When Robert Redford had a brainstorm about how to make green go mainstream in a new way, he took the idea to his fellow board members at the Natural Resources Defense Council. What started as a publicity campaign, however, has had some unexpected and welcome benefits to the environment that have gone above and beyond public education.
Redford's idea was this: Focus on high-profile events and venues -- the Grammy's, the U.S. Open, Major League Baseball stadiums -- and efforts to save energy and reduce waste will be witnessed by millions of fans. Essentially: Give them an unexpected environmental lesson along with their entertainment.
A recent trip for green bloggers to the U.S. Open, arranged by NRDC and sponsored by the U.S. Tennis Association, shows how the public education portion of this initiative works, but also how much more the initiative has accomplished. (This is the full disclosure portion of our article: The USTA gave us coffee and even served us lunch, including a $12 blackberry mojito. They gave us media credentials that guaranteed seating at the tennis matches. They even sent us home with a reusable tote, a cap made from 49% recycled bottle-polyester and an organic cotton T-shirt emblazoned with one of the better eco-catch phrases, "Save our planet. It's the only one with tennis.")
The most prominent public portions of the campaign come in the form of PSAs about recycling and the like by tennis stars on the Jumbotron(s), advertising encouraging the use of public transportation and the presence of recycling bins beside each garbage can. Whether and how much the average tennis enthusiast (all 700,000 of them who visit the U.S. Open -- "two Super Bowls a day," as organizers are proud to point out) pays attention to the green messaging while tennis greats are volleying 110 mph serves is an open question; garbage cans were still brimming with food waste, as they are at most sports venues. At the least, talking about recycling and public transportation is better than not talking about recycling and public transportation.
The more effective, perhaps, if unanticipated, success of the partnership between NRDC and the U.S. Tennis Association is the more sweeping effect the green initiative has had on organizations in the background. Three examples:
Recycling: The local recycler agreed to chop off the little metal rim on each 3-tennis ball plastic pop-top canister (all 17,000 to 20,000 of them) so they can be recycled. (One does wonder why someone hasn't invented a vacuum-sealed bulk dispenser to hold the thousands of balls needed at each court, but I digress.)
Composting: There are dozens of chefs hired to work at the six kitchens, and each of them got a schooling in composting, as all vegetable waste was gathered in special bins for composting.
Sourcing: The paper napkins that had been made from virgin paper are now made with 90% recycled content -- even though the U.S. Tennis Association's supplier at first balked at supplying any napkins made with significant recycled content.
Jenny Powers, an NRDC spokeswoman, said those results were as important as they were unexpected. In fact, that kind of supply-chain change can be huge. Call it the "Walmart effect": When the biggest game in town demands sustainability, all the firms that rely on its business take note.
Now any other sports venue served by those vendors will be able to offer 90% recycled content napkins, and know that a metal rim should not be a barrier to recycling a plastic container. All those chefs will go to their next jobs knowing what composting in a commercial kitchen looks like, and how much waste it diverts. None of that would have happened if it weren't for Billie Jean King, who urged the U.S. Tennis Association to green up the operations at her namesake sports complex. (Think about that: She'd already made a world of difference increasing opportunity for women, and she felt she had to do more; wow.) We at The Daily Green tend to focus on the affordable, anonymous bottom-up benefits of environmentalism by the masses, but leadership, celebrity and money do matter.
The U.S. Tennis Association, even while trumpeting its successes in a special media event, is careful to downplay its accomplishments. "We didn't know what we didn't know," Green Initiative Chairperson Rita Garza (also VP of corporate communications) said on more than one occasion. The green initiative really only started in 2007, and Garza classifies most of the efforts to date as learning exercises. She's both right and modest. A pilot effort at recycling in 2008, for instance, showed that the only way to increase recycling rates is to provide a 1:1 ratio of recycling bins to garbage cans -- so that's what they did in 2009, at a cost of a staggering $200,000 for 500 bins. (Note to self: Get into the recycling bin manufacturing business, or at least befriend someone in that business and promise to carefully recycle the beer bottles we drain on his yacht.)
The NRDC -- which is working with a number of sporting venues, as per Redford's brainstorm -- and the U.S. Tennis Association are in the early stages of sharing what they've learned. What they share with green bloggers will ultimately matter much less than what they share with other sports venues. The USTA organizes 94 pro circuit events each year, for instance, all of which could benefit from the accumulated wisdom of the U.S. Open green initiative. I asked Garza and Powers what advice they have for smaller venues -- the high school stadiums and community ice hockey rinks of thew world. In a nutshell, they recommended frying the big fish first. Here's what they said:
1. Focus on energy efficiency
You save money when you use the right bulbs and only turn them on when necessary. Most events don't have a media room full of dozens of televisions and computer monitors, and most venues don't, like the U.S. Open, consume 2,000 megawatt hours of electricity (the capacity of the Indian Point nuclear power plant a few miles north of New York City, incidentally) ... but all venues can benefit from energy conservation.
2. Stop using pesticides
The U.S. Open doesn't have natural grass courts, so this isn't an issue, but millions of acres of sports fields and school playgrounds are treated with pesticides every year. A great first step toward greening your sports event is to stop spraying potentially harmful chemicals, Powers said.
3. Boost recycling rates
The U.S. Tennis Association learned that for every garbage can, you must have one recycling bin, or else your audience is unlikely to recycle. They also learned that it can be quite complicated to deliver the sorted recyclables to the right location to ensure they are indeed recycled. Be sure to check far ahead of time with your janitorial staff, local waste hauler or city sanitation agency to make sure that the careful work you're doing to separate waste doesn't ... well, go to waste. If your local waste handler isn't ready, get them ready before the event.
4. Provide public transportation
Whenever possible, encourage the use of public transportation and do whatever is possible to make it easy for those using public transportation to enjoy the event without extra hassles. In the case of the U.S. Open, the transportation challenge is compounded by the nature of the event, with hundreds of tennis players arriving from all over the world (kind of like dozens of kids arriving with their parents in their own cars). What did the organizers do? Contracted with Lexus to provide half of the car transportation via hybrid SUVs ... a start. At a local venue, it might mean making space for a local bus to make a stop, or arranging for that bus to leave the parking lot before the mass exodus of cars clogs the road home.
5. Encourage audience participation
Sports fans are as competitive as those on the field. A little messaging goes a long way when it comes to encouraging people to do the right thing. At the offices of the U.S. Tennis Association, for instance, the drive to go green has become a competition for individuals to one-up their colleagues in the next cubicle. Whatever goal you have set, be sure to communicate it to the crowd, and enlist their help.
6. Focus on concessions
If you're selling anything -- whether it's food or memorabilia -- do your part to source it responsibly. Look for paper products that are made with recycled content or that are Forest Stewardship Council-certified. Try to serve sustainable food. Offer a discount to those who bring their own cup. Pay attention to the packaging you're providing. If you're selling T-shirts or other memorabilia, talk to the people in charge of sourcing it, so that you can provide keepsakes made from organic and other sustainable fibers.
And, or course ... enjoy the game.
All photos by Gloria Dawson.
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