ORLANDO, FLA. — Try to forget the polar vortex and miserable cold this winter, if you can. It's officially spring and time to play ball.
At major league ballparks across the country, teams are increasingly using and promoting the use of compostable plastics and recycling as part of a move to reduce the amount of refuse going to landfills, which in turn lowers their operating costs.
At Seattle's Safeco Field, home of the American League's Mariners, more than 90 percent of its trash during the 2013 season was diverted from landfills — up from less than 18 percent in 2006 when the Mariners joined other professional sports teams in the region to form the Green Sports Alliance.
The Alliance has since gone national, with 200 teams and sports venues from 16 different sports leagues signing on to promote a more sustainable game.
So heading out for the season's home opener this year will likely mean that that your beer is served in a compostable polylactic acid cup. The nachos come on a compostable plastic plate, and after the final strike, the cutlery will be ground up and composted alongside food waste and napkins.
Working with BASF AG in 2012, the Mariners even debuted ballpark peanuts packaged in a compostable plastic bag.
It is more than just public relations or “greenwashing,” said Scott Jenkins, chairman of the Green Sports Alliance and the former vice president of ballpark operations for the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners saved $165,000 in 2013 alone by diverting trash from the landfill. In seven years, it saved an estimated $2.1 million in landfill fees. Those efforts are taking place alongside other improvements such as lower flow toilets and more energy efficient lighting.
Jenkins joined the National Football League's Atlanta Falcons in 2013 to oversee development of its new football stadium — and said he intends to use the sustainable practices developed through the Green Sports Alliance within that stadium and its operations once it opens in 2017.
If every team in major league baseball were to invest heavily in green operations, the alliance estimates they could save a combined $16.5 million per year.
“The last thing we want to do is put anything in the landfill,” Jenkins said during Innovation Takes Root 2014 in Orlando Feb. 19. “Do [baseball fans] know they have a compostable cup in their hands? Maybe, maybe not, but these are in everyday use and they don't even think about it half of the time.”
Recycling and composting is not just a story from the more environmentally friendly regions of the northwest United States, however.
In Pittsburgh, the 38,362-seat PNC Park — home of the National League Pittsburgh Pirates — nearly doubled its plastics recycling in five years, going from 33 tons of recycled plastic in 2008 to 60 tons in 2013, said Sissy Burkhart, cleaning operations manager for the Pirates.
“We had no set recycling policy before that,” she said. “Everything went to the landfill but cardboard boxes and wooden pallets.”
In 2013, the Pirates diverted 85 percent of its waste away from landfills. Burkhart has set a goal of 90 percent for 2014.
The right environment
In a sense, professional and university sports complexes are a perfect place for large recycling and composting efforts.
Nearly everything consumed in the park is purchased there. Food vendors contract with the stadiums, and coordinate deliveries and meals around those parks' schedules.
Behind the scenes in food preparation areas, parks work with vendors to collect film and bags from packages for recycling and send unused food to compost bins, which are collected after every game.
The parks also collect their own trash and arrange for it to be hauled away. Some parks have their on on-site sorting facilities for waste to ensure it is going to the right place.
At the University of Colorado in Boulder, football fans in the tailgate zone have access to recycling, composting and trash containers, with the tailgate area forming something of a “buffer zone” between the stadium and the streets where there is a wider range of non-recyclable materials used.
The tailgate area also uses trash bags made from post-consumer recycled plastic by Petoskey Plastics Inc. of Petoskey, Mich., said Ed von Bleichert, manager of environmental operations for the university's department of facilities management.
Within the stadium itself, the university goes one step further. It has no public trash containers — only recycling and composting containers. The university would rather separate out what little non-compostable rubbish there is after a game, than see recyclable or compostable rubbish go into a landfill, he said.
“You cannot do this without being surrounded by other committed people,” said Burkhart.
For her and the Pirates, that means having an owner who believes in reducing the amount of trash going to landfills, and who also supports her bringing in vendors and crew who believe in it too, she said.
In Boulder, vendors buy candy in bulk and repackage it in small compostable cups — with lids — rather than selling individual candies with wrappers that would end up in the landfill, von Bleichert said.
The coordination efforts extend to the placement and signage used for waste and recycling bins. Large, clear signs placed above the bins — where they are easy to see — means more people will use them, and use them correctly, said Lyle Peters, senior executive for GreenDrop Recycling of Vancouver, Wash.
“At sports events, when you're out on the concourse and you hear that buzzer, you're heading back into the seating bowl,” he said. “You've got 2 seconds to make a decision where that cup in your hand is going to go.”
It is not always easy to get everyone to sign on to use only compostable or recyclable products in food production, though.
“You think kids are tough to deal with? Try telling a chef what he can't do,” said Wendell Simonson, vice president of marketing for Eco-Products, which supplies renewable and post-consumer food-service packaging to the University of Colorado.
AgRecycle Inc., which does composting for the Pirates in Pittsburgh as well as composting from private businesses, insists its clients use only compostable materials in food service, so its composting systems are not contaminated.
To help its clients, AgRecycle maintains a list of 2,500 different compostable dining items.
“We think that the blessing and the curse of compostable products is that they look exactly like other products,” said President Carla Castagnero.
And while compostable plastic products are more expensive than standard materials, Castagnero maintains her customers can see a payoff to going green within 18 months based on reduced landfill costs.
The sustainability details are adjusted as needed for different locations.
In Boulder, von Bleichert noted, they rely more heavily on composting. But Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, is within easy access to plastics recyclers, so the sports complexes there do more recycling than composting.
Making sustainability pay off
While reduced landfill costs may make economic sense, Jenkins points to another very strong reason for plastics companies to get involved as well.
“In a survey, 13 percent of Americans said they follow science developments, but 61 percent said they follow sports,” he said. “That's where you're going to influence people.”
Cups used at Safeco Field concession stands carry the logo “Strike Out The Landfill” and feature the Mariners' All Star pitcher Felix Hernandez.
The cups also have a code embedded on them that fans can scan for a message on composting. The Mariners created two “superheroes” — “Captain Plastic” and “Kid Compost” — who appear in person and on signage throughout the field to promote recycling and composting.
Jenkins said BASF received media attention for its compostable peanut bag distributed at Mariners games equal to an estimated $1 million worth of advertising.
A survey of Mariners fans indicated that 45 percent of them had increased their composting efforts at home. Seattle has curbside composting.
Late during the 2013 season, the Mariners gave away green plastic countertop “composting caddies,” complete with compostable plastic bags for easy use, to the first 8,000 people in the ball park.
And the Mariners have also taken a different “full circle” message, by branding bags of Safeco Field potting soil made with composted materials from the ball park.
“Some teams give away bobble heads, we give away soil,” Jenkins said. “Although our team hasn't done that well on the field the last few years, so we took a little heat on ESPN for giving away manure.”