Deposit laws, voluntary initiatives, prompt tailgaters to clean up their act

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Tailgaters on MSU’s campus clean up following a recent football game against the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Wajeeha Kamal

Tailgaters on MSU’s campus clean up following a recent football game against the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Capital News Service

LANSING – Strolling Michigan State University’s campus after a weekend of football would leave your mouth agape a decade ago.

David Smith took that stroll 11 years ago when he became the university’s new recycling coordinator. He was shocked by the aftermath of a Labor Day weekend game.

“There was a massive amount of waste that was generated on game day,” Smith said. “A lot of it wasn’t properly disposed of.”

Sporting events have become a priority at MSU and other universities seeking the best way to engage the public with sustainability initiatives.

Tailgaters create two types of waste: recyclables and nonrecyclable waste, according to a recent study in the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education. 

University officials clean up the waste generated by tailgaters on Sundays following game days, said study author John Kerr, a professor in MSU’s Department of Community Sustainability. In addition, some tailgaters and other people around campus collect recyclable waste, like bottles and cans, to make money.

Kerr highlighted a mix of formal rules and informal efforts to encourage sustainability during tailgates. 

For example, banning drinking games, limiting tailgating hours and access to some previously used spaces are formal rules implemented 15 years ago to reduce tailgate waste.

Since then, informal efforts, including the “green your tailgate” initiative, have encouraged a shared understanding of acceptable behavior and social norms at football tailgates. That initiative provides community members with tips to make their tailgates more sustainable, like ditching paper plates and plastic cutlery.

Kerr concluded that Michigan’s bottle law, which turns empty cans into a source of income for those willing to collect them, makes recycling a priority for tailgaters and those who pick up the empty cans.

The law requires that most soft drinks, beer and other carbonated beverages in containers under 1 gallon have a refundable 10-cent deposit. California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Vermont have similar laws too.

Thus, recycling at MSU tailgates is a collaborative effort, the study said. And that’s why it’s possible that recycling during them would have been successful even without the Michigan law, Kerr said.

“They could just as easily toss the empties in their cooler and take them home, or they could just as easily toss them in a recycling bin, but they don’t,” Kerr said. “You can get people to dispose of trash properly, including recycling, even without that deposit.”

There is more evidence to suggest a deposit law is not required to encourage football fans to clean up their act.

MSU and Pennsylvania State University are Big Ten universities that rank in the top five of Times Higher Education’s 2023 Impact Rankings for Sustainable Cities and Communities nationally. MSU was ranked No. 2 while Pennsylvania State University was ranked No. 1.

While Michigan has a 10-cent deposit, Pennsylvania doesn’t have a deposit law.

Yet waste collection at Penn State is improving as the amount of waste generated increases, according to State College, a local news outlet. Constant education is cited as the reason.

Smith said he’s seen tailgaters getting better at recycling at Michigan State. Although the number of tailgaters has been increasing, more people are bagging their waste, which makes the collection easier, he said.

University of Michigan fans tailgating at Michigan State before their traditional rivalry game bring U-M-themed bags with them to dispose of trash, Smith said.

“I would love to see Spartan fans do the same thing when they’re visiting and they’re tailgating somewhere else – take their MSU bags and clean up the trash,” he said.

MSU officials have begun handing out trash bags to tailgate attendees and other informal trash collectors.

Bags are available for free at Penn State in the parking lots surrounding Beaver Stadium. “Come to the Game, Honor the Name” is the stadium’s recycling mantra, with public service recycling reminders by student volunteers and shown on video.

Communication among tailgaters, campus officials and informal trash collectors is essential to ensure people clean up after themselves on game days, the study said. Penn State officials ask fans to continue recycling to help the efficiency of collecting tailgate waste.

Kerr suggests an alliance between the universities and people who recycle at tailgates or a community listening session with informal recyclers to encourage good waste disposal practices during the football season.

“If you’re someone who hands out the trash bags and you see somebody who’s there every week, you could just say, ‘Hey, if you see new people, help spread the word.’”

Wajeeha Kamal reports for Great Lakes Echo.

Litter overflowing a trash barrel at a Michigan State University football game.

Mary Zumbrunnen

Litter overflowing a trash barrel at a Michigan State University football game.

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