Intercollegiate athletics has consistently played a role in uniting people for a common cause. One of the most recent is the role it is playing in developing sustainability ventures to help with environmental causes — methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources, and allow them to last for a long time.
Athletics departments in all three divisions are taking this to heart by implementing programs and projects that last well beyond the final tally on a scoreboard.
Remember Earth Day? They do.
Whether it is through energy and green building initiatives that include solar, wind and energy efficiencies; waste programs that divert items that are normally placed in landfills; or plans in water conservation that cut down demand through plumbing and irrigation efficiencies, athletics departments are integrating sustainability projects based on university causes throughout the membership.
In June, representatives from athletics departments from around the nation met with sustainability professionals and recycling/facility managers at the 2013 Collegiate Sports Sustainability Summit in Atlanta to discuss common goals and best practices.
This marked the third time the event was held, with next year’s summit scheduled to take place in Boulder, Colo. It all began as a regional event with the collaboration of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeastern Conference and the Environmental Protection Agency. Now, with more than 200 athletics departments developing sustainability programs, it is a national event.
The National Resources Defense Council facilitated the summit and also released a report titled “Collegiate Game Changers: How College Sports are Going Green,” which highlights how athletics departments are going green.
Alice Henly, a former three-time national champion rower in varsity eights at Yale, authored the NRDC report. During her student-athlete days, Henly helped co-found the Yale Bulldog Sustainability Program while earning a degree in environmental politics and policy. She’s carried her passion for conservation over into a professional career.
“Our team trained every day outdoors on the water,” Henly said. “To do that, you really need to have clean water and fresh air. I’ve been able to take what I learned in the classroom and put it into practice.”
One of the keynote speakers at this year’s summit was Ohio State Director of Athletics Gene Smith, whose department has a zero-waste initiative in place for all of its 2013 football games in the 102,000-seat Ohio Stadium.
“Sustainable living needs to be the norm, and it is incumbent upon all of us to contribute toward this goal,” Smith said. “Intercollegiate athletics is uniquely positioned to educate the masses on the importance of achieving environmental sustainability.”
Here are examples of how athletics departments are achieving sustainability.
OSU 1, waste zero
In 2011, Ohio State set a goal of reaching zero waste for its football games that regularly draw more than 100,000 fans to Ohio Stadium.
The Zero Waste Alliance defines the achievement as diverting more than 90 percent of waste from landfills through recycling and composting.
No sports venue that size had achieved zero waste. But the Buckeyes reached their goal over the final three home games of the 2012 season by recycling or composting 94 to 98 percent of the waste materials.
Ohio State has set a goal of achieving zero-waste status for all its home games this year.
To make this happen, it takes a ton of hard work to recycle an average of 13 to 15 tons of material per game.
Ohio State has 75 zero-waste stations set up around the stadium, 65 of which are manned by high school students who educate fans on which materials go in each bin.
“The biggest problem we had when we started this was getting the fans to put things in the right containers,” said Corey Hawkey, the sustainability coordinator at Ohio State. “It’s not a perfect system by any means, but at least it gets us to a manageable level where we can send a team of volunteers to the compost facility to remove any additional plastics.”
Compost materials include food and fiber products, such as the trays used to carry food, pizza boxes, popcorn boxes, coffee cups, wood coffee stirrers and other similar materials. Those items decompose in three to four weeks.
That material, along with manure collected from the Columbus Zoo, combines to make a soil amendment product that looks like mulch and helps vegetation grow in topsoil.
“Last year, we took some of it and put it in the planters that surround the stadium,” Hawkey said. “We put some signs that said, ‘This came from your pizza boxes.’”
Ohio State also partners with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction on the recycled materials. The collected items are sent to a facility where a team of inmates sorts through them.
Hawkey said the level of detail in the sorting capabilities, as well as weighing the material, is unprecedented for Ohio State. This year, compost materials also will be sent to the correctional department.
The level of cooperation with the athletics department has led to sustainability success.
“Sometimes you tread in water that hasn’t been treaded before,” Hawkey said. “We worked together from the very beginning and set up a leadership team with athletics, the sustainability office and food vendors. We kept each other updated and talked about our ideas. It is a team effort.”
Being located in an area where the sun shines more than 300 days a year works advantageously for Arizona State when it comes to sustainability efforts.
Nine of the program’s athletics facilities are equipped with an array of solar panels that harness energy from the sun. The solar-powered venues include Wells Fargo Arena (home for Sun Devils basketball), the Weatherup Center (basketball practice facility), the Verde Dickey Dome (football indoor practice facility), the Farrington Softball Stadium and parking structures around campus.
One of the parking areas covered by solar panels is near Sun Devil Stadium and provides shade for 361 spaces. This comes in handy for a region that is used to seeing the thermometer reach triple digits.
