Philadelphia Eagles lead from the front in ‘Green’ initiatives



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Philadelphia Eagles Stadium Image: reddit.com (nydronepilot)

The Philadelphia Eagles’ residence – Lincoln Financial Field at Philadelphia in United States – is one of the most ‘green’ stadiums in the National Football League (NFL).

Philadelphia Eagles is an American professional football team based in Philadelphia and compete in NFL. The ‘Iggles’ home ground seems quite cozy from the turf.

The team is bringing about a sea change in their facility by adopting clean tech. A stadium with ‘pin-drop silence’ and the fresh green grass beneath the feet beckons. The stadium seats, curved towards the sky, exude a snug and warm feeling.

Of course, such serenity is not felt on match days. Explains Norman Vossschulte, the team’s Director of Guest Experience, “When there are 70,000 people in here, it actually feels larger.”

On game days, the stadium allows for 69,796 screaming football fans – the population of a decently-sized American town—and event staff adds another 3,000. Between matches, the facility also stages conferences, collegiate sports, and world concert tours, the most recent one to perform was the English rock band – ‘The Rolling Stones’.

To deal with such wild ecstasy of fans, the Lincoln Financial Field and other NFL venues require a lot of power. The Eagles’ residence consumes about 10 megawatts of energy per year. Such events also generate a lot of waste: Hosting extravaganzas like the Super Bowl (which Lincoln Financial Field is yet to host) can produce 80,000 pounds of trash. And that’s the statistics for just football. The US also boasts 29 NBA arenas and 30 MLB ballparks.
 

‘Go Green initiative’

Leading the Eagles’ ‘Go Green’ initiative is Vossschulte. The charismatic leader, who spent a brief period as a Disney World actor in the Jedi Training experience, wear many hats – but his main job is to spearhead the team’s ‘Go Green’ enterprise, an ongoing effort to mitigate the carbon footprints of the Eagles. The ‘Go Green’ initiative started with a small step taken in 2003 – few recycle bins being placed in the office. Today, it snakes through the 1.7 million-square-foot facility and out into the city and a wider region.

Sustainability is not a priority with every NFL team. Few owners feel that fans will view environment-friendly policies as a political move – one that does not fall in line with the franchise’s real objective of selling tickets (and, of course, winning championships). There are other NFL owners who recoil at the very thought of expense and logistical challenges involved; without league requirements or Governmental regulations to push them, many organizations would prefer things to remain as they are even if it causes environmental degradation. Even for entities like the Eagles, the goal posts are always moving: “This was literally a 15-year journey for us. And there’s still a long way to go,” remarked Vossschulte.
 

Hawk-eyed

At Lincoln Financial Field, lights are powered by renewable energy. The 11,000 solar panels on the building and over the parking lot provide about 40 percent of what the venue needs to operate. The rest of the electricity comes through collaboration with the local utility NRG, which sells the Eagles renewable energy credits linked to other solar or wind farms throughout the region. Keeping the stadium lights on is the easiest part of the sustainability practice of the NFL team.

After each game, 75 trash sorters move in different directions throughout the length and breadth of the arena collecting rubbish. They pick up rolling cans and forgotten cheese steak wrappers. But, they also slice open every single garbage bag and pull out any materials which can be recycled.

Typically, to prevent supporters from throwing full cans or bottles on the field, the NFL demand staffs pours all beer into an open cup. However, this practice generates a lot of plastic waste for which the Eagles asked the league for permission to serve beer in cans, as aluminum is one of the most recyclable materials on the planet. They got the green signal, but with the rider – a staffer will have to pop the top before handing it over to a fan.

The Eagles are not into minting money with the sustainability exercise – instead of sending recovered aluminum to a recycling company – from which they could easily earn about $45 to $75 for a ton of aluminium – the Eagles prefer to process it on site. By baling their own aluminum, they make $800 and $1,200 per ton.

However, despite all efforts, plastic remains – from water bottles to shrink wrap. To deal with the plastic menace, Vossschulte explained how Braskem, a Brazilian petrochemical company, melts them down into plastic pellets. These pellets then go on to become the raw material for new products, like the super-sized plastic Lombardi trophy that commemorates the Eagles’ 2018 Super Bowl win.

“The next thing we’re going to do with these is make cup holders for the urinals, so people can put their beer in them. And we’re also looking into making seats out of them, or benches,” he informed.

He adds, “What Braskem has helped us understand is, instead of recycling, is there a way to close the loop, so instead of leaving the system, it stays in us.”

Other materials go through the same process. Staff collect shrink wrap and send it to a company that transforms it into a material used in drywall.

“Next time we’re building something in the stadium that needs drywall, we’re going to try and procure that drywall that was built with shrink wrap from our stadium,” Vossschulte maintained.

Pre-consumer food waste (i.e., the stuff in the industrial kitchens) is sent to a contract composter or tossed into one of two on-site bio digesters, which harness hungry bacteria to disintegrate organic materials. The resulting energy-rich slurry drains into the sewer, where it’s filtered by the local wastewater treatment facility and turned into energy. Vossschulte exclaims proudly, “We’re at 99 percent landfill free.”

