university, including Ohio Athletics.
“Further integrating the infrastructure necessary to successfully divert waste, including compost and recycling receptacles, along with implementing the labor necessary to service and maintain them successfully, will be key as we work to move the Ohio Athletic facilities to zero waste venues,” Blyth says.
Ohio is not alone in its sustainable efforts. According to a 2013 survey from the Green Sports Alliance, at least 216 collegiate sports departments have installed recycling infrastructures throughout their sports facilities. Efforts include building bike racks to promote bicycle commuting, upgrading to energy efficient lighting, using environmentally-friendly cleaning products and conducting energy audits of their sports facilities in search of more energy-efficient opportunities.
Just an hour or so up the road, Ohio State University is home to one of the most successful stadium recycling and composting programs in the country. The Buckeyes successfully implemented the “zero waste” program, a campus initiative to engage the university community in greening efforts at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State produced its highest diversion rate of 98.2 percent during its game against Illinois on Nov. 3, 2012, and had a season diversion rate of 87.2 percent that year
The Green Sports Alliance’s study on Ohio State’s zero-waste program cited multiple successful initiatives such as focusing on partnerships, fostering communication among stakeholders, building projects over time and maximizing resources. All of which are important steps that can be taken to make Ohio’s athletic programs and facilities more environmentally friendly. These same efforts are ones that Ohio University can implement in its future plans.
“There are many groups on campus who would benefit from engaging with these efforts, so increasing our communications and involvement with these groups is necessary,” Blyth says. “As our program grows and demand increases, we continually look for opportunities to expand our services with student engagement.”
Ohio Athletics has undergone several sustainability efforts throughout the years, including the switch to a mixed recycling system throughout the city and the campus. This switch, allowing plastic, paper, cardboard, aluminum and glass to all be thrown into the same recycling bin, is believed improve overall institutional recycling rates by more than 10 percent, according to Blyth. While the program has made improvements, there are plans to continue implementing new sustainable efforts.
“Experience, education and understanding of environmental issues leads to options for action, which leads, hopefully, to well-thought-out planning for short and long-term sustainable sustainability,” Pfahl says. “… At the end of the day, though, the environment is an issue without a finish line.”