When Ohio State University committed to a zero-waste initiative in 2011, sustainability coordinator Corey Hawkey knew it would be a challenge. Today, however, the university has a 30.8 percent waste-diversion rate and hopes to up that to 40 percent in about a year. Below, Hawkey tells gb&d how that’s going to happen. Interview by Julie Schaeffer
gb&d: What was the impetus for beginning the zero-waste initiative at Ohio Stadium?
Corey Hawkey: The idea had been floating around for a while, since 2008 or 2009 as part of Ohio State’s sustainability initiatives, but like any new initiative, it took time and effort to get it off the ground. In 2011, Ohio State’s Office of Energy Services and Sustainability put together a proposal to get a grant from the university’s President and Provost’s Council on Sustainability. They gave us seed funding to get the program off the ground.
gb&d: How did you come up with your goal of 90 percent waste diversion?
Hawkey: Ninety percent is the number Zero Waste International, a nonprofit group, uses to define zero waste. Colorado University at Boulder and University of California at Davis also use that methodology. We also had some other objectives of our own, including 75 percent waste diversion from our stadium by the end of 2011, which we accomplished.
gb&d: How did you get started?
Hawkey: The number one thing we needed to do was establish a team of the major stakeholders. They included facilities operations and development, which is where I serve as sustainability coordinator for the office of energy services and sustainability; department of athletics; our food vendor, Sodexo; our sports marketing group, IMG Sports Marketing; our recycler and hauler [at the time], Waste Management; and our compost facility, Price Farms Organics. We brought them all to the table from the beginning and made sure we were all on the same page.
gb&d: Was it hard getting them on board?
Hawkey: Initially, yes. But once we had the support from the very top of the university and a clear plan, everyone rallied behind it.
gb&d: Why the stadium first?
Hawkey: It was ambitious because it holds an average of 103,000 fans per game, but we wanted to be one of the country’s first stadiums to achieve zero waste. It was a controlled environment; we can limit what goes in and what comes out. And, it allowed us to demonstrate that zero waste was possible on campus. Ohio Stadium is a gateway to the campus, and we said, “If we can do this here, we can do it anywhere.”
gb&d: What strategies did you use to reduce your waste?
Hawkey: The first thing we did was work with Sodexo to look at the materials used throughout the stadium. They had to be compostable or recyclable. Then we determined that we were going to say food and fiber will be compost, and everything else will be recycled. With 103,000 people you can’t make a lot of exceptions. Along the way, we also had to change the infrastructure in the stadium, change how we cleaned up, and establish an education and outreach plan.
Percent of waste currently diverted from Ohio State University. Sustainability coordinator Corey Hawkey is in charge of tripling that number by 2030.
gb&d: Do you do anything with your organic compost?
Hawkey: When we recycle organics, some of it is composted, like the materials at the stadium, but some is disposed of in an anaerobic digester. At the digester, materials are converted to electricity, clean natural gas, and soil amendment. That’s part of our strategy to reach 90 percent. We’re not talking about trash and recycling. We’re talking about sustainable materials management, which involves minimizing waste at the source, organics recycling, and regular recycling.
gb&d: Were there any challenges to establishing the stadium program?
Hawkey: We use at least 800 garbage-can liners a game. That’s a lot of liners, but switching to compostable versions wasn’t a possibility. They were too weak, they didn’t come in the right size, and they cost too much. We decided to use the same liners we had been using, but we added the recycling logo to the bags we were using for recyclable items so we could identify what bags to divert. It might not sound like a big deal, but it was a make-or-break moment for us. We also had a challenge with contamination from materials we hadn’t switched over yet—things like coffee cup lids. We had to make sure they didn’t get in the compost.
gb&d: Was it important for you to get students on board?
Hawkey: Believe it or not, they consume less material than other areas [of the stadium]. We’re still working on engaging them, though. We asked the marching band to make a recycling symbol once last year, and there’s a recycling video that’s shown on the screen of our mascot recycling with the cheerleaders. We also have a team of six volunteers on the day of the game that manages the program and makes sure it’s running smoothly.
gb&d: What are your plans for the next year?
Hawkey: We hope our stadium effort will be the foundation for our other efforts across campus. We’re taking bold steps, looking for ways to avert products in the first place—make sure they don’t even come to campus—but if and when they do, make sure we can either reuse them or recycle them. We’re already starting to see the effect. We have a zero-waste event service that anyone on campus can request. We’ve expanded our collection of organic materials, such as food scraps, to five of our major eateries, and we’ve achieved an estimated 85 percent waste diversion in our four-star hotel.