Tackling Wasteful Tailgating

It’s almost football time in Tennessee! That means grilling out, drinking lots of tasty beverages, and throwing a ton of waste away. 

Not to be a downer, but the waste associated with football games is pretty shocking. According to the University of Tennessee’s Office of Sustainability, the Vols and their fellow tailgaters and game-goers sent approximately 162 tons of waste to our landfills during the last football season. That’s three times as heavy as a Tyrannosaurus Rex.  

While we would never advocate for giving up on a long tradition of pre-gaming, we thought it was necessary to share some numbers and potential zero-waste solutions for a few of our favorite tailgating activities.


Grilling out by our cars, in some parking lots, surrounded by fellow fans lends for a pretty positive experience. What we choose to grill on, however, has the potential to massively contribute to our carbon footprint.

While gas grills are the predominant grilling medium, over 50% of households are still continuing to use charcoal grills according to a 2016 study conducted by Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association (HPBA). Charcoal grills are pretty rough on our carbon levels, making them the lesser grilling option. Charcoal starts out as wood that is burned in an environment lacking oxygen. Without any oxygen, the wood can’t actually catch on fire and this creates what is basically just chunks of carbon. When we burn these chunks in our grills, we’re releasing all of that carbon back into the biosphere where it mixes with oxygen and creates carbon dioxide (CO2).


What’s bad about carbon dioxide?

When CO2 is released into the environment, it begins to absorb heat that then warms our atmosphere. This heat can come from thermal infrared energy radiating from the ocean’s surface and the Earth’s land, or straight from the sun. CO2 is considered the most dangerous of the greenhouse gases because, even though it absorbs less heat than others, it is much more abundant and remains in our atmosphere for longer. CO2 levels are higher right now than at any point over the last 800,000 years, and this increase is responsible for 2/3 of the imbalance that is causing the Earth to warm.

What about my grill then?

If for whatever reason charcoal grilling is a must, it’s recommended you stop the coals from burning unnecessarily. Pouring some water onto the grill can do significant good for the environment (while also saving you money!!) because you can reuse the coals for future grilling.

Moving onto the booze

Aside from grilling, tailgating in heavily associated with alcohol consumption. The National Football League (NFL) released a study that shows people attending the football games are consuming, on average, 8.4 alcoholic beverages. Neyland Stadium holds just over 100,000 people, at the fourth largest American football stadium in the country – and that doesn’t even account for the fact that just over a quarter of tailgaters never actually attend the game inside! That’s a lot of alcohol, but it’s also a lot of waste.

Between the choice of glass, aluminum, or plastic, we would always advocate for aluminum. This is especially the case because glass can no longer be recycled at the University of Tennessee, and when we send glass to the landfill, it will remain there for over 1 million years. Aluminum cans on the other hand can effectively be recycled indefinitely. The process of using recycled aluminum to make new aluminum products requires less than 5% of the energy non-aluminum would. * This does not include aluminum foil or aluminum food trays as these two products are not recyclable! *


Of course, our top choice is always going be reusing over recycling. Many local breweries and beer markets/tap rooms offer growlers for a onetime fee. Once you’ve purchased your growler, you have access to draft beer from a variety of locations for some really good prices!  

The previously mentioned NFL study also made note that beer pong is the most popular tailgating game. If you’re set on playing some pong, it’s good to remember that the University of Tennessee does allow plastic cups to be recycled! However, a more cost-effective method is to rinse your beer pong cups and store ‘em as designated pong cups. By not reusing or recycling our plastic cups, we are contributing to massive amounts of plastic ending up in our landfills. Roughly 840 thousand tons of plastic plates and cups were sent to the landfill in 2015.

Speaking of plates…

Food presents its own struggles. Nationally, we throw away enough food every year to feed 49 million people. That’s 30-40% of our food supply heading straight for the trash. The cost for discarding food hikes up quickly once you start to account for the land, water, labor, energy, and other outputs used in producing, processing, transporting, and storing the food coupled with the cost of disposing the discarded food.

One of the easiest ways to cut down on food waste is buying in bulk! By encouraging leftovers, you are helping to reduce the overall amount of food traveling to our landfills. Buying local is another easy method of cutting down on waste while simultaneously stimulating our local economy.


Football season should be a time of fun and (hopefully) celebration. We can have a positive experience while remaining mindful of our choices surrounding consumption. If you have questions about how to manage recycling/waste during game-day or otherwise, the UT Office of Sustainability and KKB are always happy to answer questions or give suggestions in sustainability efforts.

WBIR  captures Smokey on 65th birthday

WBIR captures Smokey on 65th birthday

And, as always, go Vols!