The US Open does not start until Monday but that doesn’t mean things are quiet at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens. Qualifying tournaments to determine the last 16 entrants into the men’s and women’s draws are in full swing, the top players are practicing, with thousands of fans roaming the campus.
And, if you look hard enough, you’ll see a strong sustainability effort taking shape.
GreenSportsBlog spent a good portion of a sunny late summer Thursday shadowing consultant Bina Indelicato as she worked to ensure that the tournament reaches its aggressive sustainability goals. Before that, we spoke to 16th seed Kevin Anderson, an advocate for fighting plastic ocean waste.
KEVIN ANDERSON AMPS UP THE PLASTIC OCEAN WASTE FIGHT
Kevin Anderson is playing a long game.
The 33 year-old with the powerful serve worked hard over a decade to move up from college tennis to the top 10 in the world, reaching the 2017 US Open final. He backed that up with a dramatic run to the 2018 Wimbledon final. A balky elbow stalled Anderson’s 2019 campaign, causing him to miss the French Open/Roland-Garros as well as much of the North American hardcourt season.
But Anderson, who spoke with GreenSportsBlog before a Thursday practice session, pronounced himself fit for the US Open after rehabbing throughout the summer. The #16 seed will face 16 year-old American Zachary Svajda in the first round.
Kevin Anderson at the US Open’s media center before heading out to practice Thursday (Photo credit: GreenSportsBlog)
The eco-athlete is also looking at the challenges surrounding plastic ocean waste with a long-term perspective.
“Environmental initiatives at tennis tournaments, especially the Grand Slam events, have been growing slowly but steadily,” said Anderson. “The recycling programs at the US Open are impressive and highly visible. And, while it may seem like a small thing, when Wimbledon got rid of plastic bags for racket strings and provided refillable water bottles this year, that sent a powerful message to players that this is a serious issue and that they’re serious about it.”
While playing a long game is admirable for its steadiness, the 6′ 8″ University of Illinois alum certainly gets the urgency surrounding both the plastic ocean waste issues and climate change. He also has begun to understand the linkages between the two.
“The fact that plastic ocean waste that ends up in landfill ends up degrading in part into methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO₂ is concerning,” Anderson shared. “While we tennis players have to focus on tennis almost 24-7, I’m very interested in learning more about the connections between plastic ocean waste and climate change.”
That is music to GreenSportsBlog’s ears! We look forward to continue the environmental conversations with Anderson.
In the meantime, we wish the big serving South African a long, healthy run at this year’s Open — if form holds, a third round match with world #1 Novak Djokovic awaits.
THE US OPEN HAS AGGRESSIVE WASTE DIVERSION GOALS; BINA INDELICATO HELPS TURN GOALS INTO REALITY
Bina Indelicato peers inside of a green compost bin sitting in the loading dock area behind the 23,711 seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, expecting imperfection. A brief look of disdain appears on her face, a misplaced empty plastic water bottle the source of her momentary annoyance.
“The plastic water bottle goes in the blue recycling bin; only food waste goes in the green compost bin,” the sustainability consultant told a group of managers from restaurants inside Ashe. “The New York City Department of Sanitation will inspect us sometime during the tournament and, for every misplaced item they find, they can fine us $100. That can add up pretty quickly.”
Bina Indelicato is beginning her 12th year as the US Open’s sustainability consultant (Photo credit: Bina Indelicato)
Shadowing Indelicato for a good chunk of Thursday afternoon’s qualifying session was fascinating as GreenSportsBlog got the chance to go behind the curtain to see how the US Open goes about maximizing its waste diversion rates.
The tournament’s main draw starts Monday. That means Indelicato has but four days to get as many of the 10,000 US Open employees — chefs, kitchen workers, waitstaff, retail store workers, and more — as she can up to the US Tennis Association’s (USTA’s) waste diversion snuff.
That means making the Open a zero landfill event — we will get to what that means in a bit.
Indelicato didn’t waste any time Thursday. I quickly realized that my goal needed to be to keep up with her.
