Special Series: Green College Sports

Student Athletes Help Ohio State Ramp Up Its Zero-Waste Efforts


The ongoing coronavirus crisis stubbornly maintains its grip on the United States and that has thrown higher education — including college sports — into uncertainty as the fall semester fast approaches. Some schools are planning to welcome students for in-person classes. Some are starting with online classes only. And still others are kicking off with a hybrid model.

College athletics is also trying to find its footing in the COVID quicksand. Football, the main revenue-driving sport at the Power 5, “Big Time” leagues/conferences¹, remains a moving target.

This week, the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced the postponement of all fall sports, including football, until January. The other three — the ACC, Big XII and the SEC — are going to try to play fall sports, delaying the start of the season until late September. 

Many of the non-Power 5 Division I conferences, including the Ivy League, plus the smaller Division II and III leagues have already postponed all of their fall sports until the spring or canceled them until next fall.

Not surprisingly, the green corner of college sports world has also been affected by coronavirus.

With COVID as backdrop, GreenSportsBlog is running a three-part series that dives into Green College Sports 2020-21. 

Part I looked at how the ACC and Pac-12 Sports Sustainability Summits fared during coronavirus.

In Part II, GSB reviewed “Restoring College Sports Amid COVID-19: Leveraging Climate Action,” a virtual panel discussion that featured athletics directors from four Power 5 schools talking about the intersectionality of climate change, COVID and racial and social justice.

We depart from COVID in today’s finale. Since Big Ten power Ohio State will not be playing sports this fall, we thought it important to shine a light on how its student athletes have taken a leadership role in Green-Sports. 


What would become the LEAFS program — Leadership of Environmental Athletes for Sustainability — at Ohio State started with the initiative of one student athlete, synchronized swimmer Victoria “Tori” Baron-Prokup (’18).

“Victoria had heard that our home football games, which draw over 100,000 fans, at The Horseshoe were zero-waste, meaning 90 percent or more of our waste was diverted from landfill, and thought, ‘why can’t synchro, with attendance in the 400-500 range, be zero-waste, too’,” recalled Graham Oberly, sustainability coordinator for the Ohio State athletics department. “So, she asked Athletics Director Gene Smith if synchro could go for it and he said yes. They’ve been improving their diversion rates, getting up to the 80s last season — the campus average is 35 percent.”


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Graham Oberly and Tori Baron-Prokup at the 2017 US Collegiate Championship Synchronized Swimming (Photo credit: The Ohio State University Athletics Department)


The reaction to the student athlete-led zero-waste drive (recycling is the main component, with composting added in where possible) has drawn rave reviews from officials, parents and staff alike.

“It has grown virally, with athletes inspiring other athletes,” Oberly said. “Fencers showed up to volunteer at synchro meets, helping to sort waste. That led fencer Natalia Falkowski to ask, ‘why not us?’ So fencing was in. Natalia then told a gymnast — they practice in the same building — and soon women’s and men’s gymnastics had joined the fray. Men’s volleyball players, a women’s soccer player, field hockey players and rowers came on board. The rowing coach was ready to say yes but then COVID hit.”

Pre-COVID and thanks to the guidance of Oberly and sustainability associate Cassidy Jenney, the student athlete-led zero-waste effort had become streamlined.

“Once the coaching staff agrees to go forward with zero-waste, the athletes, facilities and I get together to go over recycling and composting basics,” related Jenney. “The athletes manage all of the reporting aspects of the effort.”

According to Jenney, a 2017 OSU grad and a former varsity rower, interest in sustainability is growing among athletes. She was the full-time Sustainability Associate for the department for the 2019-20 academic year.

“When I was an athlete a couple of years ago, I didn’t even know that the athletics department had a sustainability effort,” Jenney noted. “Now that we’ve got the resources, it is easy for athletes to get involved on zero-waste and other environmental initiatives, and to make change. Being a part of LEAFS also provides valuable experience, which will help those athletes who want to pursue a sustainability-related career.


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Cassidy Jenney helping with tailgate recycling during the 2019 Ohio State-Florida Atlantic football game (Photo credit: The Ohio State University Athletics Department)


Going forward…What will college sports will look like, post-COVID? When will fans feel comfortable to go to a stadium or an arena with a big crowd?

The answers to these questions are unknowable as of now but, at Ohio State, the athletics department, its sustainability practitioners, and the LEAFS athletes, need to plan for that post-COVID future.

According to Oberly, the LEAFS athletes are looking to engage student-athletes from every team, host virtual events around living sustainable lives, and engage athletics around sustainable operations.

“Cassidy asked the LEAFS team, ‘how can you improve things?’,” Oberly said. “COVID of course will impact things. Despite all of the unknowns around COVID, one thing I do know is that LEAFS is in good hands going forward, thanks to the leadership of Sarah Walsh from synchronized swimming, fencer Shanavanth Arnipalli and Alex Tadda from cheerleading.”


¹ The Power 5 conferences are the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC
Photo at top: Ohio State Zero Waste staff and Ohio State Fencing team pose for OHIO during the 2020 Fencing Midwest Conference Regional Championships. The three fencers in the middle of the photo, from left to right, are Natalia Falkowski, John Culpepper, and Montserrat Viveros (Photo credit: The Ohio State University Athletics Department)


LEAFS can be reached at https://ohiostatebuckeyes.com/sustainability/leafs/

You can follow Ohio State’s sustainability department on Twitter at @OhioStSustain


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