Is it cool to be ‘green’ at sports stadiums? Yes, but it goes way beyond that

By Brittany Patterson | 05/05/2015 07:59 AM EDT

Every Sunday during football season, the Philadelphia Eagles throw the biggest party in town, says Norman Vossschulte, the team’s director of guest experience. But parties, especially ones with more than 68,000 guests, cost a lot of money and create a lot of trash. So in 2004, the team’s senior leadership looked at the stadium’s balance sheet and identified two areas where costs were huge — energy and waste — and drummed up a plan for improvement.

Every Sunday during football season, the Philadelphia Eagles throw the biggest party in town, says Norman Vossschulte, the team’s director of guest experience.

But parties, especially ones with more than 68,000 guests, cost a lot of money and create a lot of trash.

So in 2004, the team’s senior leadership looked at the stadium’s balance sheet and identified two areas where costs were huge — energy and waste — and drummed up a plan for improvement.


With the blessing of team’s owners, the Lurie family, the Eagles began to clean up their act.

At first, the changes were small.

The team started by tackling the waste issue — the first step was to place blue recycling containers under each desk. "This may sound very simple, but we saw we create a lot of waste and asked, ‘How do we want to change that?’" Vossschulte said.

He recalls ripping open a garbage bag full of trash from the stadium and taking inventory of the concession products and packaging. Next, the team asked its vendors if they could get recyclable cups, napkins and straws. Today, team leadership says it is nearly 100 percent landfill-free.

The team’s journey, now ongoing for more than a decade, coincides with the U.S. public’s awakening on matters of sustainability, Vossschulte said.

"Recycling has become a cool thing nowadays, but it was not so cool 10 years ago," he said. "Now our kids are talking about the greenhouse gas effect."

The Eagles were one of the first teams to begin "greenifying" their facilities and have emerged as an example for others who want to tap into society’s increasing desire for "green" practices and products from a variety of angles — everything from LED scoreboards to rooftop gardens to offsetting carbon emissions by planting trees.

Today, teams that want to be more environmentally friendly have not only other teams to look toward for help, but also a grass-roots organization gone mainstream. It often takes a leader within a team or organization to step up and start the process, and the growing use and efficiency of technology have made the transition much simpler.

Hold that (bottom) line!

Money savings, not climate change, seems to be the primary driver of these changes, but over the past decade, the changes have produced astounding results, if the number of teams and stadiums using renewable energy or with "green" programs is any indicator.

"It hasn’t been a unified strategy, but a cultural change," said Chris Chard, a researcher on sports and the environment at Brock University in Canada.

It makes sense, Chard said, adding, "Sport is a stakeholder in the environment."

Eagles stadium
Philadelphia Eagles fans power up with hot dogs. Their stadium does it with wind, solar and the leftovers. | Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Eagles.

The professional sports industry is worth at least $400 billion annually and reaches millions of people, experts estimate.

In 2005, one man realized there was not only an ethical argument to be made to the sports industry that it should use its massive influence to get involved with environmental sustainability, but a business one.

"Greening" a stadium could save organizations millions of dollars.

In 2005, Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with nonprofit environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council, began teaming up with one sports league after another. First was Major League Baseball in 2005, and soon the National Hockey League, the U.S. Tennis Association and other professional leagues were working with Hershkowitz to improve their environmental stewardship.

Even over the phone, Hershkowitz’s energy hits you like a long pass. During his 26-year tenure at NRDC, he served as the director of the Sports and Entertainment Greening Project. Never one to shy away from connecting public industries to the environment, he was the man behind the "greening" of the Grammy Awards.

In 2010, Hershkowitz co-founded the Green Sports Alliance and brought together the resources of NRDC, U.S. EPA, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and others to "identify and adopt innovative environmental initiatives and share information about better practices and opportunities to measure and reduce their impact on the environment," according to a press release from NRDC at the time.

A ‘game changer’ emerges

For the first time, the sports world had an organization solely devoted to environmental sustainability, and according to Chard, that was a game changer.

"Sustainability was on the back burner, if it was on the burner at all," he said. "There was no one thrust driving it forward. Now, with the Green Sports Alliance, you have a group that is a resource and advocate on the environment."

Other founding members of the organization included a handful of teams in the Pacific Northwest — where the organization is based — including the Seattle Mariners, Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers. The nonprofit works with facilities to incorporate more sustainable practices. To date, it counts nearly 300 sports teams and venues from 20 different sports leagues and 14 countries as members.

