Sustainability of MSU's postgame cleanup requires city-wide effort
As Brian Lewerke's pass floated into the hands of a wide-open Felton Davis for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown, thousands of beer-clenching MSU fans tailgating around campus loosened their grip on their cans a little bit and exhaled a sigh of relief.
74,111 fans in Spartan Stadium watched from their seats, brats and kettle corn in hand as they waited for the game to end. As the clock hit zeroes, tailgaters and attendees alike exited campus, hitting bars, frats and homes to celebrate a 6-1 start or, for the opposition, drown out back-to-back hard-fought losses.
Each of those football fans — yes, even the Hoosiers, whose red apparel turned MSU's homecoming into Christmas in October — has something in common: they all create waste. Whether it's throwing away their ticket once they enter the stadium, disposing of the hot dogs they accidentally charred, or figuring out what to do with 75 half-full beer cans after the family tailgate, every person contributed something to MSU's game-day waste totals.
The responsibility for minimizing that waste's impact on the environment falls on everyone who participates in game days. Yet it's a relatively select group of city and campus employees, as well as proactive community members, who are responsible for not only making sure that the city is clean after football games, but that the cleanup efforts themselves are sustainable, too.
Cleaning up campus
Since up to 140,000 people may descend on MSU's campus for football games, Dave Smith, MSU's recycling coordinator, is a very busy man before, when and after the Spartans take the field.
MSU's angle on keeping game days environmentally sustainable is an emphasis on minimizing total waste. Along with providing about 250 recycling containers available in and around Spartan Stadium, the university encourages reusable materials like plates and water bottles instead of plastic, disposable ones. Smith said not only would on-campus waste totals go down if fans used reusable tailgate supplies, but it would decrease the universal effects of tailgating on the environment.
"When you have probably 120, 130,000 people on campus, the less waste that's generated is significant," Smith said. "We try to move people away from disposable products that are gonna be left here on campus to materials that are taken home."
Smith said the amount of waste collected on game days depends heavily on a number of factors, from the time of day the game takes place to the quality of the opponent.
If MSU is playing a rival or an in-state opponent, as was the case with Notre Dame and Western Michigan, waste totals are much higher, because the games bring in a larger crowd.
The same is true for night games: people have more time to tailgate, eat, drink and generate waste. Lesser competition and noon starts are good indicators of low waste totals, factors that marked the Bowling Green game, as is chilly or rainy weather.
Given these numbers, MSU's cleanup efforts are no small task. Cleanup crews were dispatched hours before the Indiana game even started, and cleanups often are a weekend-long undertaking, requiring a 6 a.m. start on Sundays to continue tackling the results of the previous day's mayhem.
Outside of using an efficient vehicle to service recycling containers, he admits there isn't much that distinguishes the sustainability of MSU's cleanups from other schools. Except for their much larger scale compared to day-to-day waste collection, Smith says there isn't really any way in which game-day cleanups differ from any other day.
"I think we do what a lot of other schools do," Smith said.
Unlike Smith, it isn't in jazz studies senior Joseph Herbst's career description to make sure MSU remains clean. The intern ambassador with the Community Relations Coalition, or CRC, has a different motive. Passionate about the environment — he's also a member of MSU Greenpeace — Herbst focuses on ways he can help others become more caring about their surroundings.
One way he's able to do that is through a volunteer cleanup event the CRC organizes that takes place after certain MSU home games, when it's still warm outside. The cleanups are intended to not only pick up trash, but also help East Lansing's temporary student residents connect with and care for the city.
Herbst's fellow intern ambassadors guide volunteers through the Bailey neighborhood with tan bags for trash and white bags for recycling. Homecoming weekend marked the final one of the year.
Herbst thinks these events are not only helping the environment, but crucial to showing permanent East Lansing residents that students aren't just here to trash the place for four years and then leave.
"Everyone's going to have a good time on game days, which is totally awesome, but if we leave behind a mess, it can reflect poorly on the MSU community," Herbst said. "By coming out, we're showing that we're committed to keeping these communities clean and not just MSU, but also the East Lansing community."
The scope of the CRC cleanups is unique in East Lansing, according to Catherine DeShambo, environmental services administrator for East Lansing Public Works. She praised the organization as being "a great group of students" who mobilize all levels of EL residents in caring more about their community.
This isn't praise from afar — DeShambo was out with her daughter on Sunday, helping the CRC clean up after the Indiana game.
