Penn State Sustainability, OPP Expanding Gameday & Campus Waste Initiatives

It’s no question that football gamedays are some of the rowdiest times of the year in Happy Valley. Fans spend hours tailgating, eating good food, watching some football, and of course, drinking. Well, with all those gameday festivities, comes 100 tons of trash in and outside of Beaver Stadium.

Luckily, Penn State Sustainability and the Office of Physical Plant put continuous effort into building sustainable environments across all Penn State campuses, especially on gamedays.

Over the years, both offices have been making an impact on sustainability around campus through various initiatives like installing water bottle refilling stations, the student move-out donations program, and placing blue bags for recycling around tailgate lots, among others.

Penn State Chief Sustainability Officer Lara Fowler oversees these initiatives and aims to foster work with different units across campus, such as OPP and various student-run environmental and sustainability clubs, ranging from students to university faculty to her staff. Fowler works closely with these units to find new ways to improve waste management across campus and increase sustainable efforts.

“In general, we’re serving as a thought partner with OPP to really think through different ways we can make our systems more sustainable — throwing away less garbage, increasing the amount of recyclables,” Fowler said.

As “thought partners,” the two units look at their current initiatives and seek ways to expand them so the Penn State community contributes to making campus living more sustainable and eco-friendly. One of their most elaborate challenges over the years has been the production of waste that comes with football gamedays.

Courtesy of Kai Linnex

“We, collectively, at Penn State have been collecting statistics for a long time, and it looks like we’re generating on average about 100 tons of garbage per game on a football game weekend,” Fowler said.

That garbage culminates at roughly 1,000 pounds per football season, resulting in over one million pounds of trash left over in total. Roughly one-third of the waste is recyclable, such as plastic bottles and aluminum cans, according to Fowler. Her team has been working on building sustainability among Penn State fans to minimize the amount of recyclables thrown out and mistaken as trash.

One of these efforts has been implementing blue bags for recyclables at tailgate lots and working with PepsiCo to display signage throughout Beaver Stadium, promoting recycling efforts.

“We worked with Athletics and the Office of Physical Plant to pilot some of these opportunities,” Fowler said. “They started to retool how they were approaching working with student clubs or groups that are paid to go pick up the garbage, and now they’re picking up the recyclables first… The ability for that material to actually be recycled really has made a huge difference for that outside the stadium. The blue bag program is pretty important, but it really depends on the fans actually keeping the recyclable materials, cans, and bottles separate from food. If something is contaminated, then it’s just thrown out as garbage, but if it’s separated and clean, it’s actually recycled.”

Courtesy of Kai Linnex

The Sunday after every home gameday, hundreds of people can be seen in and around the stadium before sunrise collecting blue bags and hand-picking the leftover trash. While OPP and sustainability staff work on sorting the trash from recyclables outside the stadium, various student organizations volunteer their time to pick up everything left over inside. These efforts allow students to raise money for their organizations while giving back to the community.

Sorting through the waste during gameday clean-up and determining what is deemed trash versus usable recyclables is a “very labor-intensive process,” according to Fowler, as 90% of the waste is recyclable.

“[OPP] will go out in trucks and they’ll pick up the recyclable materials first with those blue bags, and they’ll take them all out,” Fowler said. “They’ll sort all the recycling into containers and that then gets taken to the Center County Recycling and Refuse Authority (CCRRA) to sort through. Same with the garbage.”

Courtesy of Kai Linnex

Once the recyclables are sorted at the CCRRA, they get repurposed and sold to different businesses across Pennsylvania to eventually be restored and reintegrated.

In 2023, the CCRRA reported and processed 11,745 tons of recyclables in its facility, totaling 234 tons of aluminum, 294 tons of steel, 845 tons of plastic, 2,062 tons of glass, 2,223 tons of mixed paper, and 4,991 tons of cardboard. CCRRA also reported that 109,800 tons of trash were transferred and processed in the facility last year.

“People on the other end at CCRRA are hand-picking through this stuff, so there are humans on the other end who look at this stuff and decide if it is too contaminated to be worth recycling,” Folwer said.

Courtesy of Kai Linnex

This collaboration with the CCRRA allows the university to dispose of all the post-gameday waste properly and efficiently. Penn State Sustainability tries to encourage every fan to assist them in these efforts by being mindful of what they are throwing out and making sure to keep their tailgating areas clean.

“I think trying to figure out what that communication pattern is beforehand, showing that what you do matters and helping people see the problem is something we’ve thought a lot about,” Fowler said. “Can we kind of trace the life of a fan from ‘I’m happily drinking something’ to where does it go next, I think is the challenge.”

During past gamedays, Penn State Sustainability even hired “tailgate ambassadors” to go around every tailgate lot and welcome fans to the game while also promoting an eco-friendly environment.

“In the past, 50 or so people who are out walking through the tailgate areas and talking to people, kind of helped raise awareness that their actions make a difference,” Fowler said. “We’re trying to think how to scale that up for the fall.”

Another sustainability initiative, which has been in the works for the past handful of seasons, is an increase in recycling bins inside Beaver Stadium and its surrounding areas, especially at the front of the gate entrances.

“One of the things we piloted last year is people are still drinking something when they’re walking into the stadium,” Fowler said. “And so you can’t take a container full or empty into the stadium. You got to do something with it. And, all of those materials were being collected as garbage. We worked with OPP last year to collect that stuff as recyclable materials and then sourced the garbage out… So it’s tweaks like that that your average fan may not see.”

A new initiative Penn State Sustainability is promoting during Blue-White Weekend 2024 is its THON giveaway. In efforts to make the game more “green,” Penn State Sustainability, along with PepsiCo, will be donating $500 and $300 to the top two THON organizations that showcase sustainable efforts throughout the weekend.

Starting in the fall, Intercollegiate Athletics will be shifting from plastic cups to aluminum cups that can be recycled in hopes of minimizing the amount of waste left over after each game. Rather than selling cups that are typically thrown away or left in the stands, they will now encourage fans to either take home the cups as souvenirs or recycle them in the designated bins. Fowler described these continuous efforts as a “combination of education, awareness, signage, ease, and utility.”

“I cannot do this job alone,” Fowler said. “I cannot do it without partnerships across the whole of university, students, staff, faculty… Just raising awareness, getting people interested… Sometimes it takes a while, but we’re gaining traction. There’s already great work that’s been happening for a lot of years, and we’re gaining traction on a lot of the things that have been a little bit sticky for a while. I feel like I’m working on 1,500 puzzles at the same time, like how do you move each one forward a little bit to make a difference?”

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About the Author

Evan Halfen

Evan Halfen is a junior broadcast journalism major from Newark, DE, and is one of Onward State's associate editors. Evan loves all things Penn State, tailgating, being loud, just about any beach, and his puppies, Butterscotch and Wentzy. You can direct all your tips, roasts, and jokes to his Instagram: @evan.halfen or email: [email protected]

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