With the American football in full kickoff mode, GreenSportsBlog is taking a look at two teams at different points on the “Green Gridiron” spectrum. Today, we talk with Lauren Lichterman who is helping to jumpstart the greening of The University of Texas at Austin, Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Later this week, GSB will turn to the greening of Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles, already a sustainability leader.
GreenSportsBlog: Lauren, when I think of Green-Sports leaders in college sports, my mind goes to the Pac-12 — all 12 schools plus the conference itself are members of the Green Sports Alliance — and Big Ten schools like Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State, which all have been working towards hosting Zero-Waste football games. The Big 12, which basically spans Texas, the Plains states with West Virginia sprinkled in? Not so much, at least not yet. So I’m really glad to talk with you about the greening of The University of Texas. Did you go to Texas? And were you always an environmentalist?
Lauren Lichterman: I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. Not a very green area, I’ll admit. But we always recycled. So I was an environmentalist. And I loved sports. So when I did end up going to UT…
GSB: …Hook ’em Horns!
Lauren: Hook ’em Horns! I played intramural basketball, soccer, volleyball, and ultimate frisbee.
GSB: You were BUSY!!!
Lauren: Oh yeah! I thought I would be an international business major, but I started taking sports management courses and loved them. I always saw sports as a powerful forum for teamwork, equality and more.
Lauren Lichterman, operations and sustainability consultant at the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Intercollegiate Athletics (Photo credit: Texas Athletics)
GSB: So did you switch to sports management?
Lauren: I did. And I worked in the Athletics Department while I was in school.
GSB: What did you do for them?
Lauren: Anything they needed. After graduation, a position opened up in the facilities and operations department. Since planning, operations, and logistics had become my passion I jumped at the chance. In fact, I got the job offer on graduation day so my timing was quite lucky.
GSB: What was your role at the start?
Lauren: I wore a lot of hats. I handled customer service, fan surveys, ran information tables at football, baseball, volleyball and softball games. It wasn’t glamorous but I loved it!
GSB: How great is that? How and when did sustainability enter the mix?
Lauren: In 2010, which was my first year working full-time, the Office of Sustainability came to Athletics, saying they’d like to start a tailgate recycling program. The Athletic Director at the time, DeLoss Dodds, said “OK, sounds great. What do you need?” I became the main point of contact on the Athletics side for supplies and logistics. Sustainability brought two or three full-time people to the effort. We ended up relying on a lot of student volunteers, which was great.
GSB: What did you and your team do?
Lauren: We roamed the tailgate areas and awarded those that really got it with the Recycler of the Game.
GSB: How did fans react?
Lauren: They really liked it. More and more tailgaters wanted to participate. That kind of reaction led Athletics to get more into greening Longhorns games. And from there, in 2014, our leadership decided that we need to go Zero-Waste.
GSB: From Recycler of the Game to “let’s go Zero-Waste” in four years. Green-Sports moves fast at Texas Athletics!
Lauren: We actually started our Zero-Waste efforts with baseball and softball during the spring of 2014. Both facilities and operations are obviously much smaller than football. Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, home of Texas football, holds about 100,000 people. UT baseball has a capacity of about 7,000 and softball’s capacity is 1,200.
University of Texas baseball stadium, part of the school’s Zero-Waste efforts (Photo credit: Texas Athletics)
GSB: Big difference!
Lauren: So baseball and softball became our Zero-Waste pilots. We started with softball, trying to go Zero-Waste for a weekend home stand. Sodexo, our concessions partner, was fantastic.
GSB: How so?
Lauren: Here’s one example. We found out that we couldn’t recycle the plastic bowls that contained nachos and cheese — those were considered contaminated. So Sodexo came to us with a “paper boat” nacho solution…
GSB: …Who’da thunk it? Wasn’t that costly?
Lauren: It wasn’t cost prohibitive — and we thought it would be. It’s a misperception that going Zero-Waste will be super-costly. For example, by using compostable utensils, less trash is being sent to landfills — and sending trash to the landfill is expensive. Most of our local vendors get this.
GSB: I’m glad you mentioned local. Austin is a bit of a green oasis in Texas, right?
Lauren: Oh, it helps being in Austin. In fact, the city is going Zero-Waste, so vendors in town are starting to manage that way.
GSB: Fantastic! So back to softball and baseball…
Lauren: Yes! So we did one weekend of Zero-Waste softball in 2014. In 2015 and 2016, we added one weekend of baseball per season.
GSB: How come only one weekend per season? If you can do it once, why not all the time?
Lauren: I know! It was silly. By 2017, we went for Zero-Waste at both sports for the entire season.
GSB: GreenSportsBlog readers know that, to claim Zero-Waste status, a venue has to divert 90 percent or more of waste from landfill. How did you do?
Lauren: In 2017, baseball was Zero-Waste for the entire season, as they diverted 91 percent of waste from landfill. Softball just missed, attaining an 88 percent diversion rate. 2018 was similar for both.
A group of UT “Sustainability Squad” volunteers flash the “Hook ‘Em Horns” sign during a 2018 baseball/softball weekend (Photo credit: Texas Athletics)
GSB: Kudos to baseball and softball. Have you tried going Zero-Waste at basketball?
Lauren: Basketball is an island of sorts. We’re planning to build a new arena in the next five years or so that would replace the Frank Erwin Center. The site is still being debated. So we’re not going to go for Zero-Waste at Erwin, but we have undertaken some small initiatives like having recycling bins available. We are also recycling at soccer matches and track meets, but we’re not going for Zero-Waste there. It’s a matter of resources.
