Football season is here. It’s when burly men pile up on the field, and trash piles up in the stands. The men will keep piling up — that’s the nature of the game — but the trash is another story.

Recently, the University of Missouri joined a growing number of schools trying to make their sports events more ecologically responsible, in this case by reducing the amount of waste produced by fans. The idea is to promote recycling, encourage water and energy conservation, and decrease the volume of garbage destined for landfills.

“Large events like football games not only generate a lot of trash, but could enable us to get an environmental message out to a large number of people who are a captive audience, at least for three hours,” said Ronald G. McGarvey, assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering in the university’s engineering college. “If we can get across the importance of it in the stadium, perhaps it will carry over to the rest of everyday life.”

To determine how best to reduce waste, researchers examined tons of garbage, piece by piece, to determine what sports fans throw out. McGarvey said that sifting through multiple bags of refuse by hand — even with gloves on — was an unforgettable experience.

“It is just about as gross as you would imagine,” said McGarvey, who organized a team of students to tease out the plastic, glass, paper, metal, chicken bones, half-eaten hamburgers and smuggled-in liquor bottles from five home football games in 2014.

“We’d collect [trash] bags, store them in the stadium overnight. Then, Sunday morning, we would arrive in the parking lot,” McGarvey said. “The students would don plastic gloves, rip open the bags and separate them into categories.”

Students sort stadium trash. Source: Christine Costello

He and coauthor Christine Costello, assistant research professor of bioengineering in the university’s engineering college, chronicled their findings in a recent study which appears in the journal Sustainability.

“It was fascinating,” Costello said. “For example, why would someone buy a commemorative cup, then throw it out? You start to wonder why people throw certain things away. Getting to a zero-waste plan involves first looking at what is showing up in my waste stream and whether we need it at all. If we are going to have an effect on waste generation, we have to dig in and learn what people are wasting. Literally.”

Missouri joins a growing number of colleges — and professional sports teams — that are addressing climate change by shifting to renewable energy, launching energy-efficiency programs, and leading recycling and composting efforts. Schools have encouraged spectators to bike to events, for example, and convinced concessionaires to offer sustainable products such as compostable service-ware and recyclable paper products, among other things.

“Among all culture-shaping institutions, the world of sports — professional, collegiate and amateur — has almost unparalleled influence,” said Allen Hershkowitz, the founding director of Sport and Sustainability International and former director of the sports project for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Sports attract literally billions of followers all over the world, and its influence in the marketplace is global, including some of the most influential industries on Earth.”

Faurot Field at the University of Missouri. Source: Clare Murphy

NRDC released six reports under his direction that documented the greening of sports events. One of them focused on professional sports and another on collegiate sports. “All industries meet on a football field — auto, steel, plastics, textiles, food and beverage, water, energy,” Hershkowitz said. “If they start to see that the teams and events they are supporting are embracing environmentalism, they start to think about their own behavior.”

For the Missouri study, researchers collected around 47 metric tons of waste. What was troubling was that nearly half of the trash from inside the stadium was recyclable, but didn’t end up in recycling bins. Researchers said event sponsors need to find ways to motivate fans to put recyclable materials where they belong, rather than in trash cans.

“We need to make it as easy to recycle as it is to put in the trash,” McGarvey said. “If you get nacho chips in a plastic tub and only eat half, most people won’t dump the food in one place and the tub in another. We have to remind fans that it is important to take that extra five seconds to separate the two.”

They recommended a series of actions to reduce waste, with the goal of recycling or composting 90 percent of the waste generated at football games. Recommendations include donating unsold food to local charities and food banks, swapping out materials that aren’t recyclable or compostable for those that are, and understanding how to better forecast food demand in box seats and suites.

They also suggested replacing foods such as beef, whose production generates large volumes of carbon pollution, with more vegetables and chicken, and adding more recycling stations.

They also urged the university to educate attendees about sustainability and recycling. “A lot of our activities occur outside our homes,” Costello said. “We need to figure out ways to routinely [recycle] in all cases and in every aspect of our lives.”

As for donating unsold food, “it is super hard to predict demand on game day, so there often is unsold food,” she said. “But even super-hungry grad students would be happy to get that food rather than see it go to a landfill.”

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.