With the 2015 college football season kicking off tonight, it’s fitting that the newest member of the GreenSportsBlog team, Katharine DeRossette, takes on a tough topic for her first post: Why her beloved Southeastern Conference (SEC), though #1 on the football field (in her opinion), lags behind the rest of the college sports world in terms of sustainability, recycling and climate change.
In the Deep South, when you bring up SEC football, most sports fans respond as though you’ve given them a Happy Pill*. Eyes get wide; huge grins appear on their faces, bear hugs may ensue. Sports, of course, connect people to each other, build communities and, in many cases, promote civil engagement.
This is particularly true in SEC Country, whose borders are defined by the major state universities (plus private Vanderbilt) of Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas^. In these parts, football games are, arguably, the main way in which folks express their legendary hospitality and celebrate their communities.
And, it may be hard for people who are from Big Ten, Big 12 or PAC-12 Country (ACC? Who cares!) to understand, but SEC Game Day is part football game, part family gathering, part prom (yes, many people “dress up”), part revival meeting. Good manners matter. You’d think being green would be part of the obligatory hospitality associated with SEC game day, but it isn’t—not yet, at least But, things are beginning to change.
Why does this matter to me?
As an undergrad, I worked in the Ole Miss Office of Sustainability for three years. During that time, the Game Day recycling program, known as Green Grove (more about this below), grew from one game a season to all home football games in 2013 and 2014. This influenced me to pursue a master’s degree in Higher Education with an emphasis in Sustainability at the University of Arkansas, which ranked #1 among SEC schools in the EPA Game Day Challenge in both 2013 and 2014. I aspire to make a career out of “greening the sports world,” preferably in the SEC.
In fact, if all goes according to plan, I will work myself out of a job one day by helping an SEC school attain Zero-Waste on football Game Day, a la Ohio State. Sadly, sort of, I’m confident I’ll have job security for quite some time. At the rate the SEC has been moving towards Zero Waste, I’ll never be able to retire. While I appreciate the strides the SEC is making (Tennessee, Arkansas, and LSU all made the Top 10 for total recycling during 2014 EPA Game Day Challenge#, we aren’t doing nearly enough.
I have studied college and pro teams’ Green Game Day efforts and have come to the conclusion that the SEC’s green standard is, well, sub-standard. If the SEC is #1 in football (and there’s no doubt about that!), then it should be #1 in Green Sports, too. We don’t accept mediocrity on the field; we shouldn’t accept it when it comes to recycling, composting, energy efficiency and the rest. But so far, that’s where things stand.
Does SEC World Even Care About Green?
While waste reduction, energy efficiency and climate change are most likely not top priorities of SEC Athletic Directors, (they are much more concerned with selling tickets, recruiting athletes, minimizing controversy, and of course winning games and national championships), to a small but growing number of very committed students, faculty, staff members, community partners, and life long fans- there is more to game day in the south than just the scoreboard, tailgating and the massive amount of trash that goes with it.
The fans who support SEC Game Day recycling initiatives like Green Grove get to engage student volunteers in conversations in the tailgate areas about recycling, energy efficiency and, yes, climate change. And, while it may not be for everyone, talking about recycling and a clean environment at an Alabama or Florida game with enthusiastic student volunteers gets a much more positive reaction from fans than talking about Al Gore’s latest proclamations (hey, I’m a fan of the former VP, but facts are facts).
To use a football analogy, we’re greening SEC fans and SEC Game Days a few yards at a time!
During the 2014 season, 12 of the 14 SEC schools competed in the EPA Game Day Challenge. Tennessee recycled 47,560 lbs. of waste during one game earning 2nd place in the nation for amount recycled behind Clemson (ok, the ACC gets some props) with 60,724. Arkansas (46,300 lbs.) and LSU (27,760 lbs.) were also in the top ten. These schools are setting the green standard for other schools in the SEC.
