Duke Football Goes Zero Waste

Fans divert 94 percent of recyclable, compostable material at Nov. 14 game

This collection of about 30 garbage bags was all the trash left from the 30,241 fans who attended the Duke-Pittsburgh football game on Nov. 14. Staff and volunteers worked to divert almost 11,100 pounds of compostable and recyclable materials to achieve

It may not appear in the win column, but Duke Football picked up a huge victory this season. 

In its second year of a program to enhance sustainability at home football games, Duke achieved its first-ever “zero waste” game day Nov. 14 against University of Pittsburgh, diverting 94 percent of recyclable and compostable materials from trash. With 30,241 in attendance at the game, roughly 30 large trash bags were all that was needed to handle waste that day. Almost 11,100 pounds of recyclables and compost were collected. 

“After so much hard work by our staff and volunteers, it’s amazing to know we can reach this goal,” said Arwen Buchholz, Duke’s recycling and waste reduction coordinator. “It’s a fantastic feeling.”

Most impressive of all is Duke’s effort includes the entirety of game day – from tailgate until fans leave. Most schools with similar programs focus only on waste created in a stadium. 

Buchholz said she is awaiting confirmation but shared that Duke is poised to be the first Atlantic Coast Conference school to achieve a football game day diversion rate of 90 percent or higher. Coming into this season, only six other schools in the country had reached a diversion rate of 90 percent or more.

Diversion rates had been increasing throughout Duke’s 2015 season, with the biggest jumps in the final two games. The Oct. 31 game against University of Miami saw a rate of 71 percent, the second-highest number from all home games the last two years. The average diversion rate for the entire 2015 season was 55 percent, four points higher than last year.

Bob Weiseman, assistant athletic director for athletic facilities, game operations, and championships, said "the zero waste game day initiative is a perfect example of what makes the university environment great," noting it originated from a graduate student project, then connected students, faculty and staff from across Duke.

Buchholz said the success of 2015’s final two games was buoyed by the number of hours put in by staff from Facilities Management and Duke Athletics. To reach the high diversion rate against Pittsburgh, staff spent about 15 hours during and after the game sorting trash to pick out items that could be recycled or composted, she said. Student and employee volunteers also assisted with fan education during pregame in tailgate areas and sorting post-game.

Charlotte Clark, assistant professor of the practice of sustainability at the Nicholas School of the Environment, volunteered at all six home football games this season, donning blue latex gloves and sorting through trash to up Duke’s diversion rate. She said reaching a “zero waste” goal was a big deal because it’s a step toward minimizing waste and making recycling and composting a regular behavior for fans. 

“We were all there for this social experience, but there became a normative influence that this is just want you do in this venue,” she said. “It we’re the first team in the ACC to do something like this that excites people and puts less organic matter into our landfills, it’s good news to me.”