Greening Big Ten Athletics: Ohio State, A Green + Sports Proving Ground

By Elyssa Emrich

Since a college campus is known as a laboratory for new ideas, is there a better place to conduct green sports case studies? Ohio State doesn’t think so. The university believes its Columbus campus is a lab to demonstrate how sustainability and sports can work in harmony.  OSU aims to be a beacon for other university athletic departments and professional sports teams to follow.

Part II of my “Greening of College Athletics” series focuses on every Big Ten school’s biggest rival, the Ohio State Buckeyes (Part I, on the University of Wisconsin, can be found here). The Buckeyes lead the way, both on the field (undefeated and #4 in the country in football) and in terms of greening their sports operations.  Even though I’m a proud Wisconsin Badger, I don’t mind admitting that the Buckeyes are green sports leaders; coincidentally they can be found in the Leaders division of the Big Ten.

Zero-Waste:  The Challenge

Ohio State’s groundbreaking Zero Waste program, commits the university to diverting 90% of waste material from landfill by 2030 (based on a standard set by non-profit Zero Waste International).

The Zero Waste effort kicked off in 2011 with the highest profile venue on campus, venerable Ohio Stadium. Nothing is bigger in Columbus than Buckeyes football and “The Horsehoe” is one of the largest stadiums in the country, with a seating capacity of 103,000.  Turning Ohio Stadium into a Zero Waste facility on Game Day would not be easy: All products in the stadium that fans can touch must be properly disposed in the correct container, either compost, recycling or trash.

The Horseshoe

Ohio Stadium, aka The Horseshoe, on game day, 103,000 strong


The Athletic Department was fully engaged in Zero Waste’s planning and implementation from Day One.  Unlike most universities, Ohio State has a full time Sustainability Coordinator, Corey Hawkey, who acts as a liaison between the OSU’s Energy Services and Sustainability Office and the Athletic Department.


Ohio State decided to implement Ohio Stadium’s Zero Waste’s trash separation/recycling program in a deliberate fashion. They did this by breaking up the stadium by sections, starting with Section D. It may have taken a few tries but another section wasn’t added until Section D was judged to be Zero Waste. After Section D made the grade, a domino effect took place: More sections were added, and as more were added, more fans became interested and rallied behind the initiative.

Composting of food and fiber materials was next. Recycling got them to a ceiling of around 50% diversion and, to get 90%, composting was essential. The main challenge with composting is how easily it can be contaminated. When the Athletic Department made its first attempt there was plastic everywhere in the compost when it arrived at Price Farms (their composting partner). Little things seemed to cause the biggest problems. Tiny materials such as plastic stir sticks and creamer cups were a big nuisance, since they were difficult to find and pick out from the compost. This challenge was tackled by switching to products that eliminated the chance of contamination. Now you will find wooden stir sticks, compostable creamer cups, and bulk condiments at The Horseshoe. Engaging with the concessionaires to help them understand and participate allowed them to produce even better results; for example providing fans with compostable products that are high in fiber such as nacho trays and boxes.


It’s one thing to embark on a Zero Waste initiative; it’s another to know if and how well that initiative is working (or not).  Thus it was essential to set up ways to measure results before the project ever started. Ohio State entered into an innovative partnership with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections “Greening of Prisons” initiative. Following each home game the university transports their materials to local prisons where the materials are sorted and counted. This provides the university with accurate and timely data.

Winning The Fans Over

The Ohio State Athletic Department knew that, to reach their goals, they’d have to engage and educate their fans from the get-go. This couldn’t be done without help from local high school students they hired to be the face of the Zero Waste initiative. These students are on the frontlines, educating fans as to where and how they should dispose of materials at the waste stations.

Zero Waste II

Signage promoting Zero Waste at Ohio Stadium


Fan participation increased by providing them with simple, accessible information. According to Corey Hawkey, “this is done by having the program be visible the moment fans walk through the gates, then they begin to ask questions. Fans like the idea and they run with it. It grows all by itself.” Zero Waste messaging on the scoreboards and on adds to fan awareness, understanding and participation.

The Results 

In 2012, the Buckeyes had their first ever Zero Waste game (90% diversion!), one of three total.  In 2013, the goal, like that of the football team, is perfection.  On the field, that means winning every game.  In terms of recycling and composting, that means having every home game be a Zero Waste game—a goal that OSU is on track to reach.

While Ohio State likes to beat other teams on the field, they are happy to collaborate with other universities on Zero Waste.  This past week members of Iowa’s athletic department traveled with their team to check the program out. The Hawkeyes put up a good fight on the field and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were to provide some competition to the Buckeyes Zero Waste program soon!

2012 Zero Waste Report:

11 thoughts on “Greening Big Ten Athletics: Ohio State, A Green + Sports Proving Ground

  1. Kudos to Ohio State’s Athletics Department. Next season, I’ll get to see Zero Waste first hand when my Rutgers buddies have our annual football reunion at The Horseshoe, when the Scarlet Knights play the Buckeyes in Rutgers debut Big 10 season. I’m also going to poke around at Rutgers to see what they’re doing from a green perspective.

  2. Pingback: Greening Of The Big 10: University of Michigan, Going Green In A BIG Way | GreenSportsBlog

  3. Pingback: Greening The Big 10: University of Minnesota, Taking The LEED | GreenSportsBlog

  4. Pingback: Update on Ohio State Buckeyes’ Zero-Waste Efforts | GreenSportsBlog

  5. Pingback: Greening Of The Big 10: University of Michigan, Going Green In A BIG Way | Lewis Brand Solution

  6. Pingback: Penn State: A Green Nittany Lion Roars In Happy Valley | GreenSportsBlog

  7. Pingback: Maize & Blue Gets Greener/Hosts Zero-Waste NCAA Gymnastics Championships | GreenSportsBlog

  8. Pingback: One Year Of Writing At The Intersection of Green And Sports | GreenSportsBlog

  9. Pingback: Scene Setter: The 2014 Collegiate Sports Sustainability Summit | GreenSportsBlog

  10. Pingback: Key Takeaways From Collegiate Sports Sustainability Summit | GreenSportsBlog

  11. Pingback: Experiencing Ohio State’s Zero-Waste Football Games Up Close | GreenSportsBlog

Leave a Reply to greensportsblog Cancel reply