Human management

University of Utah Aims to Improve Waste Management While Continuing Sustainability Efforts

The University of Utah welcomed nearly 600,000 fans to its sporting events throughout the 2021-22 season.

That’s nearly 600,000 pairs of hands forming L’s with their thumb and index finger to form a U. Nearly 600,000 individual renditions of “Utah Man.”

But it is also more than 600,000 food packaging, water bottles and cups that go in the trash. That’s thousands of cars emitting pollutants into the air in a state that already regularly suffers from poor air quality. This is all part of a larger problem that the university wants to tackle.

“We’re incredibly honored and excited about the kind of participation we’ve had,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said. “But we also know that comes with responsibility and how to deal with this kind of flow of people coming onto campus, both in terms of the footprint and certainly the waste after the events.”

As the university prepares to host the sixth annual Pac-12 Sustainability Conference On Wednesday and Thursday, officials said while Utah is doing a lot to address sustainability on its own campus, there is still work to be done.

“There are areas where we’re not as strong and there are some really good partners or schools, institutions that are in those areas,” Associate Athletic Director Gavin Gough said. “That’s the cool thing about this conference. It’s a place to come together to see where we have gaps, maybe, and opportunities for growth in those areas and see how they’ve done.

Where Utah wants to improve on sustainability

Former Utes skier Abby Ghent worked in the Office of Sustainability while in college. During that time, she volunteered for Brigade, a group of people who provided retraining for hookers at football games. His experience has taught him that when it comes to recycling, there is a lot to be desired.

“It was tough,” Ghent said. “It wasn’t very organized. The hookers didn’t really know that recycling was something we really offered. They didn’t care. It was quite frustrating to watch and be a part of it.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A severe thunderstorm brings heavy rain forcing fans out of the stands at the start of the PAC-12 football game between the University of Utah and Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium Thursday, September 29. 2, 2021.

Then, in his senior year, Ghent decided to do a project for his capstone class that looked at the football program from a sustainability perspective. She and her project partner examined the energy consumed by the large screen and the sound system. They looked at the plumbing fixtures and what they were using. One of their takeaways was that more data needed to be collected on these topics.

But the even more important point, Ghent said, is that the university needs a much more robust recycling system. The game in which she and her partner collected data took place on November 16, 2019 against UCLA. She will present these findings at the conference two years later than originally scheduled, as the 2020 and 2021 conferences were held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We don’t really recycle a lot,” Ghent said.

According to Ghent’s calculations, if only 3% of the waste was recycled during a football match, it would offset the carbon emissions from the stadium lights, the large scoreboard and the sound system.

Reducing waste is one of the main areas that officials say still needs significant work. Based on 2019 data, the university diverted nearly 3,300 tons to landfills. Nearly 840 tons were recycled, and nearly 630 tons were composted.

These large numbers may give the impression that Utah is succeeding in waste management and diversion, but there is an underlying problem.

“As for the other areas of sustainability, we have set targets,” said Kerry Case, the school’s sustainability manager. “For waste, we don’t have any. We have no goal. We are just discussing to understand what it is.

Case added that the university recently launched a new climate action planning process that will serve as an update to the 2010 plan.

“To me, this is a great opportunity for us to set some waste-related goals,” Case said. “I think we need it if we want to move forward. I think this is step 1.

Retraining is also a big effort that the university is tackling. Harlan said Utah has nearly 600 student-athletes, some of whom drink Gatorade products because of the university’s contract with Pepsi. Harlan thinks switching to the powdered version of the sports drink would reduce plastic consumption.

Harlan also said the university is considering adding more grass fields to save water. And, he wants Utah to improve its hijacking rate at football games. The diversion rate measures the amount of waste that is incinerated or sent to landfill, and the amount that is recycled, reused, reduced or composted.

“These things add up collectively,” Harlan said.

Gough – who oversees facilities, game management, operations and capital projects – gave the example of the University of Boulder in Colorado and how it introduced 100% recyclable aluminum cans.

Gough is a member of Seed the Soil, an academic committee that engages high-level conversations about sustainability. He said the group recently discussed getting more LED lighting on campus.

What’s going well for Utah with sustainability

Officials say there is much to be proud of when it comes to sustainability at the university.

An example in track and field is the Ken Garff Red Zone at Rice-Eccles Stadium which opened last August. While the $80 million project increased the stadium’s seating capacity and provided a sleek new locker room for Utes players, it was also built with sustainability in mind.

Harlan said among the concepts being considered were how many windows the Red Zone should allow for natural light and where to place those windows. They thought of creative ways to supply water to the facility. The building is also fully electric and uses a geothermal system for heating and cooling.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Young fans cheer on the University of Utah as they host the Colorado Buffaloes in Pac-12 football, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“We have a responsibility at the University of Utah — of course, in many other places — that when we build these buildings, we have to be environmentally responsible in every way,” Harlan said.

The Red Zone is currently in the process of obtaining LEED certification. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the world’s most widely used system for rating green buildings.

Other sports facilities in Utah are also LEED certified. For example, the Huntsman Basketball Facility is certified Gold, the highest LEED rating. This obtained this distinction in 2017.

The Red Zone is aiming for Gold certification.

The university is particularly proud of what it has done in terms of water conservation. Since 2018, Utah has reduced its total water use by 20%, Case said.

utah wants to be carbon neutral by 2050. In September 2020, the university announced that it had reached 71% renewable energy. The school is also on track to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2025, Case said.

Harlan said the university continues to promote fans who take TRAX to football games and other events. Last season, around 40% of fans took the train to football matches, he said. He added that he had recently been told that around 60-70% of people would use TRAX to attend Garth Brooks’ concert on Saturday.

Case made a point of mentioning that for the University of Utah, sustainability is not just limited to the environment. It also incorporates the human side. The university’s definition of the term is “the integrated pursuit of social equity, environmental integrity, and economic security for present and future generations”.

“I think the equity, social component is where we’re really, really strong in our equity, diversity, inclusion efforts on our campus and in our athletic department,” Gough said.

The conference, Harlan said, provides an opportunity to learn from other universities about their efforts.

“The Pac-12 conference has long been a leader in areas surrounding sustainability in many ways – investments, challenging campuses to be as good as possible in conjunction with their athletics department and with the general campus and elsewhere. Harlan said. “I think this conference provides an opportunity for many people who operate in this space [and] try to find out more about this space [to] come together.”