As Hershkowitz explained it, it was money that barked out the signals. "What happened is we found tens of millions of dollars in energy savings," he said. "Suddenly, team officials are saying to me, ‘I don’t agree with you on this issue, but you’re saving me money.’"

Saving energy was also good for the planet. "Climate deniers like Sen. [James] Inhofe can attack the EPA and U.N. with impunity, but he cannot attack the NHL," Hershkowitz explained, referring to the Republican senior senator from Oklahoma, a prominent climate change skeptic.

The environment and sports might be nontraditional allies, but Hershkowitz says the devil is in the supply chains, which are the targets of the work the Green Sports Alliance continues to do.

For instance, the organization is creating campaigns to encourage sports venues to serve more antibiotic-free meats and more vegetarian options. There’s work still to be done on carbon emissions reduction and energy efficiency, not to mention that three-fifths of the animals used as mascots are endangered in the wild, he said.

Another factor responsible for pulling professional sports into the environmental arena has come directly from the top down: Heads of sports leagues have come out directly in support of taking action.

According to a 2012 report put out by NRDC titled "Game Changer: How the Sports Industry is Saving the Environment," "all Commissioners of professional sports leagues in the United States have made commitments to environmental stewardship and are actively encouraging the teams in their leagues to incorporate sustainable measures into their operations."

Hockey’s power plays

In 2010, the National Hockey League made an executive decision to unite all of the clubs and stadiums within the league under one sustainability program called NHL Green. The program was more than just a green campaign, says Omar Mitchell, the NHL’s senior director of public affairs and sustainability.

The move came directly from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Under the umbrella of NHL Green, every club (the NHL’s word for team) committed to donating unused food from concessions to local food shelters, as opposed to tossing it in the trash. Since 2010, Mitchell said, the NHL has diverted more than 100 tons of food waste.

It was a way to get those working with the local teams involved, Mitchell said.

Next, the NHL began tracking the numbers, electricity usage, natural gas, water and waste. "We collected all of that in an effort to promote this idea of tracking and measuring and therefore attempting to change from base lines," he explained.

To make those changes, it took reaching out to all of the moving parts that make a stadium and team run, from concessions vendors to the staff working on the front lines.

"At the end of the day, our impact is to create a broader conversation to our fans and promote this throughout the professional sports industry," Mitchell said. As Mitchell noted, it’s not just that hockey needs to appear cool, but that it requires coolness to survive. "Our sport is directly impacted by climate change and freshwater scarcity," he said. "Our fans grew up playing on frozen ponds. That is a unique story we can tell."

In 2014, the NHL released a sustainability report detailing local clubs’ case studies on sustainability and how climate change affects hockey, and even calculating the NHL’s carbon footprint.

In February, EPA ranked the NHL No. 17 on its National Top 100 list of the largest users of green power, making it the first sports league to make the list. The league also partnered with Constellation, an energy services company, to help the NHL and its 30 clubs better manage their energy use and use renewable energy certificates (RECs) for 271 million kilowatt-hours of power, as well as carbon offsets, which will match the league’s estimated total carbon footprint — 550,000 metric tons — for the 2014-15 season, according to a press release.

Calling the signals in restrooms

Increasingly, teams are conducting stadium overhauls with sustainability in mind. The biggest savings now come in the form of energy efficiency.

The technology is now there to incorporate LED game lights and computer-driven energy management systems. Some arenas have been able to reduce their energy use by upward of 60 percent because of LED technology.

For the Eagles, phase two of greening up Lincoln Financial Field was to cut energy consumption. Light sensors were installed, and LEDs, too, as the price fell. Sensors were installed on the heating and cooling system.

In 2012, NRG, an energy services company, approached the Eagles about adding renewable energy. NRG installed more than 11,000 solar panels on and around the stadium, including in the parking lots. Fourteen wind turbines were also installed. Vossschulte says it has cut the electricity bill 70 percent.

"Going green" has not been without problems. It’s a trial-and-error process, Vossschulte is quick to admit, and it requires changing human behavior.

That includes signs in the men’s bathrooms humorously encouraging fans to "Recycle your beer here, but recycle your bottle outside in our recycling containers."

When asked by other teams for tips and advice, which happens quite often, Vossschulte said he tells them to start simple — set some goals, but don’t expect to get where you want to ultimately be at first.

The ultimate goal, he explained, comes from teamwork: "Whatever we’re doing and finding out, if we can share that and the next stadium gets built with some of that insight — if then 50 stadiums do it — then it has a huge impact."