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September 8, 2016

Greening the Game: Sporting Events as Opportunities for Expanding Sustainability

By Michele Grossman, managing principal for Waste Management Sustainability Services

Sporting events bring people together. Whether it’s the World Cup or Wimbledon, the Super Bowl or the Special Olympics, people gather—often traveling great distances—to root for their favorite teams and athletes, witness excellence, and enjoy the camaraderie of being with fellow fans.

But any time a group of people gathers, even for a relatively small and short-term event, it leaves a mark—from the wrappers and cups strewn through rows of stadium seats, to the trash and recycling barrels with remnants of leftover food and drink containers. Then there is the wider impact of the energy needed to power the lights and to transport the food, the water and chemicals used for sanitation, and the greenhouse gases emitted by the vehicles that brought everyone there in the first place.

In the United States, more than 140 million people attended sporting events for the five largest professional team leagues in 2014. That’s almost half the population of the country! Of course, that tally doesn’t include other popular sports, like golf and tennis, nor the myriad college, high school, and junior sporting events that happen throughout the year. Consider just how many people are involved in these games, week after week, and you get the picture: they can create a lot of waste.

As a partner for many sports teams and events, Waste Management has managed environmental services for some of the nation’s top venues. We’ve also seen how the idea of a sporting event as a “throw-away” event is changing. For more than a decade, teams, fans, governing agencies, and business vendors alike have been looking for ways to “green” sports. Coalitions like the Green Sports Alliance and the Council for Responsible Sport have been leading the way, recommending best practices and sharing success stories from events, teams, and stadiums that have embraced the move away from disposable and toward sustainable.

In addition to our work for sports teams, the Waste Management Sustainability Services (WMSS) team also helps businesses and organizations identify and meet their sustainability goals. We’ve seen more and more organizations and companies across different industries set ambitious zero waste targets, aiming for 100 percent of their generated waste to be diverted from landfills. Increasingly, sports organizations are getting in on the action, too. By bringing so many people together, sporting events are a natural venue for engaging the public in thinking more creatively about waste. Events can offer an invaluable platform to teach the basic do’s and don’ts of environmental responsibility—and to showcase the potential rewards of setting (and achieving) sustainability goals.

In recent years, Waste Management has brought our zero waste vision to the world of sports by sponsoring a PGA TOUR golf tournament, the Waste Management Phoenix Open. With more than 600,000 attendees in 2016, the tournament is the world’s most-attended golfing event and also the “greenest show on grass.” In 2012, we launched the Zero Waste Challenge, an initiative aimed at controlling event materials and educating attendees, with an eventual goal of sending zero waste to the landfill. By 2013, the tournament became the first sporting event of its kind to attain zero waste status, and since then has successfully diverted all tournament materials through reuse, donation, recycling, composting, or material recovery by converting waste into energy. Today, the WMPO is the largest zero waste event in the world, and every year since 2013, our zero waste claims have been verified by UL Environment. In 2015, the Waste Management Phoenix Open also earned the Evergreen certification from the Council for Responsible Sport—its highest possible designation. Only three other events prior had achieved this recognition!

On the course there are no trash receptacles—only recycling and compost bins. Zero Waste Stations, staffed with volunteer “recycling ambassadors,” guide fans on how to “recycle right,” teaching them to pour out liquids before recycling a cup, what kinds of paper products are compostable, and more. Collectively, these opportunities provide fans with a meaningful way to engage with—and learn about—environmental responsibility. Ultimately, the goal is to inspire change beyond the golf course. We hope that through positive interactions at the event, fans will take and apply these same actions at home. This message is reinforced on the course and embodied in the catchphrase “Learn It Here, Live It Everywhere.”


Our Zero Waste Stations offers fans at the Waste Management Phoenix Open the opportunity to engage with volunteer recycling ambassadors to play an interactive game and learn more about how to recycle.

We’ve discovered that, in addition to the fans, sporting events offer a golden opportunity to educate and engage with vendors and sponsors around sustainable best practices. Events like the Waste Management Phoenix Open attract dozens of local, sometimes small, businesses from the community and we’ve been able to show our partners that “going green” doesn’t have to be a daunting task—and can be good for their brand reputations.

Going for zero waste is an ambitious goal, whether it’s for a Little League baseball game or the World Series. Achieving such a goal takes thoughtful planning and collaboration with venues, vendors, and other stakeholders. Since the logistics of going zero waste are so complex, first efforts may not be met with immediate success. The 2012 London Olympics, for instance, had an aggressive zero waste target that it did not entirely meet. Although some environmental advocacy groups decried the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) for failing to fully meet all their targets, LOCOG’s legacy is a positive one. Not only did they succeed in staging the greenest Olympic Games to date, they raised the bar for future events and provided guidelines on how to do better.

Because sports events really are community events, they can also provide the impetus for collaboration on wider environmental and social issues that impact the whole community and beyond. With the Waste Management Phoenix Open taking place in a water-stressed environment, we worked with Change the Course to create a water campaign for water conservation and restoration efforts in the Verde and Colorado River basins. Since water stress and scarcity affects us all, the event offered a timely means of reaching thousands of people with this important message. Globally, such practices are becoming the wave of the future. In February 2016, the United Nations encouraged member nations to think of large-scale sporting events as opportunities to “develop local leadership and community resources which in turn can contribute to open, prosperous and peaceful societies.”

When planning for sustainable sporting events, small steps can lay the important groundwork for future improvement. A relatively simple action like providing a recycling bin next to each garbage bin can increase recycling significantly. Providing educational signage can expand the environmental impact even further, beyond the boundaries of a one-time event. Fun interactions with fans around messages of social and environmental responsibility can begin to challenge old thinking and create new habits.

Our experience—and that of many others working with events and teams around the country and around the world—shows that sports can bring out the best in us. Sporting events bring us together, and as such they are themselves a valuable resource, offering a platform to work together to achieve greater heights of achievement, awareness, and responsibility.