Zero waste initiative is a grand slam

Nelson Institute Professional Programs graduate student brings sustainable practices to sports stadiums

July 20, 2018

With more than 181 million fans frequenting the top 200 stadiums in the United States, the sports industry has the unique power to influence the sustainability practices of millions. Whether that is working with fans to divert stadium waste from landfills or educating them on sustainable practices, the industry plays a key role in improving waste reduction efforts. For Nelson Institute Environmental Conservation master’s candidate, Emily Knipp, harnessing the green power of the sports industry has become a major focus of her graduate work.  

Developed to meet emerging global challenges and demands, the Nelson Institute Professional Programs are an accelerated, 15-month blended curriculum with on-campus and remote experiences to accommodate working professionals. Students attend courses in Madison for the summer and fall semester and then have classes online in the spring. The final, fourth semester is spent completing a leadership project, which is what led Knipp to CHS Field in St. Paul, Minnesota where she is working to make the St. Paul Saints stadium a green, zero waste facility.

Built in 2015, the ballpark, which fits around 7,000 fans, was designed with sustainability in mind. From tree trenches, recycling, composting, and sub-field filtration, to rainwater harvesting, renewable energy, rain gardens, and heating and cooling systems, the stadium has become well-known for its sustainability initiatives. With help from several organizations, including support from a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency grant, CHS Field and the St. Paul Saints have been working to add to their green initiatives by making the facility zero waste, something Knipp has been working on over the past month or so.

“When I began, my primary focus was to help them achieve their goal of becoming a zero waste facility, so we really emphasized our recycling and composting programs,” Knipp said. “I have been doing training with all Saints staff especially focusing on service staff as our food service is a third-party organization that doesn’t have extensive zero waste training. To help out, I put together a training presentation and I stop in throughout games at all the concession stands and talk to everyone about what goes where, why it’s important and I answer questions as they come up.”

In fact, Knipp has found that staff and fan education is just as important as having recyclable and compostable products and receptacles.

“Our messaging that we give fans is that everything you eat off of is compostable and everything you drink out of is recyclable,” said Knipp. “But, there are a lot of challenges. During games, it’s difficult to ensure that fans are putting waste in the proper bins, as it may be the first time someone is at the ballpark. It’s not that people don’t want to, it’s just that people are unfamiliar, especially with composting. That’s why consistent messaging is so important.”

To help with these messaging challenges and to increase fan knowledge of sustainable practices, Knipp started the Green Team, a group of volunteers who stay close to high traffic receptacles, helping fans to sort their waste and better understand the reasoning behind the sustainability initiatives.

“I actually just had my first Green Team come out from the University of Minnesota,” Knipp said. “I got good feedback from them that it went well, so I’m excited about that.”

In addition to the Green Team, Knipp has been developing a framework including suggestions and observations that she will give to CHS Field at the end of her project. Her hope is that this document will help the facility staff to reach their sustainability goals and provide an outline for future employees and groups. Knipp has also been working with staff on messaging, helping to write material that is used to inform fans about the sustainability initiatives throughout the stadium.

“I have a lot of support from leadership within the organization to take charge of sustainability,” Knipp said. “For example, I just spoke with the office about how I think the sustainability messaging during games could be better and they agreed. So, I pulled something new together, sent it to the promotions staff and they said it looked great. It was nice that they had that trust that I could pull something together. They do value me and allow me to do what I like to do.”

For Knipp this hands-on experience with the team at CHS Field has solidified her desire to bridge her knowledge of environmental conservation with her love of sports. The opportunity is also what led her to apply to the Nelson Institute Environmental Conservation Professional Program.

“My journey up until this point has been a long winding path,” Knipp said of her previous experiences working in a zoo, at a summer camp and at other conservation organizations. “I loved the education aspect of those roles, but I wanted to do something more to impact change, so I came to the Nelson Institute and the Environmental Conservation program. I loved the fact that the program had hands-on experience and projects rather than just a traditional thesis.”

Knipp also appreciated the fact that the curriculum allowed her the freedom to explore her passions. Working with Environmental Conservation Program Coordinator, Meghan Kautzer, Knipp was able to explore project options and secure her role at CHS Field.

“In talking with Meghan, I told her I’ve always been a huge sports fan, especially baseball. I love baseball probably more than anything,” Knipp said. “I told her I have always had a secret dream of working in sports and that I had contacted the Green Sports Alliance, who promotes sustainability at sports venues. There was a Nelson alum from another cohort of the program who works for the Golf Course Association in their environment department and she had a connection at CHS which is the sponsor of CHS field where the Saints play, and the rest is history.”

While Knipp will only be at CHS Field for about another month, she is already seeing positive results from her work and is hoping to see that trend continue.

“It would be really amazing to see a higher waste diversion rate than we’ve had in the past.  Right now, we’re on track to be at our highest waste diversion rate ever,” Knipp said. “I can’t take all the credit for that, but I like to think I’m helping with that. To just be able to see the things I’m working on take hold. For the Green Team to take hold and everyone in the office to prioritize sustainability would be amazing.”

Knipp is also hoping to continue this work beyond her experience with the Environmental Conservation Program, brining sustainability to stadiums throughout the United States.  

“If they want me to continue on with the team after my time here I would be happy to,” said Knipp of her role at CHS Field. “If not, I plan to move back to my hometown of Kansas City where I’ve been looking into sports teams and jobs in the conservation world. I’m also considering doing ushering and other things in the sports industry to keep my name out there and promote sustainability in stadiums.”