Again, the solar power in the athletics department facilities is part of an overall sustainability plan for all four Arizona State campuses. Overall, there are 73 solar arrays on the campuses that are directed into a central power system.
The solar power avoids the emissions of 19,903 metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted from other energy sources on the power grid. According to the EPA, the emissions reduction is equal to the yearly emissions of 3,903 passenger vehicles.
The installations produce approximately 7.5 megawatt-hours of electricity each year, which is the most of any athletics department in the country.
The impetus behind the sustainability push comes from the top down. Arizona State President Michael Crow has made it an important goal of the athletics department since 2002.
“President Crow is leading the initiatives, and we are following,” said Maggie Emmons, an assistant sports information director at Arizona State. “In 2007, Arizona State was the first university to open a School of Sustainability and offer a degree-granting program in the U.S.”
Crow believes athletics is the most visible area to impact sustainability efforts.
Food for thought
At Oregon, leftover concessionary food from every home football game at Autzen Stadium is donated to a local nonprofit organization, keeping hundreds of pounds of food out of Dumpsters and landfills while feeding hungry people.
The donations go to Food for Lane County in Eugene, Ore., whose mission is to alleviate hunger by providing access to food.
Oregon also rescues food that goes uneaten when the football team dines during the week.
“When you have to prepare food for 85 hungry young men, there is oftentimes food left over,” said Bob Beals, associate athletics director for facilities and operations at Oregon. “Originally, it was three times a week, but the program was expanded.”
The food collected can be broken down into freezable family sized portions. Working families can pick up the meals from organizations associated with Food for Lane County.
“There are people who don’t have livable-wage type of jobs in the area,” said Alicia Hines, the food resource developer for Food for Lane County. “Having a prepared meal where they can heat it and eat it is a good gift for them.”
The food also goes to shelters and missions to help feed the homeless population.
One of the biggest impacts of the partnership is made at the Oregon spring football game.
Instead of charging fans admission to enter the stadium, Oregon asks those attending to bring at least three canned food items that can help the less-fortunate citizens of their community. It is consistently the second-largest food drive annually for Food for Lane County. Hines said her organization collected a total of about 70,000 pounds of food during the past two spring football games.
Food for Lane County has around 140 partner agencies that it sends the food it collects throughout the year.
Oil isn't the only natural resource in Texas
When North Texas decided it needed a new football stadium for the Mean Green to call home, the university had already adopted a green building policy.
All newly constructed buildings would have to meet Silver certification standards from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Since Apogee Stadium opened in 2011, it has achieved LEED Platinum certification, making it the first sports venue in the U.S. to reach the highest status awarded.
Among the biggest factors in the Platinum certification are the three wind turbines that help power the stadium.
On game days, around 30 percent of the power needed to operate the stadium comes from the 120-foot wind turbines. When the football stadium isn’t in use, the power assists the energy needs for the rest of the campus.
Overall, the wind turbines produce approximately 500,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually for the UNT Eagle Point power grid. The turbines effectively eliminate 323 metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere annually.
North Texas was able to purchase the turbines by applying for a $2 million grant through the Texas State Energy Conservation Office.
“We thought we had a strong application,” said Lauren Helixon, assistant director of the Office of Sustainability at North Texas. “Part of the reason the state was funding these renewable energy technology projects is because they are trying to increase the visibility of them. Given the location of our stadium, and the fact that it is a stadium on a college campus that is highly visible, made it a strong project overall.”
Since this is a unique technology, North Texas worked with the city of Denton. The city was amenable to the project because it was looking at ways to reduce demand on the power grid. It is a good example of how a university and a municipality can collaborate on an innovative project.
A lot of testing and commissioning had to be done before final approval. The city had to make sure it wouldn’t present a safety issue if municipal engineers were working on power outages while power continued to be sent to the grid from North Texas’ wind turbines.
“We control the current, so no power will go onto the power grid that is shut down in those instances,” Helixon said. “That is an internal safety control.”
At the end of the day, North Texas was able to build a sparkling new home for its football team and set a standard for others to follow ecologically.
“We wanted to build the best facility we could,” Helixon said. “Originally, we didn’t know we were going to get the grant. It was a goal to get it. When it came together, that’s when you start to realize that this could be a major accomplishment.”
Lacing up... seeing green
At Middlebury, each team is asked to nominate one of its members as a green liaison.
It is designed similarly to the campus Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, and those chosen to serve as green liaisons are empowered to develop sustainability initiatives. The group comes up with ideas like establishing weekends of competition where each team wears green shoelaces to raise awareness.
Other ideas include establishing a student-athlete pledge to walk or bicycle to practice over a designated period of time.
