The World of Sports: The Coliseum leads the Pac-12 in sustainability

When I first began writing this column, I focused on sustainable stadiums, with Seattle’s appropriately-named Climate Pledge Arena and SoFi Stadium stealing the show. However, there’s a stadium close to home that I did not mention — although it was briefly featured in my electrifying aluminum versus plastic bottles column.

The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is among the most sustainable stadiums on the West Coast. A three-time winner of the Pac-12 Zero Waste Challenge, the Coliseum boasted impressive waste diversion numbers in the 2022 football season.

Zero waste, by the industry’s standards, is achieved when 90% or more of waste materials are diverted from landfills through either recycling or composting. This figure isn’t set at 100% because some fans bring their own products, some of which are not compostable. In the 2022 football season, the Coliseum reached zero waste in six of USC’s seven home games, a rate strong enough to earn them the 2022 Green Sports Alliance Net Zero Waste Champion honors.

While President Carol Folt is often credited with igniting a push for a more sustainable campus, the Coliseum’s sustainability efforts began in 2015, four years before Folt was hired.

“Nobody told us we had to do this. We did all the legwork and all these different things to make it happen,” said Matthew Buswell, director of stadium operations for the Coliseum. “When President Folt came over, everything we were doing, it was like ‘Oh, the Coliseum’s already doing this.’”

Diverting trash from filling up already overflowing landfills is certainly an accomplishment. Think about your most recent game day experience at the Coliseum. When you headed out (hopefully not at halftime as much of the student section has often been prone to do), remember how much trash you saw? Popcorn boxes, crushed beer cans and a myriad of other products the Coli sells fill the stands after each game. In fact, the lowest amount of trash in a single game last season still amounted to more than 8 tons. For the whole season, the stadium sent only 8% of this trash to landfills, with an impressive 59% carted off for composting.

Part of the Coliseum’s efficacy in their zero waste efforts also lies in their attempts at using sustainable products. The entire USC campus eliminated the sale of single-use plastic beverage containers and water bottles in July 2022, resulting in an influx of primarily aluminum bottles — from the Coliseum to Seeds. Additionally, many of the products sold in the Coliseum are compostable.

“You can’t have zero waste if you’re putting non-compostable, non-compliant items into the waystream,” Buswell said. “If a vendor comes in … we provide them [with] a list of approved items. If they don’t have that, say they’re going to try to serve off of Styrofoam, we will confiscate that.” 

Composting, the natural breakdown of organic matter, is a much more sustainable alternative to landfills. Fungi, worms, insects and bacteria break down the waste — which would otherwise emit methane in a landfill — and produce compost, which can be used to improve soil quality. Composting still emits carbon dioxide, but at a much lower clip than sending waste to landfills.

Recycling is also a complicated process that still emits CO2. However compared to letting items sit in a landfill, recycling is a worthwhile endeavor, particularly for aluminum cans — a frequent purchase inside the Coliseum’s walls.  

According to the United Nations, about one-third of food produced worldwide goes to waste. The Coliseum seeks to reverse that pattern by partnering with the St. Francis branch of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank to donate excess food, contributing nearly 1.5 tons of food in the 2022 football season.

Achieving this success is no easy task. As many as 145 employees contribute to the waste organizing process, spending hours sorting through every bag of trash from an event, making sure that each item is sent to the appropriate destination.

“For the most part, everything is compostable or recyclable,” Buswell said. “Obviously we still have nacho cheese cups or the ketchup packets, the souvenir cups … but all of the serviceware, so plates, forks, napkins, cups, [are] all compostable.”

Stadiums across the country are making efforts to emulate sustainability practices such as those that the Coliseum follows. While teams are always encouraged to compete without limits on the field, by sharing their practices, stadiums can lessen the impact sports have on the climate by prioritizing sustainability.

The United Nations stated in their most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that the number of people facing water scarcity in cities would double by 2050 — meaning 2.4 billion people would be in crisis. To avoid these dire consequences, we must integrate sustainability into our daily lives — including in the Coliseum.

Patrick Warren is an associate managing editor and a senior writing about the relationship between sports and climate change. His column, “The World of Sports,” runs every other Friday.