Waste > Striving For Zero Waste

Collegiate athletics and recreation departments across the country are investigating ways to minimize waste, enhance their recycling programs, add composting programs and switch their serviceware in pursuit of “zero waste” venue operations.

“Zero waste” is an aspirational concept focused on reducing waste and collecting and routing discarded materials to their ecologically optimal use, which is usually recycling and composting. “Zero waste” adherents encourage designing and managing products and processes so as to reduce or eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste, and in general avoid burning or landfilling materials.

The materials that make up a sports facility’s waste are not homogeneous; nearly all of them have some material or nutrient value, which can equal economic value. To maximize the environmental and economic value of discarded materials, you first need to determine what kinds of discards you are producing, and then determine the best ways to collect those materials.

“Zero waste” also includes thinking about the eventual disposal of a product when deciding what to purchase, by choosing products and packaging that can be reused, recycled, or composted. Another important aspect of “zero waste” is buying products with recycled content, in order to support production systems that use recovered materials as feedstock.

Businesses and communities that achieve over 90 percent diversion of waste from landfills and incinerators are often considered to be successful in complying with the “zero waste” concept. As with the term “carbon neutral,” NRDC advises that organizations take care to specifically define waste reduction, recycling, and composting achievements where feasible and to use “zero waste” only to indicate an aspirational goal.

Many sports departments are piloting “zero waste” programs efforts on a small scale first (typically at select home games or only in one venue) to demonstrate feasibility, gather feedback, and build confidence, before rolling them out on a larger scale. Use the following implementation guide to enhance your waste management program and implement a “zero waste” system.


Guide based on lessons from Ohio State’s development and implementation of the “Zero Waste at Ohio Stadium” program.

I: Seek Collaborators and Review Better Practices

  • Connect with other campuses implementing waste diversion stadium programs and build relationships between athletics departments.
  • Learn from your peers and seek out experts.

II: Evaluate Products and Switch to Compostable and Recyclable Serviceware

  • Work with your food vendor to develop a strategy to address all products used at concessions, considering product type and flow through the stadium.
  • Collaborate with your food vendor to identify compostable or recyclable serviceware alternatives (compostable products should be certified to ASTM D6400 or D6868 standards, and verified by your compost facility as compatible with their system).
  • Understand that you do not have to change all products at once. Work on high impact items first.

III: Update Stadium Waste Infrastructure

  • Conduct an inventory of existing waste containers and map their locations (this is an ideal student research project).
  • Develop a plan for the consolidation and reallocation of receptacles.
  • Evaluate the cost of new or repurposed receptacles, signage, and any other necessary infrastructure and begin to identify sponsorship opportunities.

IV: Improve the Game-Day Collection Process and Outreach

  • Develop an understanding of the waste disposal process during the game.
  • Create a redeployment plan for new recycling and composting stations.
  • Develop a plan to educate fans and monitor recycling and composting stations.
  • Create a plan for marketing and communicating the program.
  • Develop a program brand with a clear name and color scheme. For example, CU-Boulder and Ohio State both use school colors for bins and signage.
  • Simplify the disposal process as much as possible. For example, Ohio State worked with its food vendor to decide on the message “If it’s food or fiber, you compost it; anything else, whatever it is, recycle it.” Determine what process is best for your stadium and partners.

V: Improve the Postgame Cleanup Process

  • Develop a strategy to collect materials after the game.
  • Develop a plan for the cleanup process that addresses the type of bags, location of dumpsters, and transfer of waste from container to hauling truck.
  • Evaluate the stadium waste hauling contract and revise when appropriate.

VI: Implement and Track

  • Complete data reports after each game, using a consistent data system.
  • Implement the program throughout the season, holding regular meetings with the waste diversion committee and partners and making appropriate adjustments to the program as necessary.

VII: Review Performance and Explore New Funding

  • Complete a season review and assemble report with all data.
  • Consider ways to improve efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Work with sports marketing to publicize extensively and identify further sponsorship opportunities.


University of Colorado Boulder

In 2008, the University of Colorado Boulder’s 53,613-seat Folsom Field became the first major collegiate sports stadium (NCAA Div. 1-FBS) in the nation to adopt a “zero waste” goal after establishing their branded program “Ralphie’s Green Stampede.” In 2012, Folsom achieved a 78.5 percent waste diversion rate across all six home games (up 48.5 percentage points since the beginning of the program in 2008).

From 2008 to 2012, the program collected more than 394,000 pounds of recyclable and compostable materials. Folsom Stadium’s total-season waste generation dropped by roughly 38 percent from 2008 to 2012. CU-Boulder achieved a single-game high of 88 percent waste diversion at the game against the University of Oregon on October 22, 2011. The CU-Boulder athletics department also converted their basketball venue, the Coors Events and Conference Center, to a “zero waste” facility during the 2009-10 basketball season.

In order to reach the goal of 90 percent waste diversion from landfill, Ralphie’s Green Stampede combines waste minimization efforts with reuse, recycling, and composting. Many operational and infrastructure changes were needed, including the following steps:

  • CU-Boulder worked with Centerplate and other vendors to switch virtually all packaging used in the stadium to refillable, recyclable, or compostable materials.
  • CU-Boulder and Centerplate trained staff in proper materials use and disposal.
  • All public trash containers were replaced with 30 stations that have only recycling and composting containers.
  • CU-Boulder procured plant-based compostable bags to collect compostable materials.
  • Student volunteers are assigned to monitor all 30 waste stations and advise patrons about proper separation of materials.
  • ROTC units perform recycling and compost removal during stadium cleanups on a weekly basis inside and around the stadium.
  • A post-game sorting process at the campus recycling facility removes any non-recyclable or non-compostable materials brought into the stadium and discarded by fans into the stadium’s recycling containers.
  • All campus tailgate lots have recycling receptacles for cans and bottles on game days.