Psychology freshman Haley Hinzmann, a participant in the post-Homecoming cleanup, heard about the effort on a community engagement Facebook page. She felt it was a simple way to "do her part" to make her surroundings look nicer and connect with the city she lives in.
"It was pretty easy to do," Hinzmann said. "It doesn't take a lot to just come out and pick up trash on a Sunday."
Kevin Pajaro, CRC intern coordinator and an MSU graduate student, pointed to students like Hinzmann as examples of the cleanups' effect on city involvement.
Although 50-odd people roaming the streets and picking up the trash they see might not stop climate change, Pajaro sees sustainability as a cause that is born from smaller, localized movements like this.
"The small actions that you take locally affect what the global spectrum, the global conversations, and the global actions will look like and how they're dictated thereafter," Pajaro said. "This event, although on the surface level may be bare-bones in the world of sustainability, it still provides a foundation for people to think about, 'Why are things like this important?'"
Similar to MSU's efforts, once game day waste is collected, it isn't treated much differently than any other waste the city handles. For the CRC cleanups, responsibility for determining what's recyclable and what's trash is left up to the volunteer. Once the waste gets into the city's hands, it's treated like any other waste: what can be recycled is sent out of East Lansing, and what is trash — some of it being potentially recyclable materials that people threw away — goes to the landfill.
DeShambo praised her department's commitment to recycling and conservation in general, but said that when it came to targeted game day efforts, more could be done.
"I do think that in terms of really promoting what's available for recycling downtown, we could probably do a better job of that for a game day," DeShambo said.
It takes a village
While MSU and East Lansing conduct their cleanup efforts in largely separate circles, both DeShambo and Smith pointed to the most important, yet unpredictable factor when it comes to lessening the environmental impact of game days: the actions of the fans themselves.
DeShambo said the city has tried to promote recycling not only on game days, but every day, installing bright green recycling bins throughout the downtown area and implementing a residential recycling program that has more than doubled city-wide recycling totals. She said the effort would be even more successful on game days if people took advantage of the bins' placement directly next to trash cans and separated their food from its often-recyclable packaging.
"Big events are certainly a bigger challenge because of food waste, and food waste is gonna contaminate otherwise some recycling that we may have taken," DeShambo said. "We make it really easy because with public space recycling downtown, we have recycling containers paired with refuse containers."
East Lansing could install a neon recycling bin at every intersection, and MSU could directly hand recycling information to every tailgater who stepped foot on campus but it doesn't matter what initiatives are pushed if people simply don't choose to properly dispose of their waste.
Smith said this is because of a tailgate culture in which regular social norms seem to go out the window. Even though most people do not think throwing trash on the ground is acceptable, at a tailgate, large crowds may make it difficult to find proper containers, or people may see others doing it and follow along.
"It's just a different mentality with people on game days," Smith said. "It's surprising to me that there is sort of a culture of 'it's okay to put stuff on the ground.' Under normal circumstances, people don't do that. They don't go to an event and just throw stuff on the ground."
Even when tailgaters do dispose of waste somewhere other than the ground, they don't always do it properly. Recyclables often end up in the trash, and once they're there, it's very difficult to undo that and recycle them. This fact, combined with simple ignorance of the lessons his department tries to push, makes the percentage of total waste that gets recycled "quite low," Smith said.
"Even though we encourage that behavior, certainly that doesn't always happen," Smith said.
This isn't unique to tailgating or to MSU's campus. DeShambo said prior to implementing the downtown recycling bins, MSU and the city collaborated on two waste sorts, where trash from East Lansing's downtown area was put on a conveyor belt and inspected. The results of those sorts essentially confirmed a common assumption: unless the average resident has a screaming green motivation to do so, they might not fully care about recycling what's recyclable.
"Seventy to 80 percent of those materials were really recyclable materials," DeShambo said. "It really made the case for why we needed recycling in the downtown, and the fact that that would be a very sustainable practice for us."
Despite some shortcomings, to Pajaro, MSU and East Lansing's everyday cleanup efforts provide a solid blueprint for improved sustainability after a football game. He said he is also encouraged by what he sees as an effort to not only dispose of waste sustainably, but keep residents involved in continued efforts.
"I think the city and MSU does a good job of trying to make those efforts, one, collaborative," Pajaro said, "And two, just to keep that momentum, no matter what day it is."