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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Greening the Game aims for its first zero-waste football game against Utah

    Courtesy of Patrick O’Connor

    Cole Pihl and Kyle McGowan, project managers for Greening the Game last semester, eat lunch at the University of Arizona on April 23. With McGowan graduating, Pihl leads the initiative during the 2015-2016 school year.

    The most important basketball game of last season for UA sophomore Cole Pihl and senior Kyle McGowan was on March 5. The Arizona men’s basketball team routed California 99 to 60, but Pihl and McGowan were not on the court; they were in the stands. Their team of almost 30 volunteers triumphed over a different opponent: pollution. 

    Pihl, now a junior, and McGowan, a UA alumnus, were project managers for Greening the Game, a student initiative to make athletic events more sustainable. During the inaugural zero-waste basketball game, the team salvaged almost 1 ton of recyclables that would have ended up in a landfill. 

    “The atmosphere at the game was crazy,” said Pihl, the current project manager for the new year. Greening the Game volunteers huddled near waste stations around the stadium to ensure that everything was thrown away properly. 

    Waste such as plastic water bottles or food scraps that might normally get tossed into a trash can were instead diverted into a recycling bin or a compost bag. Volunteers also took the time to explain to basketball fans the impact they were making. 

    “People really had fun with it and were interested in learning,” said Maya Kapoor, a graduate assistant who works at the UA Office of Sustainability. On Saturday, Greening the Game will host its first zero-waste football game against Utah. This will be the largest event they have attended and likely the game with the biggest recycling impact all year.

    Growing greener sports

    Greening the Game began in 2012 when a student working concessions at a UA football game was appalled by how many disposable water bottles she was selling. She pitched the idea to the student government’s Students for Sustainability program as a way to make the football games less harmful to the environment. 

    “All of the big sustainability efforts on campus have been driven by a student desire to see change,” Kapoor said.

    Today, Greening the Game has moved beyond football. In February, the group began attending the home softball games and in March, they participated in their first basketball game. That game went incredibly well for the team, and in the 2015-2016 season Greening the Gamewill be at every home basketball game. 

    “I like sports and athletics and I thought it was cool how you could add sustainability to the games,” Pihl said. 

    Greening the Game’s budget comes from the UA Green Fund. In 2010, the Arizona Board of Regents created the UA Green Fund to support sustainability projects. For the upcoming year, Greening the Game was awarded $6,300, which they use to create jobs for students.

    Greening the Game had seven employees last semester who worked during games, but they also hired clubs and organizations on campus when they needed more labor. This gave students in clubs an opportunity to volunteer at the games while the money went to help the club’s mission. 

    “The clubs don’t necessarily have to fight an environmental issue,” Pihl said.

    Last year, the Wildcat Running Club and a pre-health club helped Greening the Game increase their recycling yield at football games by about 50 percent. This translates into more than 60 tons of recyclables avoiding landfills. Last season, more than half of the waste generated at the home football games was recycled. 

    Landfills are not the real enemy

    As the crowd filed out of the stadium on March 5, the Greening the Game team began the second part of their operation. Members went row by row looking for trash and recyclables they could add to the staggering amount they had already collected. 

    Once the stadium was clean, UA Facilities Management transported the materials for processing. 

    “Facilities Management plays a huge part in this project,” McGowan said. “We really couldn’t do it without them.” 

    Once sorted and cleaned, Facilities Management sells the collected recyclables to another facility to produce scraps. Contrary to popular belief, the scrap will probably be sent overseas. 

    “Scrap is very much a global market,” said Trevor Zink, an assistant professor of corporate social responsibility and sustainability at Loyola Marymount University.

    Increased urbanization and industrialization in China and Southeast Asia means that recycled scrap from the U.S. ends up in foreign factories. 

    “One of the big misconceptions about recycling is that [the] reason we do it is to have products avoid landfills,” Zink said.

    When a disposable water bottle made out of a common plastic called polyethylene terephthalate is recycled, it takes energy to transport and recycle the bottle. When accounting for the electricity and the fuel, recycling a plastic bottle releases about 40 grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is about the weight of the bottle.

    To make that same bottle from raw petroleum, the process, which is called primary production, releases about 180 grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere according to Zink. Just because a plastic bottle is recycled does not mean that companies will stop making plastic from petroleum. 

    “There is no guarantee that recycling will prevent primary production,” Zink said. Instead, recycled plastic lowers the cost of all plastic because there is more available to buy. 

    This could be more harmful to the environment because cheaper plastic encourages entrepreneurs to start new businesses, which increases the demand for plastic. This idea is not just a fantasy. Zink has preliminary data that shows recycling aluminum, which produces seven times less carbon dioxide than primary production, only reduces the creation of new aluminum by 10 to 30 percent. 

    “The lower price of aluminum may just increase the size of the market, which would increase the environmental impact,” Zink said. Recycling is important for saving energy and reducing carbon dioxide emissions, which lead to climate change. 

    Zink said he worries that recycling is making people complacent. Instead of finding more environmentally friendly alternatives, consumers continue to buy plastic bottles because they overestimate the benefits of recycling. 

    “The only sure-fire way to reduce primary production is to buy less stuff,” Zink said.

    Making future games greener

    Football and softball are a good start, but Pihl is hoping to make every athletic event zero-waste. The team is hoping to maximize the amount of waste they can reduce with their limited budget.

    “We definitely want to expand to other sports, but it comes down to how big the sporting event is,” Pihl said. 

    Greening the Game is also expanding beyond athletics. Last April, the group was out in full force at the UA Spring Fling.
    “We want people to engage in school spirit and do the things they love while also thinking about doing these things in a responsible way,” Kapoor said.

    Follow Patrick O’Connor on Twitter.

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