The Surprising Way This Major Surfing Competition Is Making Composting Mainstream

Sports events are starting to play a huge role in keeping the planet healthy.

January 19, 2018
World Surf League
Image courtesy of World Surf League

Along the side of the dirt road at Waihuena Farms, this small-scale organic farm on the North Shore of Oahu is making what one of its farmers calls, “boutique, artisan compost.” Using a Japanese composting technique called bokashi, staff and volunteers mix food waste with a brew of microorganisms, pickling the food and creating a potent fertilizer that feeds the farm’s plant beds.

Waihuena Farms vegetable beds
Photograph courtesy of Christine Yu


But the organic waste isn’t just scraps from the farm and landscapers around the island. In November and December, over 3,000 pounds comes from the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, a premier three-event series of professional surf competitions that draws tens of thousands of people to the North Shore every year. The City and County lifeguards of Honolulu estimate that on competition days, an average of 25,000 people can pack the beach to watch the world’s best surfers in action.

However, the increase in visitors also brings a surge in trash, putting a strain on the island’s waste management system and natural resources.

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Waihuena Farms is part of a unique partnership between Vans and Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, a local grassroots nonprofit organization, to decrease the impact of the Triple Crown on the island state and the environment. “Our goal is always to leave no footprint behind,” says Kim Matsoukas, Senior Manager for Sustainability and Social Responsibility for Vans.

Through a full-scale waste management system, they divert approximately 65 percent of overall waste from the Triple Crown away from landfills and incinerators a year, an increase from 29 percent in 2013.

During the competition period, Sustainable Coastlines sets up bins on the beach and regularly sorts and empties the trash. To encourage people to sort their trash into the proper waste stream, the bins are clearly labeled—recycle, compost, and trash. All approved caterers and food vendors don’t sell single-use plastic bottles and are required to use compostable plates and utensils.


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Then, the utensils, napkins, food containers, and food waste are collected and taken to Waihuena Farms, chipped down, and added to the compost piles and into the garden. “This is where Ke Nui Kitchen sources a lot of their food, which they then feed back to the competitors at the Vans Triple Crown,” says Kahi Pacarro, Executive Director of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii. Even the cardboard from the events are used as weed mats on the farm to kill weeds and prep the soil for planting. Plus, since there are no commercial composting facilities on Oahu, the partnership helps return some of the natural resources back to the island.

“It’s important for Vans to look at the way our events show up [in a community]. That includes working with organizations like Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii to manage the waste that’s created by our events,” says Matsoukas. “We want Vans to come back for many years for the Triple Crown of Surfing.”

sustainable coastlines Hawaii waste bins
Photograph courtesy of Christine Yu


Other major sporting events are reducing their footprint, too

The Triple Crown isn’t the only sporting event that’s elevating its sustainability profile and implementing innovative measures to reduce their waste footprint. Sporting events offer a unique opportunity to raise awareness around sustainability issues. You have a sizable crowd and captive audience exposed to messaging on and examples of proper waste management like recycling and composting. Plus, they generate an enormous amount of trash.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United State produced 258 million tons of waste in 2014, 65 percent of which was incinerated or sent to landfill. “There are plenty of states, especially in the Northeast, where landfill capacity issues are increasing. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed now, not later,’ says Michelle Lee Guiney, President of G Force Waste Sorters. “We are not recovering the magnitude we need to be recovering for a sustainable future.”

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There’s a growing interest among college and professional sports teams, road race and triathlon organizers, and even NASCAR in sustainability initiatives. Since launching in 2011, the Green Sports Alliance has grown from six professional teams and five venues to approximately 500 teams and venues, including Major League Baseball, the NHL, the NBA, USTA, and Major League Soccer. Many of these teams and venues are testing zero-waste programs—with the goal of diverting 90 percent or more of materials from landfills.

“If you think about the importance of sports in our society and how many people follow sports, it’s a great avenue to educate fans and others on how they can make a difference,” says Judd Michael, professor of agriculture and biological engineering at Penn State University. “At Penn State alone, we estimate there’s about a million tickets sold per season to sporting events on campus. That’s a million chances to imprint on fans how to do the right thing.”

For example, at Penn State, Michael is leading efforts to make Penn State’s game day operations greener. Five years ago, his team began working in the suites section of the football stadium, achieving a 90 percent diversion rate in the first year and a 100 percent diversion rate every year since. They’ve moved on to other areas of the stadium and to the ice hockey arena. He has also consulted on NASCAR Green and helped the Pocono International Raceway adopt more green and sustainable solutions.

Pocono raceway recycle bins
Photograph courtesy of Michael Houtz

In Boston, a pilot effort is underway at Fenway Park, a partnership between the Boston Red Sox, Aramark Corporation, Waste Management, and G Force Waste Sorters that started in 2016. After fans leave the stadium, a team of 12 goes through the trash by hand to recover recyclable and compostable materials. In nine sorts through the summer of 2017, they’ve picked through over 41,000 loads of trash and have diverted 56 percent from landfills.

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The success of these events depends largely on the fans

But Michael says there are major barriers to zero-waste initiatives. They depend on engaged consumers. If it’s not clear and easy to figure out where to dispose their trash, fans will throw it away in the wrong container. Manufacturers may not use 100 percent recyclable or compostable packaging materials for the products sold within the venue, which increases the amount of waste going to landfill. These efforts also require significant human-power, like Pacarro’s Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii staff and volunteers, to ensure that recycling and compost streams aren’t contaminated while not interfering with the fans’ experience.

While these challenges may be manageable at small events like road races and surf contests, it gets harder and more costly at events with tens of thousands of people. Michael notes that the initiatives that are most successful are those where the ownership is fully supportive and willing to dedicate the necessary resources.

Despite the challenges, zero-waste efforts are a tangible way to increase awareness of sustainability issues, which can help boost fan and brand loyalty too. “Green sports provide a good opportunity to educate society and people in general about the need to be sustainable and the ways they can contribute,” says Michael.