The University of Utah welcomed nearly 600,000 fans to its sporting events for the entirety of the 2021-22 season.
That’s nearly 600,000 pairs of hands making L shapes with their thumb and index fingers to make a U. Nearly 600,000 individual renditions of “Utah Man.”
But it’s also more than 600,000 food wrappers, water bottles and drink cups that go in the trash. It’s thousands of cars emitting pollutants into the air in a state that already suffers regularly from bad air quality. It’s all part of a larger problem the university wants to address.
“We’re incredibly honored and excited about the kind of attendance we had,” Utah athletics director Mark Harlan said. “But we also know that that comes with responsibility and how to manage that kind of flow of people coming to campus, both in terms of footprint and certainly waste after the events.”
As the university gets set to host the sixth annual Pac-12 Sustainability Conference on Wednesday and Thursday, officials say that while there is plenty Utah is doing to address sustainability on its own campus, more work needs to be done.
“There are areas where we are not this strong and there’s some really good partners or schools, institutions that are in those areas,” associate athletics director Gavin Gough said. “That’s what’s cool about this conference. It’s a place to come together to just see where we are deficient, maybe, and opportunities to grow in those areas and seeing how they’ve done it.”
Where Utah wants to improve in sustainability
Former Utes skier Abby Ghent worked at the Office of Sustainability while in school. During that time, she volunteered for Brigade, a group of people who offered recycling to tailgaters at football games. Her experience taught her that when it comes to recycling, there is much to be desired.
“It was tough,” Ghent said. " It wasn’t very organized. The tailgaters didn’t really know that recycling was a thing that we were really offering. They didn’t really care. It was pretty frustrating to watch and be a part of.”
Then, in her senior year, Ghent decided to do a project for her capstone class that analyzed the football program from a sustainability standpoint. She and her project partner looked at the energy consumed by the big screen and sound system. They looked at water fixtures and what they used. One of their takeaways was more data needs to be collected on those topics.
But the even bigger takeaway, Ghent said, was the university needs a much more robust recycling system. The game during which she and her partner collected data was Nov. 16, 2019, against UCLA. She will present those findings at the conference two years after originally planned because the 2020 and 2021 conferences were held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We don’t really recycle all that much,” Ghent said.
According to Ghent’s calculations, if just 3% of waste was recycled at a football game, that would offset carbon emissions from the stadium lights, the big scoreboard and the sound system.
Reducing waste is one of the main areas officials still say 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.
Those large numbers may make it seem like Utah is succeeding with waste management and diversion — but there’s an underlying problem.
“When it comes to other areas of sustainability, we’ve set some goals,” said Kerry Case, the school’s chief sustainability officer. “For waste, we don’t have one. We don’t have a goal. We’re just now in conversations to figure out what that is.”
Case added that the university recently started a new climate action planning process that will serve as an update to the 2010 plan.
“This to me is a great opportunity for us to actually set some goals related to waste,” Case said. “I think we need that if we’re going to move forward with it. I think that’s Step 1.”
Recycling is also a big effort the university is tackling. Harlan said Utah has nearly 600 student-athletes, of whom drink Gatorade products due to the university’s contract with Pepsi. Harlan thinks moving to the powdered version of the sports drink would reduce plastic consumption.
Harlan also said the university is looking into adding more turf fields to save water. And, he wants Utah to improve its diversion rate at football games. Diversion rate measures how much waste gets either incinerated or sent to landfills, and how much of it 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 aluminum drink cans that are 100% recyclable.
Gough is a member of Seed2Soil, a university committee that engages in high-level conversations surrounding sustainability. He said the group recently discussed getting more LED lighting across campus.
What is going right for Utah with sustainability
Officials say there is plenty to be proud of when it comes to sustainability at the university.
One example in athletics 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 snazzy new locker room for the Utes players, it was also built with sustainability in mind.
Harlan said among the concepts considered were how many windows the Red Zone would have to allow for natural light, and where to place those windows. They thought of creative ways to deliver water to the facility. The building is all-electric as well, and uses a geothermal system for heating and cooling.
“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 friendly in all regards,” Harlan said.
The Red Zone is currently in the process of acquiring LEED certification. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the most widely used system in the world for rating green buildings.
Other athletic facilities at Utah are also LEED-certified. For example, the Huntsman Basketball Facility is certified Gold, the highest LEED rating. It earned that 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 it will reach 71% renewable energy once a 20 megawatt solar project that is currently under construction goes online. It is currently at 50% electricity from renewable sources.
The school also is on track for its goal to lower greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2025, Case said.
Harlan said the university continues to promote fans taking TRAX to football games and other events. Last season, about 40% of fans rode the train to football games, he said. He added that he was recently told around 60 to 70% of people will use TRAX to attend the Garth Brooks concert on Saturday.
Case made a point to mention that for the University of Utah, sustainability is not only limited to the environment. It incorporates the human side as well. The university’s definition of the term is “the integrated pursuit of social equity, environmental integrity and economic security for both current and future generations.”
“I think the equity, social component is where we’re really, really strong in our efforts with equity, diversity, inclusion 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 a lot of different ways — investments, challenging the campuses to be as good as they can in collaboration with their athletics department and with the general campus and elsewhere,” Harlan said. “I think this conference provides an opportunity for many of the folks that operate in that space [and] are trying to learn about that space [to] come together.”