Following a football Saturday in East Lansing, fans and students file out of their seats, athletes return to the locker rooms and tailgaters pack up their belongings before heading home. All that’s left inside Spartan Stadium are wrappers that once held Melting Moments, hot dogs, an assortment of other concessions snacks, empty plastic bottles and cups — among other waste.
The game is over, but the cleanup is just beginning.
What the cleaning process looks like
In the hours and days after Michigan State sporting events, many hands help dispose of trash and recyclables.
MSU Recycling Coordinator Dave Smith is one of the main people responsible for post-gameday clean up.
Smith said his department starts by collecting cardboard from the stadium vendors, before emptying the near 80 recycling containers located on the concourse. They also collect leftover food from vendors to use for compost.
As for the areas outside the stadium, Smith said there are around 300 recycling bins used for disposals of beverages and other waste.
“On any given game, there's somewhere between 10 and 15 major hospitality areas, and we provide the trash and recycling service for that,” Smith said. “Infrastructure Planning and Facilities (also has) spaces that they are allowed to rent out to tailgaters, and so, we provide trash and recycling for those as well.”
The recycling team partners with MSU Landscape Services to pick up the trash left outside of the athletic facilities, Smith said.
“They pick up all that debris and then our trucks that collect all that material and bring that back, whether that's recyclables, or on Sunday cleanup, it's primarily trash,” Smith said.
MSU IPF Communications and Learning Manager Fred Woodhams said Landscape Services is typically staffed with more than 60 people to help clean up campus the morning after home football games.
“They'll get up real early; they'll be out before dawn,” Woodhams said. “Primarily, they're looking for trash from tailgating and then they will collect that and ensure that is removed from campus, and then, that would ultimately go to a landfill.”
Local organizations looking to fundraise can volunteer their time and help clean up the stadium on Sunday in exchange for compensation from MSU Athletics.
“There is a group that goes through the stadium on Sunday that picks up recyclables, primarily water bottles and souvenir cups,” Smith said. “We have a large roll-off (container) that we put down there. Most games will fill a whole 20-yard roll-off full of water bottles and plastic drink cups.”
Deciding what to throw away and recycle
Smith said the MSU material recovery facility can only accept clean and dry items with a good market. The university collects the recyclables to make bales: a 1,200 to 1,400 pound cube of material.
“We sell that to people who are going to take that and use that as a raw material to make a new product,” Smith said.
Some items, including plastics, are difficult to recycle, Smith said. Right now, MSU only accepts plastic tubs, bottles and jugs along with other cardboard, glass, paper and metal items.
Goals for the future of recycling and sustainability at MSU
Smith said tailgaters and fans are encouraged to recycle their own waste on game day in one of the many bins across campus. He even suggests taking the items with them when they leave and dispose of them at home.
“Game day is always a challenging environment to get people to recycle — that's not their motivation when they come to a football game,” Smith said. “It’s just trying to change that mentality.”
Associate Athletic Director for Facilities and Events Seth Kesler started MSU’s recycling committee five years ago, and said recycling is one of his passions.
“Even though I'm a little bit older, I have young kids, and I don't want to leave the world worse off,” Kesler said. “I've been focused on trying to make our recycling efforts better, especially for football game day.”
Kesler said the university’s momentum and ideas surrounding recycling programs were put on pause during the pandemic to focus on more pertinent matters at the time.
“But now we're back to where we have the ability to make an impact again,” Kesler said. “We still had our recycling efforts, but now we wanted to find a way to get people to buy in. We wanted our fans to take pride in campus and to help with our efforts.”
One idea the university wanted to implement before the pandemic was incorporating student athletes into cleanup efforts. Kesler said there were some players who were interested and ready to be involved, but those plans were pushed to the backburner for a few years.
“We really want to try … and have a game where they help direct people to the right bins, and then help pick the recycling product post game,” Kesler said.
Kesler said he also looks forward to working alongside newly appointed Director of Sustainability Harvey Amoe III, who was appointed April 10.
As for what's to come, Kesler said members of the university’s marketing and fan engagement teams are working to improve sharing information about recycling and waste management for athletic events.
“I truly believe that we’ll make a difference this fall,” Kesler said. “I think if we put it in front of people, people are generally good about trying to do the right thing.”