GSB: Understandable. So let’s go back to the Big Kahuna, football…
Lauren: Ah yes…Football is a fantastic, complicated beast. First, Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium is land locked, with streets on three sides and the rec center on the fourth. So how waste leaves the stadium and where it goes is complicated. When we launched our Zero-Waste effort in 2014, we started to move our volunteers inside the stadium where could better control waste streams…
GSB: …Did that hurt the tailgate recycling program?
Lauren: Not at all. It’s still going strong. By the time we shifted our resources inside, tailgaters already knew what to do, recycling-wise. Back to the stadium, we used to have eight-yard long dumpsters around its perimeter. Fans would just throw waste in, unsorted. We needed to get the waste sorted first, then put into the dumpsters.
GSB: How did you manage that?
Lauren: Well, our former-tailgate-area-but-now-inside-stadium volunteers were deployed to educate fans. That moved the needle a bit, but we didn’t have enough volunteers to monitor 500 bins. Then, we thought, “What if, in addition to educating fans, the volunteers sort the waste?” The last home game of the 2016 season against TCU was our pilot. THAT was what moved the needle!
GSB: The volunteers didn’t mind digging through the waste?
Lauren: We asked them about it ahead of time, and they were good with it. And we have to get to Zero-Waste in football. In the spring of 2016, the campus-wide sustainability master plan was released. It said the entire Austin campus will be Zero-Waste by 2020. So, the pressure was on starting last season. Including the 2017 campaign, we’d have 18 games through the end of 2019 to get to Zero-Waste.
GSB: That’s really not a lot of games.
Lauren: I know! So for the 2017 season, our volunteer team had grown to 60. Most of them were deployed to our sustainability sort squad, with the remainder making up our sustainability spirit squad, directing fans on how to best sort through their waste. We were able to up our game from 38 percent diversion in 2016 to 50 percent by the end of last season.
GSB: That means you have 12 games total between now and the end of the 2019 season to get to 90 percent. Sounds daunting but doable.
Lauren: I agree. We learned a lot last season. Football generates 40 tons of waste per game. Before, we were sorting during and especially after games. But most of our home games are at night and volunteers won’t stay. So we tested sorting on Sunday. No one is in the way. It’s just us. We found Sunday to be the quickest, most-efficient sorting system we’ve ever had.
GSB: Did you get lots of Sunday volunteers?
Lauren: You bet. In fact, we sorted through the waste in an hour! So now we’re trying to work out Sunday sorts for all of our 2018 home games. The key is answering this question: Where can we stash the waste overnight? And have enough space to sort it in the morning? After working really hard all summer and collaborating with many different entities on campus, we were able to determine a specific parking lot that would suit all of our needs. So we’re going haul the waste to this parking lot on Saturday, and sort as much of it as we can before the waste disposal companies open up on Monday. This plan should get us halfway to Zero-Waste. Then we also need to work with the cleaning company that scours the seating bowl to sort properly — and that part is now in our contract.
GSB: Assuming the Sunday sort proves successful and the cleaning company steps up, will that get you to Zero-Waste? If not, what else can you do?
Lauren: We would have to take a closer look at the waste stream to see which products that go to landfill have not yet been switched to recyclable or compostable counterparts. If we find products like that, we would need to find a way to incorporate them.
GSB: Have you talked to your counterparts at Zero-Waste success stories like Ohio State and Stanford?
Lauren: Yes and we’ve learned a lot, but their systems and situations are different. Being able to bounce ideas off of them has been very helpful.
GSB: Pivoting beyond Austin, has UT Athletics’ greenness rubbed off on its Big 12 counterparts?
Lauren: Not to the same extent. But we hope that by going Zero-Waste, we will inspire other Big 12 schools to move in that direction.
GSB: Finally, what about getting fans involved in greening beyond their contacts with volunteers?
Lauren: We definitely want to engage fans more. Our social media platform, “Bleed Orange, Live Green” is growing in popularity. And, anecdotally, the feedback has been positive. You know, things like “Glad you’re doing this!” and, regarding the sorting, “Better you than me!” But we need to do more with fans…
GSB: …Two things I’d like to see are 1. Sustainability messaging to fans who follow the Longhorns on TV and online, and 2. Surveys of fans, both attendees and those who follow the team via media, about their attitudes on “Bleed Orange, Live Green”
Lauren: I would like to see those things too! We actually had a meeting with our communications team this summer to figure out how and when would be best to survey our fans about our sustainability initiatives. We want to make sure that the goals we are setting are things that our fans are passionate about as well. Our Athletics’ administration is fully on board with “Bleed Orange, Live Green.” so I think we will start to figure out more ways to support our sustainability program through increasing communications and visibility to our fans like you’ve mentioned.
GSB: Good to hear! Aside from getting to Zero-Waste, what are the next big sustainability initiatives for Texas Athletics? Are renewables on the horizon?
Lauren: Energy efficiency is a big part of the campus Sustainability Master Plan and Athletics will be a part of that. For example, when lighting needs to be replaced, we plan to replace with LEDs. Renewables are coming on campus but it’s been slow so far. That said, renewables are the “next big green thing” for athletics. I can’t give you a timetable just yet. Another big thing for us is water conservation. We are looking at a rainwater retention system to provide water for power washing the stadium
GSB: Lauren, I don’t know how the Longhorns football team will do this season, after an opening day loss at Maryland on Saturday. But I do know this. You will be a very busy woman these next couple of years, starting with Saturday’s home opener versus Tulsa.
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