Smeal Sustainability Ambassadors turn Billie Eilish concert into a climate-friendly event
Image source: Onward State/Charani Gauvararam
By Melissa Manno
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A small group of green-clad students eagerly trekked “Happier than Ever” to the Bryce Jordan Center on a cold February night.
While Billie Eilish was the headline act that night, those Penn State Smeal College of Business students braved the elements more for the young pop singer’s stance on climate change than for her Grammy-winning songs. For good reason. When these students were young, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (the leading greenhouse gas) was 360 parts per million (ppm) and today it is approaching 420ppm, a level considered dangerous by climate scientists (Climate.gov).
While Eilish performed on stage, those students could be found instructing concert-goers on how to properly recycle key items — a joint effort between Eilish, the Penn State Sustainability Institute and Smeal to reduce the environmental impact of the event.
Penn State and Smeal partnered with Eilish to make the fourth show of her “Happier Than Ever World Tour” as climate-friendly as possible, staffing the BJC with Sustainability Ambassadors from Smeal. Eilish, along with many other musicians, has worked with the nonprofit REVERB on environmentally responsible events for years.
Eilish has been working with REVERB, a nonprofit that partners with artists to advance sustainability.
Under Eilish’s direction, the BJC switched out plastic water bottles for aluminum bottles to meet the zero-waste goals of the event. She is one of many musicians pushing for action on climate change and other environmental issues (Rolling Stone). Eilish was also recently awarded the German Sustainability Award for her commitment to sustainability.
“Our volunteer core was there to guide concert-goers to put their empty cans into the recycling, thus ensuring that those cans could be turned into new water and soda cans and not sit in a landfill for hundreds of years,” explained Lydia Vandenbergh, associate director of employee engagement and education at the Sustainability Institute.
Vandenbergh said the Sustainability Institute was happy to partner with Eilish due to the pop star’s continued efforts to combat climate change during her world tour by tackling waste and offsetting emissions.
“It’s a promising first step for the BJC in their zero-waste efforts and I hope they will build on this experience, exploring other food packaging that can be recycled,” Vandenbergh said.
Volunteering at the event were Smeal students Shane Nolan, Julia Weber, Kristen Ricci, Rudy Tanugula, Paulina Wirski, Isabella Gregorio, and Bella Briseno. The volunteers were students from BA342, taught by Ron Johnson, associate teaching professor of management and organizations who chairs the Education Working Group, a committee focused on integrating sustainability across the curriculum supported by the college's Center for the Business of Sustainability. BA342 is a required course for all Smeal students and teaches ethical leadership with a focus on diversity, ethics and sustainability. Johnson has previously worked with the Sustainability Institute to organize similar opportunities for students at the Super Bowl and NFL Draft Day.
Isabella Gregorio is a teaching assistant for the course and said she tries to make sustainable changes in her personal life, so she was excited by the opportunity to volunteer and help out in an even bigger way. She said it’s a major step in the right direction for popular artists like Eilish to declare their tours “zero-waste” and she was grateful to be supporting her mission by volunteering as a Sustainability Ambassador.
“Climate change is such an important issue, and the more people we make aware of it the more change that will occur,” Gregorio said. “In being present at the event, we definitely reminded people of the importance of sustainability, and I am confident that even small-scale actions can result in large impact.”
“This event helped me to acknowledge the importance of having these conversations about sustainability. A few words is all it takes to help other people join the effort. It is so important to work as a team and spread our mission in our communities, as we have so much power to make a difference.”
-Julia Weber, Masters in Accounting student
While eight students clad in green aren’t enough to cover the entire BJC, Gregorio said the team was able to successfully redirect landfill items to their proper location and significantly increase the amount of recyclable material generated by the event.
“I think that even though we were not able to cover 100% of the arena, our presence and interactions with students will definitely have them think about which bin they put their trash in next time they are faced with that decision,” Gregorio said.
After Johnson presented the opportunity in class, Julia Weber, a masters in accounting student, said she immediately knew she wanted to participate. She said she’s always been passionate about sustainability but grew up thinking her individual actions wouldn’t be enough to spark change — until she joined a THON committee and saw how large the impact proper waste disposal at THON has on the environment.
When she found out about the opportunity to be one of Eilish’s Sustainability Ambassadors, she reached out to her professor directly after class to sign herself up. Although she wasn’t sure what to expect at the event, Weber said fans were super friendly and willing to listen to her as she guided them in how to sort their trash.
“There were times when people were confused on where to dispose of certain items, and it felt really rewarding to actively help everything get where it needed to go,” Weber said.
Weber said she’s grateful to be part of a college that values sustainability, adding that Smeal played a huge role in coordinating the effort and working towards hosting the event in an environmentally-responsible way.
To learn more about the sustainability efforts at Penn State, visit the Sustainability Institute’s website. Smeal’s sustainability initiatives are spearheaded by the Center for the Business of Sustainability.