The Eagles have initiated the entire sustainable drive in a phased manner – a reduction here, a new initiative there. Vossschulte says this plan of action has given the organization much-required flexibility. Instead of having too much on their plate and being stuck with it for years to come, the team incorporates new technology and ideas one step at a time. At the same time, it’s hard to be absolutely precise as to what exactly comes next. Beyond Braskem recycled benches and closed-loop drywall, Lincoln Financial Stadium’s green goals remain somewhat mysterious.

But, Vossschulte says the team is firm on its commitment – “There are owners who are invested in this. Jeffrey [Lurie] is one of those owners. He really believes we as a company, or a team, or a stadium are a citizen … We have a responsibility.”
 

Friendly competition

The Eagles have friendly competition in the form of LEED. One of the driving forces in stadium sustainability is LEED, a certification developed by the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council.

“It’s a way of legitimizing the work that they’re doing. Before that, teams had less opportunities to demonstrate that,” opined Timothy Kellison, Assistant Professor at Georgia State University who studies sustainability in sports.

Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia upgraded its LEED silver certification to gold in 2018. A few other NFL venues boast same cred, including 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium and the Minnesota Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium. But, these structures have come up very recently, with sustainability a top priority.

“For an existing building, that’s pretty rare,” Vossschulte maintained.

Few new constructions have done even better. In November 2017, the Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes Benz Stadium was the first professional sports stadium in North America to achieve LEED Platinum.

Apart from renewable energy initiatives like installing solar panels, the organization “got every water credit you can get under LEED”, said Scott Jenkins, General Manager of Mercedes Benz Stadium.

Atlanta is “plagued by flooding issues,” said Scott. The stadium can store more than 2.1 million gallons of storm water on site. It keeps rain from surging through the surrounding neighborhood, and reduces the stadium’s water usage by 47 percent.

NFL teams have other sources of inspiration to go Green too. Kellison observed, “Something like having the greenest stadium in the world is a nice feather in the cap of an organization or an owner”. And while some owners are also genuinely altruistic, Kellison added, “We can’t discount the business sense that it makes”.

Vossschulte informed that by embracing 100 percent renewable energy, Lincoln Financial Field, for example, has freed up more than $200,000 a year for other projects. NRG buys the energy the stadium produces every day to power other parts of Philadelphia. When the stadium requires energy, they buy back solar and wind energy at a reduced rate. Normally, “energy prices fluctuate quite a bit,” so stadiums have to keep good amount of money in reserve, Vossschulte says. But, its pact with NRG, allow the Eagles “to budget to literally [to] the dollar what we spend annually on our energy costs,” he informed.

Still, sustainability is not every team’s cup of tea. Kellison feels that fan response has a part to play in it – “The difficult question a lot of organizations are running into is whether they want to jump into this perceived political question.”

While some, like the Eagles, believe sustainability will help them appeal to the next generation of season ticket holders, other teams worry climate action will alienate the fans whom they presently have.
 

Not an easy proposition

Is a carbon neutral and zero waste sports facility possible? “If you catch me on a different day, I’ll give a different answer,” Kellison felt.

“Some days I wake up and feel very optimistic about things, and other days I’m less optimistic. So my answer today is, I think we aren’t close on an industry-wide level,” the academician maintained.

Several organizations have been caught napping on climate action. Some don’t want to deal with the headache of updating policies and facilities, and others are worried that investing in sustainability will send out a strong political message and will not go down well with fans. Even the most eco-conscious teams can’t always compensate for their enormous footprint.

“We can celebrate the fact that Mercedes Benz Stadium is the most sustainable stadium in the world. But, it replaced the Georgia Dome, which was only built in 1992. The lifespan of these buildings tend to be short, not because the buildings are becoming necessarily outdated or falling apart, but because team owners tend to be able to get new buildings. They have a lot of leverage in the city,” Kellison added.

Owners want leading-edge technology, varied ticketing options, and a beautiful canvas for sponsors. And they argue that stadiums herald economic boon for the adjacent city (though things don’t go always as planned). But, if teams are really intent on minimizing their carbon footprints, they will have to contend with the environmental costs of construction and recognize that “the best thing you can do to keep a building sustainable is to keep a stadium up and running”, Kellison argued.

While there are “some teams that are just doing remarkable things,” Kellison further argued that lasting change will have to come from legislation. “Enlightened ownership”, as Jenkins terms it, and common sense business strategy can be a force for good, but local, State, and federal Governments are the only ones who can guarantee a more sustainable future.
 

Fan factor

Most Eagles supporters are oblivious to the industrial underbelly factor at Lincoln Financial Field. It’s meant to be this way. “Fans don’t come here to talk about sustainability, they come here to be entertained”, argued Vossschulte. But, the Eagles think they can have it both ways – “What we’re trying to do is convey the message in a fun way. Case in point: The ‘Recycle Your Beer Here’ signs over the urinals,” he pointed out.

Some teams may worry climate action will turn fans away. But Vossschulte believes the opposite rings true, at least for the Eagles. Among season ticket holders, who are about 45 to 60 years old, sustainability is 9 or 10 in their top 10 reasons to support the Eagles.

“However, with the demographic of 20 to 30 [years old], it was the number two driver of why to be a fan. It’s very important to continue with sustainability strategy from a marketing perspective, because [of] young fans who are coming up, and are eventually going to fill your seats. And it’s important to do it now. I don’t want the younger generation to be in charge when it’s too late,” Vossschulte summed up.

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