NFL Tackles Waste at Super Bowl

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By Sara Merken

Fans at the Super Bowl will generate an estimated 40 tons of waste that event organizers say they hope will not touch down in any landfills.

The National Football League is attacking the solid waste stream at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, where the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles will face off Feb. 4. The league partnered with PepsiCo and food services provider Aramark to organize the first-ever “zero waste” Super Bowl event, in which materials will be diverted to recycling and composting facilities.

The NFL anticipates that the program will serve as a playbook for future sporting events beyond football, but replicating the program may prove difficult at stadiums that aren’t located near recycling and composting plants.

Programs that debut at the event often cause a ripple effect, with other sports facilities and leagues adopting them once they see how to adapt sustainable plans to the large-scale stadium environment. according to Jack Groh, director of the NFL’s environment program.

“The Super Bowl is the crown jewel of sporting events in America,” Groh told Bloomberg Environment.

Zero Waste” Initiative

The partnership, called Rush2Recycle, aims to divert 90 percent of waste to recycling and composting. The remaining waste will be converted into energy and be distributed into the local electric grid, Roberta Barbieri, PepsiCo’s vice president of global water and environmental solutions, told Bloomberg Environment.

Several hundred bins installed around the stadium, which will remain after the event, have three openings designated for compost, trash, and recyclable materials. But, Barbieri said, the success of the program relies heavily on fans using the correct bins.

The bins will have standardized labels, and volunteers will help answer any questions about where materials should go, she said. Stadium operations will also try to sort materials that don’t make it to the right container, to ensure that no waste will end up in landfills.

And on the front end, Aramark converted over 70 products, including draft beer cups, nacho trays, straws, and paper boats, to compostable material, David Freireich, a company representative, told Bloomberg Environment.

The NFL hopes that the Super Bowl’s widespread influence will encourage other sports stadiums and leagues to organize “zero waste” events, Groh said.

In the past, stadium recycling efforts have run up against barriers like coordinating with stadium cleaning crews, and concession providers.

Efforts across the country are often driven by volunteers who have difficulty managing various contracts with the stadium, Lori Scozzafava, a senior executive with Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc., an international solid waste management consulting firm, told Bloomberg Environment. Having stadium operators more involved could help the program, she added.

Goal to Replicate Project

Different infrastructure in each Super Bowl city makes it difficult for the NFL to provide an exact template to replicate the project, Anna Isaacson, NFL’s senior vice president of social responsibility, told Bloomberg Environment.

Repeating the Rush2Recycle project for another zero-waste event would be “almost impossible” in cities that don’t have municipal compost and recycling facilities located near the stadium, Groh said. Transporting the materials to distant areas isn’t cost-efficient, so the “returns diminish pretty quickly in terms of the environmental impact” of the event without conveniently accessible facilities, he said.

The recycling and composting facilities are within a few miles of U.S. Bank Stadium and associated NFL weekend events in and around Hennepin County, Minn., Paul Kroening, the county’s waste reduction and recycling supervisor, told Bloomberg Environment.

The facilities are also already used to handling recycled, organic, and food waste materials from existing programs in the area, he said.

The success of a similar program may also depend on the stadium’s location in the U.S., because the market for waste materials differs by region, Scozzafava said. Reusing waste material can be more difficult in the Midwest, for example, compared to the coasts, she said.

The commitment from all participants is also essential in getting the project off the ground. Without Aramark’s commitment in early 2017 to replacing items with compostable materials, for example, the group “would have had to abandon the project right there and then,” Groh said.

“We walked into a perfect storm in Minnesota,” he said.

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