Initiatives focus sports industry on waste reduction

By David Broughton
Play to Zero is encouraging sports partners to reduce energy and water use and aim for zero waste.

“Zero waste” has become one of the most uttered phrases in the venue management world, as this month marks the one-year anniversary of the launch of Play to Zero, a partnership between the Green Sports Alliance and Arc, an online performance platform that helps venue operators track and measure their sustainability performance in several areas.


The initiative — with launch partners including MLB and its 30 clubs, the NHL, NBA, MLS, the Pac-12 Conference, SoFi Stadium and Lumen Field — intends to spur the sports industry to net zero energy, net zero water and zero waste.

Although the benchmark data is not yet in, several venues have been successful in implementing protocols that keep a minimum of 90% (the industry’s accepted zero waste definition) of their waste from being hauled to a landfill, while maybe even generating revenue in the process.

Scott Jenkins, longtime board chair at the Green Sports Alliance, said that by getting aggressive in reducing waste, the Seattle Mariners years ago began saving $165,000 annually just on waste removal. And they were able to sign corporate sponsors who wanted to be associated with the efforts, thus generating a new revenue stream.

“When I first got to the Seattle Mariners in 2006, our diversion rate was about 15%. It took us about five years to get to 90%,” Jenkins said. “That was five years of changing our supply chains several times over, changing our processes, labeling things, changing containers and messaging the fans. But after five years we could say that we were a zero-waste facility and we were doing it in a way that improved our bottom line.”

The Play to Zero campaign also focuses on energy waste.

“Everyone is scared that converting your venue to zero waste is going to be hard and cost you money. The answer is yes and yes,” Jenkins said. “But it’s totally possible to do the right thing environmentally, while doing the right thing for your brand, for your fans, your employees and your corporate partners, all while making good business sense for your company.”

In 2010, the Minnesota Twins’ first season at Target Field, 70% of the venue’s waste was being hauled away. Through a partnership signed in 2015 with Eco-Products and NatureWorks, packaging such as plastic beer cups, portion cups, utensils and straws were replaced with alternatives made out of compostable materials, allowing fans to deposit them along with leftover food into compost bins.  Eco-Products’ sponsorship covers a significant portion of the cost of the club’s transition to compostable packaging.

“Composting costs more than Styrofoam, but it’s less about ROI and more about doing the right thing for the right reason,” said Gary Glawe, the Twins’ senior director of facilities. “Yes, we are a business. But if it’s going to cost us more to do it we’ll probably do it anyway because we can drive awareness through sponsorships.”

Nielsen’s “The Changing Value of Sponsorship: 2021 Global Sports Marketing Trends,” showed that rights holders who activate around sustainability will grow sponsorship revenue by 11% in the next three to five years.

The USTA’s U.S. Open, a two-week event that draws more than 700,000 annually, worked with Levy, its longtime concessionaire, to divert approximately 97% of the waste from landfills last year. The USTA works with environmental consultant Eco Evolutions, and since 2008 has diverted from landfills more than 4,900 tons of waste, including nearly 700 tons of food waste that has been converted into compost.

Venue operators all agree that composting and organic diversion are the keys to achieving zero waste, because so much is tied to the food and beverage portion of the game. So in 2016, Aramark, Bon Appétit, Compass Group and Sodexo were among the more than 30 corporations named Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Each partner has multiple sports clients and has pledged concrete steps to cut the food loss and waste in their operations in half by 2030.

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