She began with a training session in the bowels of Arthur Ashe Stadium for 70-ish members of the luxury suite kitchen staff. Indelicato created a game designed to ensure waste was sorted correctly into the proper bins: compost = green, recycling = blue, glass = red, and waste = gray. The staff was engaged.
Next was a brief stop to view a training for waitstaff before a run down to the umpire’s locker room.
Chair umpires drop off bags of used tennis ball cans after matches. Indelicato reminded the attendant to properly sort the cans’ contents: aluminum tabs from can tops get sent to Ronald McDonald House in the Hudson Valley where the nonprofit sells them, the balls get distributed for reuse at tennis clinics, and the cans will be used to make the ball person uniforms at the 2020 Open.
Empty tennis ball cans in the umpire’s locker room at the US Open. They are destined to become ball persons’ uniforms at the 2020 tournament (Photo credit: GreenSportsBlog)
We then headed across the campus, stopping at the first ever US Open’s sustainability booth. Signage tells the story of the tournament’s 10+ year green history, its waste diversion record and more.
Signage at the US Open’s sustainability booth details the tournament’s environmental progress (Photo credit: GreenSportsBlog)
A visit to the intimate, 7,000+ seat Grandstand court followed. Indelicato spoke with the chef for all of the concession stands on campus, confirming that his team of 75 chefs and 500+ hourly workers is on board with the USTA’s waste diversion protocols. Satisfied, we dashed back to Ashe where Indelicato offered a “Waste Diversion at the US Open 101” tutorial for the management and staff of the stadium’s brand new steak house.
At each stop Indelicato showed a different side of herself to impress upon each audience the importance of proper sorting.
“You have to understand that these workers are here for only two-plus weeks, but it is an intense two-plus weeks” Indelicato shared. “They’re preparing and serving food and returning the waste at a rapid pace, and so accurate waste disposal is not high on their priority list. My job is to move it up. I read each group, each person I engage with. Some people have been working here as long as I have; others I’m meeting for the first time. I’ll use humor here, play the strict teacher there, become a cheerleader there.”
Indelicato will repeat a version of Thursday’s dance every day until the tournament concludes on September 8. Her ability to accurately read and inspire each of her audiences will help determine if the USTA’s waste diversion goal of being a zero landfill event are met.
Now you may ask, “What is zero landfill? Isn’t the term zero waste?”
Zero waste is likely familiar to most GSB readers: to qualify, an event needs to divert 90 percent or more of its waste from landfill. Key to making that happen is a robust composting effort that encompasses both back-of-house (i.e. kitchen staff placing food waste in compost bins) and front-of-house (fans disposing of their food waste as well as the harder-to-degrade compostable cups, plates, utensils and more in the bins).
For years, the USTA pushed for zero waste at the Open. Their compost haulers would take the food waste from its kitchens to a variety of farms in the greater New York Metro area for pigs and other animals to eat. Front-of-house waste, with its manmade compostables which are not appetizing to the pigs, would be sent to a large, state-of-the-art composting facility in Delaware.
Then, about three years ago, the Delaware facility closed and there were no other replacements anywhere within a reasonable driving difference which could handle the volume of front-of-house waste generated during the Open.
What could the USTA do?
Go for zero landfill instead.
“We still compost in the kitchens; it’s a significant portion of our back-of-house diversion efforts,” Indelicato explained. “But without a place to take compostables flatware and cups, we had to revert to putting that in the trash.”
Diversion rates would plummet without a solution. Help came from a neighbor.
The USTA partnered with a company called Covanta, only about eight miles away on Long Island. They take the US Open’s unrecyclable and now uncompostable material and convert it to energy.
“Covanta’s waste-to-energy process is actually cleaner than composting the plates and cups,” reported Indelicato. “We also have far lower transportation-related emissions than when we worked with the Delaware facility.”
Last year, the Open diverted a remarkable 97 percent of its waste from landfill. Will the 2019 match or somehow beat that mark? We will know for sure in a few months.
One thing I know for sure: I would bet on Bina Indelicato.