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Pitching In at the Ballpark

At least some of the refuse generated by fans who attend sports events is being recycled

Late in the fourth quarter of the Bowling Green-West Virginia football game on Sept. 7, Tim Saunders took a three-step drop and fired a Marino-like bullet that found its target.

Touchdown? No, just another aluminum can landing in a 55-gallon recycling drum outside Mountaineer Field in Morgantown, W.Va.

Tim's no quarterback, just a skinny high school sophomore who's a member of the stadium's privately contracted cleanup crew. During and after each game, Tim and a half-dozen other young men examine every bag and barrel of trash from the stadium and pull out everything that is recyclable before the rest is dumped into a garbage truck.

Depending on the size of the crowd, Tim's recycling team puts in from 10 to 20 hours manning two primitive assembly lines. Each line consists of a long wooden board that sits atop four big trash cans. Garbage is dumped on each board, then pulled down the line with a long-handled broom.

As the stinky stuff moves along, two to four men per board dig into the garbage, ripping open large plastic bags and scooping out the remains of soggy sandwiches and styrofoam cups to uncover the recyclable material. By night's end, the crews will have plucked out thousands of aluminum beer and soft-drink cans, hundreds of brown, green and clear glass bottles, plus a couple of thousand plastic soft-drink containers.

Though it's strictly a seat-of-the-pants operation, West Virginia's stadium recycling program is one of the most comprehensive programs of its kind. It is a model for environmentally concerned Americans who are interested in starting their own programs for sports organizations at any level, from peewee to pro. But it takes fans to get the ball rolling.

It's not easy to get officials of sports stadiums interested in recycling, says Diana Rogers, who runs the Washington, D.C.-based National Recycling Coalition's Good Sports Recycle program. Rogers says most officials she has talked to "don't see recycling as a priority. It doesn't fit the glitzy image they want to present. They're good at making excuses like, There's too much else to do on game day."

And in fact, the West Virginia program has been a success not because of any official university involvement but because of Kenny Jackson, a businessman who five years ago founded a company, Wash On Wheels, whose slogan is, "We'll Clean Anything."

This is the second year that Jackson has had the contract to clean Mountaineer Field, and it's a real family affair. During the game, his brother, Larry, his oldest son, Jason, and his neighbor Jason Bennett, drive pickup trucks around the stadium and through the parking lots. Their job: to collect dozens of giant garbage cans once or twice during the game and take them to Tim's recycling team stationed on a hill overlooking the field. At the same time, Kenny's wife, Susan, sits outside the main gate signing up 100 or so people for the postgame cleanup.

After West Virginia edged Bowling Green 24-17, teenage girls started walking down the rows of stadium seats, stacking and bagging plastic soft-drink cups. Meanwhile, other members of Tim's team were busy redeploying just inside Mountaineer Field's main gate, preparing for the assault on the garbage cans. Within minutes the air was filled with flying cans and bottles. Jackson's friend local-garbage-hauler Delmar Walls had his truck cranked up, and the race was on to collect every recyclable item possible, while keeping the trash moving steadily over the boards and into the truck.

As good as this recycling effort is, it could be even better. For example, stadium vendors could put their recyclable cardboard cartons to one side, rather than throw them in the trash where they become contaminated by the food waste. Also, a system could be set up for composting the food and paper waste.

Whatever his operation's shortcomings, however, Jackson's Mountaineer Field stats from his rookie season, 1990, were impressive. He recycled nearly 11,000 pounds of glass, more than 2,500 pounds of aluminum cans and 158 pounds of aluminum foil.



Bill Paul is a former environmental and energy reporter for The Wall Street Journal.