The University of Texas-Austin has a campus-wide goal of achieving zero waste by 2020. Athletics — Longhorns football in particular — has a crucial role to play as to whether the campus makes it.
The 2019 football season, now at its halfway point, will likely determine the outcome and so there’s a good deal of pressure on the operations and sustainability operation at UT Athletics.
GreenSportsBlog spoke with Lauren Lichterman, who until recently served as UT Athletics’ operations and sustainability coordinator, about whether the Longhorns will bring UT-Austin over the zero waste goal line.
The University of Texas-Austin implemented its Sustainability Master Plan in 2016. One of its key goals is for the campus to achieve zero waste — which means diverting at least 90 percent of waste from landfill — by September 1, 2020.
To say the Texas’ 2019 football season will play a key role as to whether the campus makes zero-waste a year from now is an understatement.
“We were told by university officials that Longhorns football games, with crowds of more than 100,000 at Memorial Stadium, generate so much waste that if we don’t get to 90 percent diversion, the entire campus will fail,” said Lauren Lichterman, former operations and sustainability coordinator at UT Athletics. “So the target is definitely on our backs this season.”
Lauren Lichterman (Photo credit: Texas Athletics)
Far from being cowed by the challenge, Lichterman and her team leaned into it.
“The challenge has really inspired us,” Lichterman offered. “We put year-by-year goals in place back in 2016, with specific milestones each year. That’s helped us be on track to make our zero waste goals at the football games. Last year our diversion rate was 75 percent, with two home games reaching 90 percent and the other four coming close.”
Like a top football coach at halftime, Lichterman made adjustments to improve UT Athletics’ diversion rate over the last few years to get within shouting distance of achieving a zero waste 2019 season.
She had trouble getting enough volunteers to sort waste after Longhorns night games in 2017 — sometimes sorters would be working until after 2 AM. A pivot to a a Sunday morning sort in 2018 didn’t show immediate results.
“We were all ready to go with our first Sunday morning sort and a massive thunderstorm came through,” recalled Lichterman. “We had to cancel it and so our diversion rate for that game was only 30 percent.”
Aside from Mother Nature, conducting three sorts between Saturday night and Sunday early afternoon also proved to be logistically challenging. Student staffing was difficult as the volunteers and leaders had two very long back to back days of sorting. Turnover was high; thus a great deal of staff time was spent training new volunteers.
A switch from three shifts of 100 volunteers each to two Sunday shifts of between 150 to 175 volunteers — from 11 AM-2 PM and from 1-4 PM — paid dividends over the last two games.
“Two shifts worked much better,” Lichterman acknowledged. “Turnover was low so we more experienced volunteers and staff time would be spent managing the sort rather than in training. The rolling bins made it much easier to move the compost more quickly. Overall, the flow was much better.”
University of Texas students volunteer to sort waste after a 2018 Longhorns football game (Photo credit: Texas Athletics)
Diversion rates rose to 76 percent in 2018 and the stage was set for 2019.
With three home games remaining of their six home game slate — the finale is November 29 vs. Texas Tech — we will know soon enough if the Longhorns were able to improve their diversion rate game enough to get past 90 percent for the season.
LAST MILE ALWAYS THE TOUGHEST
Concessionaires and caterers are crucial players in getting UT Athletics over the zero waste threshold. “We’ve been working with them to change to recyclables and compostables wherever possible,” said Lichterman. “Sodexo, our concessionaire, has done a great job.”
The needed tweaks might seem small, like the introduction of recyclable hot dog wrappers and compostable chip bags, but Lichterman thought those changes could get Texas close to the 90 percent threshold.
…CLOSE IS NOT ENOUGH
Is there any other lever UT Athletics can push, beyond having Sodexo and the caterers sourcing the latest in recyclable this or compostable that, to get the Longhorns to zero waste?
Perhaps the easiest way for Texas to move the zero waste needle over 90 percent is unused food donation. The program is in place and has been amped up during the 2019 season.
Lichterman hoped the apparel sales side of the operation would contribute this season, with vendors like Nike stopping the practice of individually wrapping shirts and other items. According to the Athletics Department, that change will not happen this season.
WHAT ABOUT OTHER SPORTS?
The city of Austin owns and runs the Erwin Center, home to Longhorns basketball, and so is not a part of the zero-waste calculus. A new arena, expected to open within the next five years, will also be a city-owned property so Texas hoops will not be part of the mix for the foreseeable future.
Baseball has already achieved season long zero waste status. Track and soccer are next up but Lichterman said both are tougher than football since the location of both venues are difficult for hand sorting.
University of Texas baseball stadium, part of the school’s Zero-Waste efforts (Photo credit: Texas Athletics)
But, as with most everything in big time college sports…
…IT ALL COMES BACK TO FOOTBALL
Football is the engine that drives college sports. According to an October 2016 Business Insider article, UT Austin Athletics generated $184 million in revenue in the 2015-16 academic year, with $121 million (65.7 percent) coming from football.
At Texas, that holds true for its zero waste efforts: Even if Texas track and soccer don’t get to zero waste, the Athletics Department and the campus will make it if football does because of its massive size and scope.
The entire UT-Austin hierarchy is following the sustainability team’s progress.
How will a stellar finish to the Longhorns season on the field impact the diversion rate off of it, if at all?
Because there is a small fixed amount of waste that cannot be diverted. “More fans means more waste means a higher percentage of diverted waste,” noted Lichterman. “A great season is great for zero waste.”
So, will Longhorns football make its zero waste goal for the entire season?
The Longhorns have kept their part of the bargain on the field so far this season. They are currently 4-1 and ranked #11 in the country ahead of Saturday’s traditional Red River Showdown with undefeated and 6th ranked Oklahoma in Dallas¹.
Lichterman was cautiously optimistic when we spoke shortly before the season began: “Getting that last five percent will take the best of everyone, from back of house to the vendors to Sodexo to the student volunteers. I’m betting on UT.”
Watch this space.
¹ The Red River Showdown is always played at the Cotton Bowl. It is a neutral site, with 50 percent of the tickets going to each school. Neither UT nor Oklahoma manages waste handling for this game so diversion rates are not counted by either university.