Learn more about this successful program, including about sponsors, program partners and strategies, by reading the full CU-Boulder case study in the NRDC Collegiate Game Changers report.

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The OHIO STATE University

The Ohio State University (Ohio State) is home to one of the most successful stadium recycling and composting programs in the United States. Ohio Stadium, with 105,000 seats, is the largest venue in the country to achieve waste diversion from landfill of more than 90 percent through recycling and composting. The partnership between the Department of Athletics and the campus Energy Services and Sustainability group was crucial for moving Ohio Stadium toward its waste diversion goals. A leadership team was established with representatives from Energy Services and Sustainability, Department of Athletics (stadium manager, associate director of facilities), IMG Sports Marketing, Sodexo (concessionaire at the time), and Waste Management (hauler at the time).

The “Zero Waste at Ohio State” program took three years of planning. The first football season with the program in place was a great success: Ohio State was able to divert 75 percent of the 2011 football season’s waste from landfill, and after just a few months, achieved a top diversion rate of 82.4 percent. During the fall of 2012, the second season of the program, Ohio State achieved a season average of 87 percent waste diversion and a peak game diversion rate of 98.2 percent, which gave the school the diversion rate title in the Game Day Challenge. Since 2012, the Ohio Stadium recycling and composting program has become the model for campus-wide “zero waste” efforts at Ohio State as well as collegiate stadiums across the country.

Learn more about this successful program, including the full list of program partners, funding structure and implementation strategies, by reading the full Ohio State case study in the NRDC Collegiate Game Changers report.


Arizona State University

In 2012, Arizona State University announced that it aimed to implement a “zero waste” initiative across all four campuses by 2015. To achieve this, the university partnered with Waste Management of Arizona to move forward in three phases: auditing waste, developing a waste diversion roadmap, and implementing a plan. In support of campus-wide efforts, Sun Devil Athletics began implementing waste diversion at events, including several “zero waste games” during the 2013 season that provided fans only with recycling and compost bins (no garbage bins). To date, women’s basketball, gymnastics, and baseball have achieved diversion rates of 90 percent or more for individual events. Sun Devil Athletics and ASU leaders are looking to make “zero waste” a goal for all athletic events in the future.

Athletics successfully launched its “zero waste game” initiative by partnering with ASU Sustainability Practices in 2013 to arrange for a campus student comedy group to be “Zero Waste Ambassadors” during “zero waste” sports events. The students volunteer their time to educate and entertain fans at waste stations during events in exchange for the use of university rooms for their comedy events. The ambassadors also walk around tailgates at football games and encourage fans to recycle.

Learn more about this successful program, including implementation strategies, by reading the full ASU case study in the NRDC Collegiate Game Changers report.


>> A number of professional sports stadiums and arenas have also enhanced their waste management programs with extensive recycling and composting infrastructure and policies. Learn more about these successful waste initiatives in NRDC’s 2012 Game Changer report. Read the case studies on the Seattle Mariners, Philadelphia Eagles, Portland Trail Blazers, Montreal Canadiens and San Francisco Giants for leading examples of high waste diversion from landfill at professional sports venues.


By pursuing “zero waste,” your department can reduce waste generation overall, and be better prepared to efficiently and responsibly dispose of the waste that it generates. By designing a more efficient purchasing, resource use, and waste disposal program, your department can decrease the amount of waste it disposes and increase the amount of paper, plastic, and metals that it recycles, which helps reduce air and water pollution, helps curb global warming, and conserves our natural resources.


Implementing a “zero waste” program at your sports facilities can help your institution earn points within the “Waste” subcategory of AASHE’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS). It can directly contribute to earning up to 9 points for the credits “OP 22: Waste Minimization,” “OP 23: Waste Diversion,” and “OP 24: Construction and Demolition Waste Diversion.” Work with sustainability and facilities staff on your campus to support any institutional efforts to attain or improve your institution’s STARS rating. Use the STARS 2.0 Technical Manual to learn more.


NRDC Guide to Composting at Sports Venues
NRDC: Recycling
Green Sports Alliance: E-Waste Collection Playbook
Zero Waste International Alliance Business Recognition Program
The Ohio State University: Zero Waste At Ohio Stadium
University of Colorado Boulder: “Ralphie’s Green Stampede” Fact Sheet
AASHE Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS)
AASHE STARS 2.0 Technical Manual
U.S. EPA: Stadium Recycling: How to get started
Game Day Challenge: Game Day Recycling Challenge
College & University Recycling Coalition: College Game Day Recycling Resources
RecycleMania:  RecycleMania Promotional Resources
U.S. EPA: Sustainable Materials Management
U.S. EPA:WasteWise
U.S. EPA: Stadium and Arena Operations Managers Who Have Programs That Work
U.S. EPA: Questions to Ask Recyclers/Haulers
NAPCOR: Venue and Event Recycling in the U.S.A.
University of Nebraska: Athletics Recycling Signage
UPenn: UPenn sample posters
Cedar Grove: Commercially Accepted Compostable Items