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Football’s Biggest Game Went Zero-Waste, and You Can Too

Environment |  2.5.2019

Over sixty-thousand fans poured into U.S. Bank Stadium on February 3, 2018 prepared to watch the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots go head-to-head during the biggest game of the year. Visions of juicy burgers, salty peanuts, and craft beer danced in their heads as they approached Minneapolis’ state-of-the-art facility. But what many of the fans didn’t know was that they were about to experience a landmark moment for both the environment and the world of sports: the very first zero-waste Super Bowl.

Large events such as the Super Bowl require massive amounts of energy, food, and supplies to run smoothly. This leads to a lot of waste—around 40 tons to be exact. While only so much can be done to reduce what’s needed to pull off the biggest night in football, we knew we could limit the waste that ended up in a landfill.

With the increasing rate of food waste in America sitting at a staggering 63 million tons per year, we are taking a hard look at our processes and have committed to reducing all kinds of waste before it is generated. To reduce landfills and keep our oceans clean, we promote recycling efforts, are reducing single-use plastics, and continue to find new ways to reduce packaging materials across operations. 

The NFL—in partnership with PepsiCo, U.S. Bank Stadium, SMG, the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, and Aramark—set a goal of recovering 90% of waste generated at the big game. With the help of 200+ volunteers, 91% of the waste from Super Bowl LII was successfully recycled, composted, or reused, equating to over 60 tons of waste being diverted from landfills.

 Getting the Team Ready

The most essential factor in pulling off such a large-scale zero-waste event is “a 100% total buy-in from every party involved,” emphasizes John. In the event of Super Bowl LII, that meant big contributions from the NFL, PepsiCo, the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, and SMG who manages the building facilities at U.S. Bank Stadium. Zero-waste meant everything from the stadium’s energy usage, water usage, waste reduction and diversion efforts, and sustainable purchasing.

Just as the Eagles and Patriots powered through the rankings to make it to the big game, the undertaking of a zero-waste Super Bowl was no small feat. It took close partnership from everyone involved to find solutions to several barriers. To dig into how the team pulled this off, we spoke with John Fitzgibbon, District Manager and Jennifer McCrary, Director of Strategic Business Development at Aramark. They shared key insights into how any location can be inspired to create their own zero-waste future.

Aramark team members identified as sustainability champions
Aramark team members identified as sustainability champions were key in reaching the overall goal of reducing waste. 

In addition to the collaboration between the stakeholders, the employees at U.S. Bank Stadium needed to be on the same page logistically and be passionate about making changes happen on the ground. Employees were trained on what changes were being made and what they needed to do to implement them to ensure a seamless process. Each person is an essential part of the puzzle. “Without their focus and dedication, it’s not going to happen,” says John. We learned early on that “sustainability champions” on each team could provide the focus and dedication that all the individual teams at U.S. Bank Stadium needed to ensure our commitments were being met at all levels.

The First Ten Yards

Sometimes getting started can be the most difficult part of any change. “Lead time was our biggest challenge,” said Jennifer. “Planning for the event required a lot of coordination and logistics.” Starting in April of the previous year, “we assessed our inventory, looking at everything to see what wasn’t compostable or recyclable so we could phase those items out and begin the process of sourcing replacement items,” explains John. Working closely with suppliers, the team identified sustainable options for packaging, service ware, and utensils.

While it may not be feasible to do everything at once, it’s important to “start by taking a look at disposable products—the little cups at the condiment bar, stir sticks, and plastic straws—and then begin to reduce the items you can,” adds Jennifer.

We also connected with local food donation organizations such as the Second Harvest Heartland food bank in Minneapolis. John notes that the donation of prepared, unused food is “one of the easiest and most gratifying ways to reduce waste.” Thankfully, there are a lot more organizations focused on food donation efforts today. “There are so many more opportunities to coordinate food donations today than ten years ago,” John explains.

Running Drills

Leading up to the big game, we implemented, monitored, and continued to improve our waste reduction practices. Seven months prior to the Super Bowl, U.S. Bank Stadium hosted the X Games, the first big event following the stadium’s conversion to waste-reduced practices. A few months later, a Minnesota Vikings home game let the team put their new approach to the test. By monitoring the waste conversion rates of these two events, the Aramark team was able to further refine processes to get ready to support the big game. “It was quite a sight to see our progress and watch our waste reduction efforts improve from event to event,” says John.

Pumping up the Fans

The most exciting part of our efforts was engaging the fans. Prior to the big game, social media messages from the NFL and former Pittsburgh Steeler Hines Ward flooded the internet encouraging fans to go green through PepsiCo’s Rush2Recycle campaign. The day of, game attendees were greeted by volunteers and signage informing them of how they could participate by sorting their waste into proper bins for composting and recycling.

The volunteers sent by PepsiCo, coupled with signage all over the stadium, were critical elements to our success. “You need to make sure the changes are understood by everyone who comes through the doors,” explains John. This constant education layered with full transparency can help get consumers excited about the differences being made and keep them informed moving forward.

The Key Takeaways

  1. Be open-minded and have a flexible plan. “Your plan needs to be fluid enough to ebb and flow,” notes John. “A plan may look good on paper, but things come up and you need to be able to adapt.”
  2. Start small by reducing the number of straws, lids, stir sticks, and other single-use disposable items. Jennifer explains, “You don’t have to switch every single item to compostable at once, but you do have to take a hard look at every disposable product that consumers are accustomed to using.” Try making a commitment to work towards, such as our goal to cut down on 60% of single-use plastic straws available by 2020.
  3. Review the data you acquire. Don’t be intimidated, because there will be a lot of it. Super Bowl LII measured every ounce of cardboard, trash, organic materials, recyclable materials, and anything else that left the building. “Going in and taking a look at the data is how you can find efficiencies and areas of improvement,” says John.
  4. Share your findings between teams. “Learnings found by one department should spread throughout the whole building,” notes John.
  5. Get 100% team buy-in from everyone involved. Stacking the deck with a group of people who are passionate about the changes you’re making will help ease the transition and smooth out the process.
  6. Always remember the consumer and the effect changes will have on their experience. “You, of course, do not want to hurt the consumer experience, but you can always take a harder look at your processes,” says John.

The Long Game

The zero-waste Super Bowl was the first of its kind, and the efforts didn’t subside once the confetti was cleared off the field. “Zero-waste events of the past would often entail a team going in and making changes for the event, only to have everything go back to the way things were before the event,” explains John. “It was important to the NFL, Aramark, and all partners involved that the changes being made were all long-term.” Visitors of U.S. Bank Stadium will still find recycling and compost bins right next to the trash bins and, with your help, we’ll be able to see the ripple-effect of these changes across the country at stadiums and other dining locations, large and small.

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