By Wajeeha Kamal
Strolling Michigan State University’s campus after a weekend of football would leave your mouth agape a decade ago.
David Smith took that stroll when he started 11 years ago as the university’s new recycling coordinator. He was shocked by the aftermath of a Labor Day weekend game.
“There was a massive amount of waste that was generated on game day,” Smith said. “A lot of it wasn’t properly disposed of.”
In the past decade, sporting events have become a priority at MSU and other universities seeking the best way to engage the public with sustainability initiatives.
Laws, rules, guidelines and incentives.
Tailgaters create two types of waste: recyclables and nonrecyclable waste, according to a study recently published in the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education. University officials clean up the waste generated by tailgaters on Sundays following game days, said study author John Kerr, a professor at Michigan State University’s Department of Community Sustainability. In addition, some tailgaters and other people around campus will collect recyclable waste, like bottles and cans, for income.
Kerr highlighted a mix of formal rules and informal efforts to encourage sustainability during tailgates. For example, banning drinking games, limiting tailgating hours and access to some previously used spaces are formal rules implemented 15 years ago to reduce tailgate waste.
Since then, informal efforts, including the “green your tailgate” initiative by university officials, have encouraged a shared understanding of acceptable behavior or social norms at football tailgates. That initiative provides community members with tips to make their tailgates more sustainable, like ditching paper plates and plastic cutlery.
Kerr concluded that Michigan’s bottle bill law, which turns empty cans into a source of income for those willing to collect them, makes recycling a priority for tailgaters and those who collect the empty cans.
The Michigan law requires that most soft drinks, beer and other carbonated beverages in containers under one gallon have a refundable 10-cent deposit at grocery stores that sell them. California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Vermont have similar bottle bill laws too.
Thus, recycling at MSU tailgates is a collaborative effort, the study said. And, because of the collaborative nature of these tailgates, Kerr said, it’s even possible that recycling during them would have been successful even without the Michigan law.
“They could just as easily toss the empties in their cooler and take them home, or they could just as easily toss them in a recycling bin, but they don’t,” Kerr said. “You can get people to dispose of trash properly, including recycling, even without that deposit.”
There is more evidence to suggest a bottle deposit law is not required to encourage football fans to clean up their act.
Michigan State University and Pennsylvania State University are Big Ten universities that ranked in the top five of Times Higher Education’s 2023 Impact Rankings for Sustainable Cities and Communities nationally. MSU was ranked No. 2 while Pennsylvania State University was ranked No. 1.
While Michigan has a 10-cent deposit, Pennsylvania doesn’t have a deposit law.
Yet waste collection at Penn State is similarly improving as the amount of waste generated increases, according to State College, a local news outlet. Constant education is cited as the reason.
Education is key to successful tailgate recycling
Smith said he’s seen tailgaters getting better at recycling at Michigan State. Although the amount of tailgaters has been increasing, more people are bagging their waste which makes the collection easier, he said.
University of Michigan fans tailgating at Michigan State before that rivalry game bring Michigan-themed bags with them to dispose of trash, Smith said.
“I would love to see Spartan fans do the same thing when they’re visiting and they’re tailgating somewhere else – take their MSU bags and clean up the trash,” he said.
And, although a lot of trash is still generated on MSU’s campus during tailgates, university officials have begun handing out trash bags to tailgate attendees and other informal trash collectors.
Bags are available for free at Penn State in the lots surrounding Beaver Stadium. “Come to the Game, Honor the Name” is the stadium’s recycling mantra with public service recycling reminders by student volunteers and shown on video.
A way forward
Communication between tailgaters, campus officials and informal trash collectors is essential to ensure people are cleaning up after themselves on game days, the study said. Penn State officials ask fans to continue recycling to help with the efficiency of collecting tailgate waste.
Kerr suggests an alliance between the universities and people who recycle at tailgates or a community listening session between the university and informal recyclers to encourage good waste disposal practices during the football season.
“If you’re someone who hands out the trash bags, and you see somebody who’s there every week, you could just say ‘Hey, if you see new people, help spread the word.’”