Volunteers at the University of Arkansas help collect recycling at a Razorbacks football game as part of Sustainable You-of-A program. (Photo credit: University of Arkansas)
And, while Ole Miss did not compete in the EPA Game Day Challenge (nor did in-state annoyance, I mean rival, Mississippi State), it does have Green Grove, a very successful green volunteer program. Student volunteers, about 50 in number, engage with tailgaters in The Grove, the spectacular epicenter of tailgating at Ole Miss. Young and old show their Ole Miss Pride by dressing to “The Nines” in Harvard Crimson and Yale Navy Blue with a hint of green. Frequently “I Tree Grove” stickers will be placed alongside tailgaters’ prideful spirit sticker of the week. Volunteers are assigned different sections of the 10-acre grassy area, surrounded by ancient oaks, elms, and magnolia trees. They chat with thousands of tailgaters, educating them on how to recycle, and of course give them a sticker.
The effect of the education program on recycling rates at Ole Miss games is as stunning as The Grove itself (and trust me; it’s stunning!): Recycling went from 1.8 tons in 2009 to 4.87 tons in 2013, the most recent season for which results are available. Ole Miss’ progress with student engagement + green + sports has gotten the attention of Athletic Director, Ross Bjork. He has become an avid supporter of Green Grove. Check out this video in which he shares some of the green improvements Ole Miss Athletics has made to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Green Grove volunteers at Ole Miss promote recycling in the tailgate area. (Photo credit: University of Mississippi)
Kudos to Ole Miss, but they are still light years away from schools such as Ohio State University, which was the first college to achieve Zero-Waste back in 2013.
Why is the SEC So Far Behind?
Now, here’s a dirty little secret: One reason the SEC is in green catch-up mode is that it’s simply not as easy to recycle, much less compost (only 3 of the 11 participating SEC schools reported organic waste in the 2014 EPA Game Day Challenge) here as in other parts of the country. To my understanding, in the South it’s much cheaper to send waste to the landfill than to recycle because our region’s population is much less dense compared to California and the Northeast, where economies of scale make recycling cheaper. So even if we get fans to recycle at the games, if they can’t do so at home, it’s kind of like an incomplete pass.
At SEC stadiums where recycling is available, hopefully fans will ask themselves, “why don’t we have recycling at home?” and demand that this changes. If the demand is there, you can bet innovators will figure out how to make recycling more competitive, no matter the population density.
Another big reason the SEC has lagged behind the rest of the BCS leagues in terms of greening is, sadly, that “climate change”, “global warming”, or whatever 2-word phrase one wants to use is often seen as one 4-letter word down here. Why? I believe the main Inconvenient Truth is that people in SEC Country associate climate change with liberal (another 4-letter word!) world views and fear that implementing such changes will cost a lot of money and not provide much in return for their invested resources. That’s not acceptable to me and to a bunch of others in the green-sports world in SEC Country and so we will fight the good, green fight.
If climate change is a non-starter right now in the Deep South (no, I can’t accept this—how about slow starter?), that’s all the more reason for SEC schools to take a proactive stand. These are universities we are talking about, beacons of education, science and social change–and the ideal environment (pun intended) for progress.
It is clear SEC schools are making small gains, completing small passes, in their greening efforts. To make bigger, more substantive green gains is the name of this game. As a blogger for GreenSportsBlog, I’ll keep you informed as to how the SEC schools progress (or not) towards connecting on the big green plays and thus becoming #1 in Green Sports.
* The exceptions may be in the misguided pockets of Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida that follow Louisville, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Miami of the ACC.
^ Expansion has also brought in Missouri and Texas A&M but, sorry Mizzou and Aggie fans, those states are not part of SEC Country. Although we will be neighborly to y’all when you come and visit.
# EPA’s GameDay Recycling Challenge is a friendly competition for colleges and universities to promote waste reduction at their football games. Schools implement waste reduction programs during home football games and track and report waste reductions and disposal data that is used to rank the schools.