No, it’s not green popcorn or green ice cream, or even green eggs and ham. Concession’s manager Alan Wilkinson has taken the group’s sustainability efforts to new heights—and has become a national leader in the process.
It’s been a long time since Alan Wilkinson has seen a MSU football game – even though he’s been at Spartan Stadium for nearly every home game in the last 15 years.
“Yeah,” the MSU Concessions Manager laughs when asked about being a spectator. “I haven’t really been able to watch a game since I was in high school. But
even though I can’t see the field itself, I feel like I always know what’s going on in the stadium—you can just tell by the atmosphere of the event when the team is doing well. You can feel it in the air.”
Wilkinson and his Concessions team are old pros at reading the atmosphere at MSU events. The department, headed by Wilkinson and his management team of Justin Evans, Dale Nagele and Alex Terranova, provide food and beverage options to thousands (if not millions) of people during more than 400 events each year. That includes the big events like football and basketball, as well as smaller or less frequent events, such as the Muscular Dystrophy Walk, the MSU Car Show or Vet-A-Visit.
“No matter what the size of the event, we always want to be part of the fun,” said Wilkinson. “People come out to watch the team, see a show, or walk around the exhibition, but we want to make sure that Concessions is part of that fun time. We’re always looking for opportunities for Concessions to contribute, to make a difference.”
That attitude of making a difference extends beyond providing food and beverage options to hungry fans and participants during the event—for Wilkinson and his team, it also meant finding ways to make a difference before anyone shows up and long after they’ve gone home.
Sustainability Before, During and After
For many years prior to Wilkinson’s leadership, the concessions team had been donating leftover food items to Lansing’s Food Movers Program and recycling cardboard regularly. But as Michigan State’s sustainability efforts began to ramp up, Wilkinson knew Concessions had to be part of the solution as well. That meant taking a look at the entire life cycle of concessions products — from sourcing, product selection, preparation and disposal — and finding new and creative ways to lessen the impact on the environment and keep as much out of the landfills as possible.
“We’ve made a focused effort on offering regionally made food at MSU events, which cuts down on shipping waste and gives us a chance to showcase local food,” said Wilkinson. The group has also made a point of selling reusable cups and mugs at events – making them collector’s items in some cases.
Concessions has been recycling cardboard and plastic for decades, and uses all paper products – they no longer use any foam — and the group works very hard to get to zero waste in the back of the house. But the biggest impact came when they looked at ways to reduce food waste from products not eligible for donation.
Make the Garbage Can Really Small
When the anaerobic digester came online at Michigan State, Wilkinson and his group were some of the first to look for ways to contribute. An anaerobic digester is an oxygen-deprived, heated, sealed tank where organic waste decomposes quickly, producing methane for fuel, and MSU has the largest system on any college campus in the United States.
“We really wanted to get started on sending inedible food waste to the digester instead of just having to throw it away,” said Wilkinson. “I didn’t want to wait; I kept asking, and we realized that we could use bins that weren’t working for the residence halls.”
The containers that had originally been used at the residence halls for food waste were becoming problematic because the handles had an area that leaked – and with the variety of food waste coming from the dining areas, it was getting pretty messy. Concessions knew those same containers would work well for their purposes, since they usually deal with opened, pre-packaged dry items, such as pretzels, popcorn and buns.
“So we went from having one huge container in each concession stand that was overflowing with trash, we replaced it with three containers: a 55-gallon bin for plastics that goes to recycling, the 30-gallon for food waste that goes to the digester, and we made the garbage can really, really small.”
Those efforts have made a huge difference: the group currently send between 500 and 800 pounds of food waste per football game to the digester—food that would have gone to the landfill in the past.
Wilkinson credits the sustainability success to the teamwork between all the groups on campus, particularly the service provided by the Recycling Center.
“They have been instrumental to making this work,” Wilkinson said. “They send us 90-gallon gondolas where we can dump all the collected food waste, then they will take them to the digester, empty them, rinse it out and bring it back to us ready-to-use. It’s been a fantastic team effort.”
Wilkinson is also particularly proud to be part of a department and campus so committed to sustainability. “Nationally we are at the top of our game in terms of concessions food recycling- and that includes pro venues. Honestly, I don’t know of any other university concessions program doing a food recycling program. It’s great to be part of a university that can look for new ways to make a difference. We want to be Spartan Green.”