Rethinking Waste Management Systems at Large-Scale Sporting Events

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With this year’s Super Bowl just behind us and the 2020 Summer Olympics only months away, the amount of waste generated by large-scale sporting events should be top of mind for governments, corporations, athletic teams and sporting arenas. Each year, the Super Bowl generates around 40 tons of waste, and attendees at sporting events across the US generate about 39 million pounds of trash per year.

Waste produced at an event like the Super Bowl presents a number of environmental challenges that are further exacerbated by the lack of waste management infrastructures currently in place. Take the 2015 Super Bowl in Phoenix, for instance: through a pilot project the city sponsored for the big game, organizers were successful in diverting 90 percent of waste from landfills by adopting circular recycling efforts. However, event organizers could not maintain the same standards during the days following the game. Once the pilot project ended, the necessary infrastructure to properly compost the items that couldn’t be recycled into fertilizing soil – such as food waste, cups and pizza boxes – was lost.

Unexpected outside food and drink also creates complications for proper waste management. Items brought into stadiums that aren’t sold on-site, such as fast food packaging and small liquor bottles, don’t comply with the desire for a 100% compostable or recyclable waste stream.

Recommendations for Improving Waste Management

The good news is that if history is any indicator, managing waste at an event as momentous as the Super Bowl is possible, so long as all parties are prepared to work together to drive radical change. At the 2018 Super Bowl, for example, 91% of all waste was either recycled, reused or composted. This initiative also inspired others to follow suit: in 2019, Hard Rock Stadium in the Miami area committed to phasing out 99.4% of single-use plastics by the end of 2020, with efforts carried out at this year’s Super Bowl LIV to help reach this goal.

Keeping in mind that total environmental impact isn’t just determined by waste, we encourage all participating entities to look for ways to drive towards a more circular economy, as this regenerative approach presents a number of innovative opportunities to capture the value from materials that were previously waste.

Rethinking the Role Plastic Can Play

There’s no denying plastic is a contributing factor to sporting stadium waste, but by challenging conventional practices and adopting breakthrough thinking, event organizers can capitalize on the value of plastic and determine sensible ways to recycle or reuse it.

For instance, officials at Amsterdam’s Johan Cruijff Stadium were able to adopt circular initiatives to replace the stadium’s 53,000 old plastic seats. The older chairs were either sold as souvenirs or recycled, and replaced with seats made from 100% recycled plastic – 10% of which was recovered from the ocean. Likewise, a stadium in Pontedera, Italy reinforced the value of the circular economy by using recycled plastic from the town’s own waste to make new chairs.

Identifying Solutions to Managing Food Waste

Consider all the foods sporting stadiums offer, from hot dogs to nachos and ice cream – and now consider just how much of that food goes to waste. Adopting innovative food waste solutions beyond traditional recycling, such as partnering with different groups, feeding stadium staff or converting leftovers into energy and fuel, will help to reduce the amount of waste that ends back up in the environment.

At the 2015 Super Bowl, the city of Phoenix, nonprofit Waste Not, the NFL, vendors and fans collaborated to launch the “Kick the Waste” campaign, which resulted in over 69,000 pounds of food donations, 120,000 aluminum beverage containers and 73% of unused food being diverted from landfills through recycling and composting efforts.

Similarly, US Bank Stadium adopted a two-pronged approach to reducing food waste at the 2018 Super Bowl. All food served to fans came in compostable containers, and waste that could not be recycled was sent to a trash-to-energy plant to generate steam to heat buildings in downtown Minneapolis.

Success like this demands collaboration – every person plays a role, no matter how small. Large-scale sporting events like the Super Bowl serve as the perfect opportunity to encourage all people to rally around the action of eliminating waste in our environment. As Allen Hershkowitz, president of the Green Sports Alliance, said, “Only thirteen percent of Americans follow science, but seventy-one percent follow sports.” By using sporting events as a means to build a more inclusive circular economy, we have the opportunity to re-think how we use and recycle plastics and other materials and transform waste into alternate products.

Jeff Wooster



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