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Going for Green – the US sports industry aims for Zero Waste

Going for Green – the US sports industry aims for Zero Waste, Green Sports Alliance, NatureWorks, Seattle Mariners, Asean Corporation
Sports teams and venues across the United States are implementing sustainable initiatives to divert waste streams from landfills, and scoring savings on material resources, energy and water, and the end game: money. editor Trina Tan finds out more.

There are some very interesting things happening in the sports scene in the USA, and while I know absolutely nothing about baseball, American football, basketball and hockey, I am nonetheless excited.

Across America, sports players and their clubs have abandoned the quest for gold and are now pitching for Green under the umbrella of the Green Sports Alliance, a non-profit organization established to help sports teams, venues and leagues enhance their environmental performance. Alliance members represent over 200 sports teams and venues from 16 different sports leagues.

Founded in February 2010, its mission is to harness the power of sport’s visibility, influence and stature for the betterment of the societies its industry live and work in socially, morally, financially, and environmentally.
According to Scott Jenkins - Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Green Sports Alliance, and then-Vice President of Ballpark Operations for the Seattle Mariners (that’s a baseball team, by the way), this green sports movement was borne after considering the long-term implications of ball-park operations, not only where packaging is concerned, but also energy and water usage.

Show me the money

At the second day’s plenary session of the NatureWorks’ Innovation Takes Root 2014 conference in Orlando, Fla (18-19 Feb), Scott chalked up the statistics. As you’d expect in American, they are jaw-dropping: between 2006-13, the 221-member alliance has saved an annual average of US$16.5 million through quite simple sustainability initiatives.Going for Green – the US sports industry aims for Zero Waste, Green Sports Alliance, NatureWorks, Seattle Mariners, Asean Corporation

“Sustainability offers us opportunities in the areas of bottom-line savings, corporate partnerships, the promotion of brand values, and provides us with a vehicle to fulfil our social responsibilities and drive change,” said Jenkins. 

The Century Link Field stadium in Seattle, Washington– shared by the Seattle Seahawks AFL team and Seattle Sounders soccer team - has a single-stream recycling strategy that recycles 70% of waste generated and has an 80% landfill diversion rate. Approximately 84% of the cleaning and soap products used at the stadium are GreenSeal certified, while post-consumer paper products are exclusively used for toilet paper, hand towels and office stationary.

The Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners, has pumped-up waste diversion rates from a puny 12% in 2005 to a robust 90% rate in 2013. Over the same period, water use has dropped by 25%, electricity consumption is down by 24%, and natural gas use reduced by 43%.

Going green makes commercial sense for the Seattle Mariners: total savings on its utility bills alone amount to US$2.1 million, while CO2 emissions have reduced by over 21 million pounds/year.

Meanwhile, also in the Pacific North West, the Rose Quarter arena, home of the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team, diverts over 80% of operational waste: On-site recycling stations handle 1,000 tons of waste annually, and 100% of food waste generated is composted.

Strike Out Landfill

How are they doing it? “Strike-out landfill as a waste management option!” says Jenkins - that is the key to making a serious commitment to changing the mindset to one of ‘Zero Waste’.

On the packaging front, the Seattle Mariners investigated the options:
Recycling packaging was a considered option, but food-contaminated packaging would ultimately have caused problems down the line in the recycling process with FDA approvals etc.

At Safeco Field, the Seattle Mariners’ research showed that by requiring that all foodservice packaging sold in the stadium be made of compostable biopolymer PLA – an effective ban on the sale of conventional plastic in club property – the cost of much of the process of separating organic and non-organic waste could be cut, making it much easier to send organic food waste to composting facilities – it could all go into a single bin. 

Going for Green – the US sports industry aims for Zero Waste, Green Sports Alliance, NatureWorks, Seattle Mariners, Asean CorporationAccording to Jenkins, the Seattle Mariners have now completely switched all foodservice packaging used by food vendors franchised by the ballpark to compostable packs. 

