Lumen Field showcase for sustainability


Green standards from Lumen Field Image: Lumen Field, SounderBruce, CC BY-SA 4.0

Sports stadiums may be ideal for experimenting with sustainable food service, recycling and composting programs.

‘Earth911’ stated that Seattle’s (US) Lumen Field is committed to minimizing its environmental impact. It extends that promise to fans who attend games and concerts, diverting an average of 90 percent of waste at the venue from landfills. Imagine if every local restaurant could promise the same results.

The 68,740-capacity Lumen Field is a multipurpose stadium in Seattle, Washington, United States. Located in the City’s South of Downtown (SoDo) neighborhood, it is the home field for the Seattle Seahawks of the National Football League (NFL) Seattle Sounders FC of Major League Soccer (MLS), the Seattle Sea Dragons of the XFL (professional American football minor league), and OL Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).

‘Earth911’ further stated that the Lumen Field hosts hundreds of large and small events each year. This Summer, it broke attendance records when the English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran performed for 77,286 fans beating the American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift’s mark of 72,171 fans earlier in the Summer. The Swifties (Taylor Swift fans) produced seismic tremors equivalent to a 2.3 magnitude earthquake as they danced along with her music. With more than two million visitors annually, the stadium relies on carefully selected concessions packaging, recycling bins and innovative processes to collect, sort and send as much material as possible for reuse, recycling and composting.

Commented Christy Briggs, Logistics and Sustainability Manager at First & Goal Incorporated, who manages Lumen Field’s recycling and other sustainability programs, “We have a Seahawks game on Sunday (September 24th). It’s our home opener and overnight we are turning the building over to get ready for the American singer-songwriter and businesswoman Beyoncé (who performed on September 14th at the venue) to move into the building.”

Technology also helps track what is used and recycled or composted inside the stadium. The Lumen Field is part of the Green Sports Alliance’s Play to Zero initiative, which is helping more than 300 member facilities integrate measurement practices that can identify gaps in collection and processing to reduce waste.

Portland (US)-based the Green Sports Alliance leverages the cultural and market influence of sports to promote healthy, sustainable communities where people live and play. The Green Sports Alliance convenes the professional sports leagues, sports governing bodies, colleges, teams, venues, their partners, and millions of fans around meaningful change toward a more sustainable future.

Green Sports Alliance’s ‘Play to Zero’ initiative helps teams, leagues, conferences, and other organizations tell real stories of positive environmental impact.

Because the Lumen Field is a tightly controlled space – security concerns limit items allowed in – fans can leave everything they purchased to eat during a game under their seat when they go. And the lion’s share of the waste left will be collected, sorted and processed. However, fans may arrive with unrecyclable materials. After Taylor Swift’s shows, for example, the Lumen Field collected feather boas and beads that had to go to the landfill.

The stadium has invested heavily in sustainable operations. It sources all its janitorial supplies from Green Seal-certified companies and buys as much food as possible from the local farmers, donating tons of unconsumed food to the community.

Curated Foodservice and Compostable Packaging

The Lumen Field’s process begins with selecting the cups and packaging used in its concession stands.

Over a decade ago, the stadium adopted fully compostable cups for soft drinks and beer. The food service packaging is also chosen for compostability. Beverages in aluminum cans are collected in bins with openings that allow only the cans and bottles, not cups, to fit in. These steps produce pre-sorted bags that can be quickly sent to recycling without additional sorting.

Look at waste bins next time you visit a quick-service restaurant. Do they allow the mixing of items? Tossing everything in one bin may seem convenient, but Lumen Field’s example suggests a better way. Point out to the Manager that by limiting what goes in each compartment, the restaurant can efficiently capture and process food waste, cups, utensils, and packaging.

With almost total control over what comes in, Lumen Field has been able to focus on improving its process. When new sustainable options come along, they may not fit into the infrastructure built to handle previous packaging choices.

Added Briggs, “[When] the aluminum cup came onto the scene, but for me our compost cup was better than the aluminum cup. And that’s not saying the aluminum cup was bad. It’s just that or our solution, it would have really kind of been almost a backward proposition.”

However, the aluminum cups are the better choice for other stadiums without access to the commercial composting services than unrecyclable plastic cups. Earlier food service choices do not limit what Briggs’ team will consider. New options must fit into its evolving strategy. For example, the music venue at Lumen Field, the WAMU Theater (performing arts theater in Seattle), has begun testing reusable beverage cups.

Mighty Mini MRF

Having fans do some sorting using bins designed to limit what goes in is a crucial step, but additional sorting is required. Unrecyclable packaging, like chip bags, can slip in.

Continued Briggs, “Ninety percent of [our waste] is compostable. But you’ve got those chip bags, you’ve got those, but instead of putting three cans out there, we’re going to eventually then have to sort and open those bags.”

Following a decline in recovery rates in 2019 and during COVID, Briggs’ team, in collaboration with Reno, Nevada-based Waste Xperts, designed and tested a MRFI, or the mini materials recovery facility sorting system, that operates onsite at the Lumen Field after big events.

Before the MRFI, bags were ripped open and sorted on large tables, which reduced recovery rates. For instance, some food and liquid waste was lost in the process. The new system uses a conveyor belt on which materials are dumped and sorted to remove contamination like chip bags. Liquid waste is also collected below the belt.

The MRFI flattens the waste, which passes by four to six sorters who look for exceptions to what can be composted, removing recyclables and items that must be sent to a landfill. Unlike municipal materials recovery facilities (MRF), where a wide range of materials collected at curbside must be sorted, the Lumen Field system focuses on negative sorting. Not much needs to be removed – most of the material is food waste and compostable packaging chosen for use in the concession stands – so the work goes quickly. Now, Lumen Field can manage waste created by back-to-back events.

Shared Briggs, thinking ahead to the next improvement her team is seeking to make, “[The mini MRF] also cleaned up the process. The garbage is dumped it sorted it all the liquid kind of drains off and we’ve got bins underneath that collect it. Our next step is hoping to try to find a way to take that and turn it into energy. “

The conveyor belt system has made the job more enjoyable, resulting in better employee retention. Some people who previously quit the unpleasant sorting work came back and stayed after using the MRFI.

Walking the Talk

Informed Briggs, “Here’s a very counterintuitive, very odd thing. [We urge fans to] leave your garbage where you’re at. That makes it at least twice as fast to clean up and sort.”

In addition to the sorting performed by fans at the recycling and waste bins, the Lumen Field staff makes three passes through the stadium after a game or show. They pick up the recyclables, next food waste and compostables, then trash, eliminating the need for additional sorting.

Following almost 20 years of progress at the Lumen Field, Briggs said there is still work to do to reduce the stadium’s environmental impact. Nearly 95 percent of incandescent lighting has been converted to light-emitting diode (LED). However, the stadium still needs to improve its measurement of its Scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions associated with fan travel, among other issues. With 90 percent of its waste circular already, Briggs said the organization will continue to search for compostable or recyclable alternatives to its remaining waste.

Scope 3 encompasses emissions that are not produced by the company itself and are not the result of activities from assets owned or controlled by them, but by those that it’s indirectly responsible for up and down its value chain. An example of this is when one buys, uses and disposes of products from the suppliers.

Labeling an item “recyclable” or making a recycling bin available without following through on the promise to sort and send the material for processing has become too familiar an experience. The Lumen Field delivers on its promise to make a visit as sustainable as possible.

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