Showcasing top athletes for Olympic qualification was not the only goal of this Eugene, OR, event — a 75% waste diversion rate was also eyed.

Olympic Trials recycling

From June 22 to July 1, 2012, some of the best athletes in the world descended on Eugene, OR, for the Track & Field U.S. Olympic Trials. The event drew more than 25,000 people each day, most of whom spent part of their time at historic Hayward Field eating, drinking and leafing through programs or shopping for consumer products. That many people could mean a tremendous amount of waste, but event organizers put a tremendous amount of consideration into waste prevention, recycling and composting. The goal was to divert 75% of waste from the local landfill, and at last count they were a mere two percentage points away from meeting that mark. Ethan Nelson, Sustainability Chair for the event, admits it was not the easiest undertaking. The trials are a big deal, and they are hosted by people who have invested millions of dollars and for people who have incredibly high standards for themselves and those around them. “Then we threw in behavior change on top of all of that,” Nelson says. Still, thanks to good planning, plenty of support from event organizers and local businesses and a concerted effort around marketing and branding, the sustainability team pulled off a remarkably green event.
Olympic Trials recycling
Three bins separating recyclables, compostables and trash at the Olympic Track & Field Trials.
In some ways, preparations began four years ago, when Eugene hosted the 2008 Olympic Trials. Community members diverted 68% of the waste generated at that event, an effort that earned them one of the first-ever International Olympic Committee Awards for Sport and the Environment. The sustainability committee wanted to do even better in 2012. They set out a six-point plan to guide their efforts during the trials:
  • Provide a zero-waste event and support sustainability through purchases
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions in energy and transportation
  • Local food and housing
  • Increase access and support social equity for all
  • Support the local community and economy
  • Leave a legacy
The plan was well received by the event steering committee, which did its part to ensure it was implemented. Organizers required all food vendors to use compostable dishware, adopted a sustainable procurement policy (which included buying some local food for meals) and allowed sustainability committee members ask a lot of questions about how to make every aspect of the event as green as possible.
Olympic Trials recycling
Bags of trash and recyclables were separated on site.
Local partners in the effort included Sanipac, the region’s top garbage and recycling hauler; the City of Eugene’s Love Food Not Waste program; Rexius, a composting business; and Next Step Recycling, an electronics recycling company. At the event’s conclusion, BRING Recycling, a nonprofit that specializes in building materials reuse, came in to deconstruct exhibits and other structures. Involvement by these partners was essential in providing logistics and reuse and recycling services. The next, and perhaps hardest, part was educating the public so they could participate in the event’s sustainability efforts. The sustainability committee asked AHM Brands, a local creative agency, to develop high-quality materials that would give the campaign a consistent look and message. Corrugated plastic signs with the slogan “We Can!” were placed all over the event. That same slogan was used on table tents, program advertisements and golf carts used to haul bags of waste to the recycling area. Organizers set up a three-bin system in each waste disposal area to make it easy for people to sort. One bin collected compost, one held recyclables such as plastic bottles and one held trash. The composting and recycling bins displayed signs with pictures of which items could go in each. The trash bin was clearly marked “Landfill. Please see our other recycling and reuse options first.” A sustainability video ran on Hayward Field’s video screens before the event started each day, reminding people of the zero-waste goal and asking them to “please sort and discard responsibly.” “If you’re presenting information, you have to make people interested in it,” Nelson says. “We’re such a heavily branded culture that you have to look good. In fact, you have to do more than that. You have to make people feel good about themselves.” The three-bin system worked to some extent, but organizers found they still needed to go through every single bag and separate materials. Nelson notes that they started out asking volunteers to do it but quickly realized they needed to pay people. Luckily, Northwest Youth Corps, a nonprofit that provides job training and outdoor education for young people, stepped in and took on the task of sorting through the bags.
Olympic Trials recycling
E-waste collection bins were even present at the event.
The blog “Focus the Nation” recently shared this thought: “With 58 percent of people paying attention to sports, and only 18 percent to science, these events… represent a great opportunity to change citizen behaviors.” The memory of sorting trash from recyclables may not burn as bright in people’s minds as watching Ashton Eaton set a new world record in the men’s decathlon, but hopefully the next time they have a choice between compost and trash, their banana peel will end up in the right place.