“Things bubble up from that committee of student-athletes as opposed to the administration or coaches saying you must do something,” Middlebury Athletics Director Erin Quinn said. “It depends on their interest in that particular year, and it comes from the students.”
Quinn became more aware of sustainability efforts while he was still the men’s lacrosse coach in 2005. Some of his players approached him about making their team carbon neutral as much as possible, which centered on finding alternative modes of transportation.
Quinn was named athletics director the next year, and sustainability is on his radar.
When the Panthers put in new field turf in Alumni Stadium, they wanted to make sure none of the runoff would endanger the groundwater supply.
“One of the chemistry classes found out after a year that the chemicals only measured in traces,” Quinn said. “It was good to know that for a fact and not assume that everything was OK with the water supply. It took money to set up the testing protocols, but we were willing to do that to ensure that everything was good environmentally.”
Quinn said Middlebury is in the process of constructing a new field house that will have an indoor track and a new facility where squash will be played. The goal is for each building to have LEED certification.
“The school has a sustainability lens, and to have people in athletics actively engaged in those discussions is very specific to our integrated culture,” Quinn said. “It is important for our campus, so it is important to athletics.”
Unlike The Citadel or VMI, for instance, North Georgia students are not required to take part in military training. On fall mornings, you’ll find students in T-shirts and flip-flops intermingling with columns of ROTC students running in formation and chanting in unison.
State of the art
When the Kelly Family Sports Center opened on Grand Valley State’s campus in 2008, sustainability was definitely part of the plan.
The LEED granted the facility its Gold certification. The building was named after former Lakers football coach and current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who helped raise funding for the facility. And it is impressive, featuring a 100-yard turf field, a six-lane, 300-meter indoor track with nine sprint lanes, long and triple jump lanes and pits, plus indoor pole vault, shot put and high jump areas. There is also bleacher seating for 800 spectators.
It also is environmentally sound, with a reflective roof that cuts down on heat absorption, eliminating the need for air conditioning. The building also has solar panels on the roof to provide electricity, and solar thermal walls that provide hot water for the showers.
Other features: 39 geothermal wells help heat the building in the winter; and rooftop vegetation on the east and west ends of the building filters rainwater through native plants.
The parking lot also was designed to collect rainwater.
“It is collected in a retention pond and is used to irrigate the athletic fields,” said Jamie Schlagel, Grand Valley State’s assistant athletics director for game and event operations. “In 2011, we used 25 million less gallons of water than we did in 2005.”
Fashionable at The Big Dance
Atlanta wanted to set a standard for future Men’s Final Four sites with its sustainability efforts at the 2013 Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.
Through the efforts of several Atlanta stakeholders, the city was able to set a high bar. Tim Trefzer, the sustainability coordinator for the Georgia World Congress Center, chaired a committee of Atlanta leaders who worked closely with the NCAA Championships and Alliances staff.
“Because the Men’s Final Four is a huge sporting event, I wanted to use it as an opportunity to make an impact in our community,” Trefzer said. “Large sporting events have the ability to do something like this.”
Trefzer was particularly impressed with the Atlanta city leaders who showed unmatched interest in sustainability.
The city deployed more than 200 recycling bins around its downtown to encourage more than 100,000 people to contribute to the cause.
“It was significant that the city leaders were willing and able to put those out over the course of a week,” Trefzer said.
“That had a huge impact. It takes what would have been trash and turns it into things that can be made into other products.”
The 2014 Men’s Final Four will be played in Arlington, Texas, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area is already formulating sustainability plans.
“The NCAA had a strong partnership with the city of Atlanta, and we accomplished a great deal,” said Elisa Halpin, coordinator of NCAA men’s basketball championships. “We look forward to expanding our sustainable efforts in the coming years, providing more education about sustainability and engaging more fans in a sustainable lifestyle.”
After experiencing success in sustainability, it will become a staple for future events in Atlanta, as well.
“The sports industry can be so influential,” Trefzer said. “If we can use these events as a platform to raise awareness about the environmental issues associated with them, a powerful statement can be made.”
2013 ATLANTA FINAL FOUR RECYCLING EFFORTS
More than 33 tons of recyclables were collected. Here’s the approximate breakdown in tonnage:
3.99 from containers along pedestrian routes downtown.
2.77 from the Georgia Dome.
10.56 from the Georgia World Congress Center.
16.22 from The Big Dance in Olympic Centennial Park.
Other efforts include:
About 1,000 vinyl bags were made from banners displayed in the Georgia Dome and street poles in Atlanta.
216 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions were avoided.
14,351 electronics were collected for proper disposal.
75 trees were planted near two elementary schools to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.
This feature originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of NCAA Champion Magazine.