University of Wisconsin–Madison

Graduate Student Achieves Waste Sustainability By Way of Good Relationships

Emily Knipp, a graduate from the Environmental Conservation master’s program in the Nelson Institute, spent the summer helping the St. Paul Saints work toward a zero waste ballpark.
Emily Knipp, a graduate from the Environmental Conservation master’s program in the Nelson Institute, spent the summer helping the St. Paul Saints work toward a zero waste ballpark. Photo By: Trina La Susa

Emily Knipp spent the summer interning for the St. Paul Saints, a minor league baseball team that plays at the Greenest Ballpark in America—CHS Field in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her internship marked the final semester of her accelerated Environmental Conservation program in the Nelson Institute. In just three months, she was able to help the stadium make strides toward the goal of becoming an even more sustainable, zero waste facility. At the same time, she discovered a career path that combines her knowledge of environmental education with her love of sports.

Knipp already attends nearly 30 baseball games a year, so when she found out about the St. Paul Saints baseball stadium’s sustainable initiatives through the Green Sports Alliance, it was “everything she had dreamed of.” Encouraging sustainable practices in a sports stadium, however, proved to have its challenges.

For CHS Field, being the Greenest Ballpark involves achieving zero-waste status, which requires that 90 percent of waste is diverted from the landfill and instead recycled or composted. “I needed to figure out how to incorporate sustainability and proper waste sorting into everyone’s daily activities at the ballpark,” Knipp relates.

But there had never been a full-time staff member dedicated to sustainability before Knipp arrived, so fellow staff members had to try to fit new sustainability practices into their other responsibilities. Knipp explained that there are only 15 full-time staff members plus interns at minor league games, so everyone performs a variety of duties, from pulling up the tarp on the field during a rainstorm to writing in-game messaging.

When she first arrived, Knipp discovered that there was a negative precedent for waste sustainability at the ballpark. “Employees were often reprimanded for throwing things in the wrong bin or using the compactors incorrectly even though they had never been taught the proper way to do these things,” Knipp related. As a result, early conversations about recycling were often met with eye-rolls and the wry greeting, “The recycling police are here.”

Knipp needed to take a variety of approaches to improve waste streams at the ballpark and correct the negative stigma about sustainability. She took the time to learn how ballpark jobs operated and then came up with ways to fit sustainability into that routine. She created trainings for all Saints staff, especially food service, to encourage zero-waste practices.

For example, the back-of-house food service staff needed direct training on zero waste practices since concessions and catering at CHS Field are run by volunteers. Rather than having formal training that she could build on throughout the season, therefore, Knipp had to start over every day. Before each game she would go into the concession stands and review the three waste streams with the volunteers. During games she would stop in stands to check their bins and answer questions that might have arisen. In this way, Knipp made sustainability an easier part of their jobs, so that everyone could efficiently serve 7,000 people food without taking an extra second to find a recycling bin.

Emily Knipp’s concession stand sign reminds Saints fans of proper waste sorting.
Emily Knipp’s concession stand sign reminds Saints fans of proper waste sorting.

She also took a hands-on approach to helping with waste diversion. She volunteered to sort the ballpark waste herself, developing a reputation for a “proclivity for dumpster diving.” She estimated that nearly 75 percent of the items in the trash bags she sorted through were not actually trash, but rather compostable or recyclable. To help tackle this problem, she created signage for both employees and fans to help drive the message that almost everything they received from the food stand was compostable or recyclable. 

Finally, in order increase the number of helping hands, Emily re-introduced Green Teams, which involved coordinating volunteers from the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. The Green Teams educate fans on the waste bins and sustainability initiatives in the stadium. Knipp created the framework of the program and all the accompanying documents and materials necessary for the teams, from information for contacting groups to email templates and timelines for scheduling. She already has several people committed to forming green teams for the 2019 season once the Saints release their schedule later this year.

By the end of the summer, Knipp helped the Saints achieve a 65 percent waste diversion rate. While not quite zero waste, this number represented a significant improvement in waste handling. Employing the EPA Waste Reduction Model, Knipp calculated that the improved recycling and composting efforts saved greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to three households per year, and she expects the number to increase.

Overall, Knipp believes that building new relationships based on mutual respect is what made the diversion so successful. “Especially in the field of sustainability, people listen to someone that they like and respect. I took the time to build meaningful relationships, and I was polite and respectful to people, which is not what they had [experienced] when it came to recycling before. By the end of my internship, I wasn’t the ‘recycling police’ anymore; people called me Emily. I got somewhere,” Knipp says.

Emily’s Advice: “Always recycle and compost your trash. But, if you can just not produce waste in the first place that would be most ideal.”
Emily’s Advice: “Always recycle and compost your trash. But, if you can just not produce waste in the first place that would be most ideal.” Photo By: Trina La Susa

Following her internship, Knipp received her master’s degree and moved back to her hometown of Kansas City, where she plans to pursue a career in sports sustainability. In the near term, she will travel to Los Angeles for Climate Reality Leadership Training, where she will learn from former Vice President Al Gore how to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis to people everywhere.

 

By: Trina La Susa