Sports 1, Waste Zero: Tackling Trash at Stadiums and Arenas

When I was an undergraduate at Stanford University, I worked at the then-student-run campus recycling center. There, I had multiple opportunities to observe people engaging in the act of disconnecting from their waste. I’d see someone walking along drinking coffee from a polystyrene cup, focused intently on getting every last drop until the cup was empty – and then they couldn’t get rid of that cup quickly enough. I’d watch as that person tossed the cup into the nearest recycling bin, even if that bin was clearly marked for glass and aluminum only.

At the campus recycling center, one of our goals was to figure out how to reduce that mental disconnect, at least long enough to get people to put their discards into the right bins. Now, at NRDC, I work with sports facilities and other organizations which are also trying to get people to put discards into the right bins – and which are working on a number of other environmental initiatives as well. In the U.S., our overall recycling rate is only about 34% - but sports teams and venues are among those leading the way in developing better recycling and waste strategies, as is described in NRDC’s new report, Game Changer: How the Sports Industry is Saving the Environment.

Below, I have listed some of the key strategies being used by sports leagues, teams and venues (as well as other organizations) to achieve high landfill diversion rates in their facilities. Disclaimer: these suggestions are not in order of importance, and this list is certainly not exhaustive; also, the sequence and priority of implementation will likely vary from facility to facility. I hope this will spur others to contribute their ideas too.

1) Place trash and recycling bins strategically, and pair them when feasible. Make sure you’ve located well-marked, easy to use recycling containers throughout your facility – and make sure every time there’s a garbage can, there’s a recycling bin next to it. Some venues have taken this strategy even farther by creating zero waste stations with fewer landfill containers, instead offering more containers for recycling (and compost) disposal. Place bins wherever you think people are likely to need them – near concessions stands, near exits, etc. – and, optimally, place bins so that at least one is always in view (e.g., every 25 feet).

2) Maximize waste reduction. Work with staff and vendors to keep disposable packages and other potential waste materials out of your venue to begin with, so they don’t become something you have to dispose of later. Substitute reusables for disposables, at concessions or behind the scenes; encourage refilling of water bottles; switch to reusable transport packaging, and so on.

3) Maximize recycling. Work with your concessionaires and other vendors to be sure anything you sell in your facility is packaged in recyclable (or compostable) materials. Also, work with waste haulers to make sure you are collecting recyclables in a way that helps them maximize the amount of material they’re actually able to recover for recycling. It’s important to involve haulers in planning your initiative to make sure your goals align with their capabilities – and sometimes partnerships with haulers can help create new initiatives, as we’ve seen with several teams and venues who have asked their haulers to assist in implementing composting at their facilities, or with installing extra recycling bins (sometimes branded by sponsors).

4) Measure what you’re disposing. Use league data tracking systems, EPA tools such as Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager and WasteWise, or even your own spreadsheets to keep track of how much waste your facility generates, how much you’re recycling, and how much you’re composting. Waste haulers should be able to help you compile data on the amounts of waste and recycling you generate, and the cost of disposal and recycling. Keeping track of these numbers can help you set benchmarks and goals for future diversion. You can also use tools such as those available through EPA’s WasteWise to calculate how much your waste diversion is helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

5) Educate and involve staff, including volunteers. Make sure all staff, including staff from departments such as facilities, purchasing, and security, are informed about your waste initiative, and solicit their ideas. Use “green teams” of volunteers to collect recyclables from the stands during events, from tailgaters, and/or after events. Use your own staff as needed to supplement waste collection and/or waste sorting during and after events.

6) Educate fans. Make sure fans know about your initiative. Create easy-to-understand signs for your disposal bins. Including pictures on signs of what items belong in each bin (or even attaching the actual items to signs) is a great way to clarify what’s recyclable, compostable, or destined for landfill in your facility. PSAs or other in-game announcements about recycling, posters, contests, and blurbs in programs can all help involve fans and make sure they’re disposing of materials correctly. Reach out to fans during tailgaters and other events with special recycling collection (volunteers can help here). Consider including fan education about your initiative on your website and in social media.

7) Involve sponsors. Many sponsors want to help expand recycling in exchange for brand enhancement. This can be a particularly good fit with sponsors who are also vendors, e.g. beverage providers. Partnering with sponsors on greening in turn helps build a team’s green brand, which enhances team branding.

8) Incorporate recycled-content purchasing. Environmental purchasing is a key part of a responsible waste system. In addition to working with vendors to make sure the packaging and serviceware they use is recyclable or compostable in your area, work with your purchasing team to buy paper and other products with recycled content. Buying recycled content paper and other products means you are closing the recycling loop, and helping to ensure that there are markets for the recyclable materials that are recovered.

9) Tackle organics. Composting isn’t available in every community, but work with your haulers (or seek additional help) to get organic discards collected for composting, including landscaping and food waste. Another option is to purchase compostable food serviceware. Buying biobased, compostable serviceware (made from plant-based plastics, ideally waste-based, and certified compostable by ASTM) means that your food service items can be composted instead of trashed, if composting is available in your facility, and helps move the serviceware market away from reliance on non-renewable materials like fossil fuel-derived plastic.

10) Deal with those tricky unique items. Many facilities or events have specific items which are challenging to recycle. For example, at the US Open, USTA hoped to recycle tennis ball cans, which are made from three different types of plastic and include a metal rim. With the help of NRDC, USTA found a recycler willing to cut the rims off and process the cans so they could be recycled. Find out what item doesn’t work in your usual recycling, reduction, reuse, or composting, and work with vendors, haulers, consultants, and other teams/venues to come up with a creative way to keep the product out of the landfill. Sometimes this means working with purchasers to see if there is a different way the item can be purchased (different packaging, buying in bulk, etc.).

To learn more, check out the waste and recycling strategies in the NRDC Greening Advisor, and consider joining the Green Sports Alliance to share better environmental practices with other teams and venues. And download our new Game Changer report to read about the many ways sports leagues, teams and venues are reducing and diverting waste.