The Seattle Mariners launched an extensive publicity and education campaigns to effectively promote first-level consumer selective segregation at-source system, teaching fans the correct bins to use for various types of trash. An additional back-up secondary waste sorting process in the on-site recycling room, formerly called the “trash room”, helped achieve a low 5% contamination rate for the waste sent for composting.

The next step for the Seattle Mariners, says Jenkins, is to target pre-packed snack food items brought into the grounds, this the packaging slowing the sorting and hindering the 100% Zero Waste target.

Fan outreach and engagement

In one of the three breakout sessions that followed Scott Jenkins’ presentation, Pittsburgh Pirates’ (baseball) PNC Park Cleaning Operations Manager Sissy Burkhart shared how she helped implement initiatives under the Pirates’ “Let’s Go Bucs. Let’s Go Green” program launched in 2008 focusing on recycling, conservation and education, while improving the experience of their fans and still saving money as they divert waste streams from landfill.

Prior to 2008, the Pirates only recycled the obvious material - cardboard and wooden pallets. When the recycling program was launched, contour bottle-shaped bins were placed throughout the ballpark, to collect all bottles and send them for recycling. Still a single stream waste system, a special ‘Green Team’ was created to handle bin collections and separate recyclable waste.

More than 3,000 tons of material have been recycled since 2008 – in 2013 alone, about 80.8 tons of glass, 135.3 tons of cardboard, 45.6 tons of mixed paper, 60.8 tons of plastic, 43.7 tons of aluminium, and 77.4 tons of other recyclables were segregated and sent for recycling.Going for Green – the US sports industry aims for Zero Waste, Green Sports Alliance, NatureWorks, Seattle Mariners, Asean Corporation

About 41.3 tons of food waste and 39.9 tons of yard waste were composted last year. To aid its composting efforts, most non-biodegradable materials have been eliminated from the foodservice packaging used at PNC Park, and compostables are now used, except recyclable plastic cups. 

When it started its sustainable program in 2008, the Pirates had an average 27% landfill waste diversion rate; by 2013, the Pirates had hit a 71.4% target. 

Significantly, teams such as the Mariners and Pirates were required to make only one major change to existing waste management system: change the foodservice packaging from fossil-fuel based plastic to compostable PLA. That alone enabled significant increases in the volumes of waste diverted from landfill, and helped convert food and yard waste to useful composting material used to fertilize, even rehabilitate, soil conditions to ‘re-green’ the environment – in the most literal sense.

As Seattle Public Utilities’ Manager for Waste Prevention and Product Stewardship Dick Lily described it: “Biopolymers are essential to the people involved in waste management and their goal of getting to zero-waste because the compostable foodservice packaging functions as the vehicle to transport food waste to composters.”

Harnessing the power of sports for sustainability

As sports teams and venues across the USA race to implement sustainable initiatives to divert waste streams from landfills, they discover significant savings on material resources, energy and water, and the end game: money.

Could this Green Sports Alliance’s success in the USA be replicated elsewhere? Quite possible, as Buzz Chandler, president of Asean Corporation in Portland, Oregon, that produces the StalkMarket brand of compostable foodservice used by the Portland Trail Blazers, pointed out: “Basically sports franchises are big marketing machines, and a sports venue is effectively a huge closed-loop system.”

It is clear that globally sports personalities, along with the teams and organisations they play for, have significant influence in shaping the culture of modern society. And in the US, they are harnessing their influence for good.

Just imagine what it could be like if instead of using their star power to get fans to just buy highly priced merchandise, soccer clubs with a global profile, such as Manchester United, were to launch similar sustainability initiatives at Old Trafford.

Could not the Indian Premier League channel the almost religious adoration of India’s cricket fans to alleviate that country’s appalling and collapsing waste management systems, instead of the current endless volleys back and forth across the law courts?

Now wouldn’t that be a sustainable home run?  


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