When will we see full stadiums and arenas again? Anyone who says they know for sure is lying but there are signs, for better or worse, that sports venues are slowly, carefully opening to small numbers of fans even as COVID-19 continues its stubborn spread.
One thing we do know for sure is that when big crowds return, venues will do their best to dot all COVID-safe “I’s” and cross all COVID-safe “T’s”.
Thing is, making a venue COVID-safe will result in a lot more waste.
Cassia Patel of Oceanic Global and Kristen Fulmer of Recipric, two of the leading thinkers and practitioners in the “Build Back Greener/Healthier” space, offer ways stadiums and arenas can rein in the expected onslaught of COVID-related waste in today’s GSB guest blog.
You’re leaving your home stadium at the end of an exciting game. You’re walking up the stairs to the concourse and look back at the scoreboard to see the final score one last time, but you’re distracted by the litter strewn across the stands. You’re used to seeing some peanut shells or maybe a stray cup, but this is different. This is your first game back at the stadium since the COVID-19 pandemic. You were hesitant about the return and you’ve been cautious of your proximity to other fans and successfully avoided touching any shared surfaces. Instead of peanut shells, you see used masks that were covering other fans’ faces, gloves that they wore but since removed, and plastic wrappers that were covering their food. The result is twice as much waste with only ⅕ the number of fans.
This is not the ideal experience upon the fans’ return. There were already challenges with waste in stadiums and operations teams were beginning to make waste reduction commitments, pilot reusable products, and leverage technologies to make operations more efficient, but the pandemic put a temporary halt on that progress. In addition to some of the existing sources of waste, the return of fans after the COVID-19 hiatus may present new places where waste shows up. This moment for an operational re-think is the perfect opportunity to get ahead of that, while making progress on some of the pre-COVID waste challenges. Below, you will recognize features of your stadium that may present a waste challenge. Right now, we have the opportunity to leverage innovative technologies, reprioritize operations, and make advancements of stadium efficiency!
#1: GLOVES, MASKS, & PPE
Not an optional element of Game Day anymore, this new waste hazard presents an opportunity to better engage with fans.
Whether at a home watch party, tailgate, or in the stadium, the health and safety of our families, guests, and employees is a priority. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) has proven to be the main way we can protect ourselves and our communities from COVID-19, but this increased use of PPE has already become a major source of plastic pollution in our cities, parks, and the ocean. As fans return, operations teams have turned to using disposable gloves and masks in stadium security, in concessions and back-of-house, in many cases unnecessarily where other hygiene practices would be more effective. Rather than using single-use PPE (and creating the risk of litter), there are many reusable and sustainable alternatives with the same health impacts
Most food safety guidance advises that reusable face masks can be used instead of disposable ones (CDC). Any fabric covering the face that is washable, well secured, and covers the nose and mouth is fine, ideally double-layered. Additionally, recent studies show that the virus can be killed by proper hand washing and sanitizing protocols, and many businesses are actually instructing employees to not wear disposable gloves, but to improve hygiene practices. Gloves can in fact provide a false sense of security and lead to greater contamination than regular hand washing practices. The NYC Department of Health states that, “The best way to protect yourself is to regularly wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.”
Reusable masks, hand sanitizer, and other mandatory PPE present new ways for the stadium to engage with fans or generate revenue in the Fan Store. Consider clever communications strategies, reusable mask giveaways, and new ways to promote health and wellbeing through your brand.
#2: TICKETING & VENUE ENTRY
Alternative entry methods to a paper ticket present a variety of benefits in addition to reducing waste, including fan engagement to produce products, provide discounts for brand partners, or even conduct contact tracing.
The paper ticket has been a mainstay in live entertainment and often served as a cherished souvenir. Venues have often supplied wristbands, lanyards, and other single-use identifiers to facilitate efficient entry that are used in addition to the tickets. The thing is, all of these little scraps of paper, plastic, and cloth contribute to the waste in the stadium, most will never reach a garbage can, forcing operations teams to do unnecessary cleanup (an additional labor cost). In the COVID-19 era, each of these items are also points of disease transmission and present a health risk to operations teams as well.
“Digital ticketing allows sporting organizations to optimize wayfinding to reduce event wait times and human to human contact while increasing occupant confidence and satisfaction before, during, and after events with in-app surveys and emergency notifications.”
Aaron Short, CEO B-Line
As smartphones and online ticket platforms become more prevalent, fans are relying on QR codes, digital ticketing platforms, and mobile apps to gain entry. As COVID-19 has amplified the need to minimize the exchange of physical materials, new paperless solutions may be the key to minimizing waste at entry. Consider multifaceted solutions that provide efficiencies and enhance fan experience, such as a mobile app that provides the entry ticket, but also a cashless food and beverage solution, and fun ways to virtually interact with fans, provide incentives, and connect them with brand partners.
Though signage and wayfinding are critical elements to the fan experience, COVID-19 has forced operations to post temporary signage and post mandatory regulations. Each of these signs are an opportunity to engage with fans and showcase your health and safety efforts.
Early in the COVID-19 shutdown, social distancing and mandatory mask signs began to pop up everywhere. These have evolved from temporary hand-written signs, to laminated templates from the CDC, to fully customized, branded signs that will be permanently posted. Notably, each evolution of these signs generates additional waste from the outdated versions. Though seemingly small, this can add up quickly in a large building or venue. In addition to COVID-19-related signage, more common signage like wayfinding, seasonal window vinyl, and even 1-day promotional event posters have historically been a source of waste.
The continuously evolving COVID-19 crisis has simply highlighted the temporary nature of so many things once thought to be permanent. This is an opportunity to design signage for flexibility and the continuous evolution of important communications. Consider digital solutions for fan-facing communications or a bulletin board-like solution in back-of-house and be more strategic with investments in permanent signage. It is also a reminder that outdated signage is not necessarily destined for the landfill. As venues invest in new COVID-19-related signs or updated posters, consider solutions that are reusable, recyclable, or at least made from recycled materials.
“The transition from plastic or PVC signage to fabric signage has a lower impact on the environment. Not only do you eliminate the plastic and associated chemicals but the carbon used in transportation is greener due to the reduction in size and weight. Fabric signage can be recycled to be used for reusable bags, cloth, etc…”
Wes Cheringal, Founder & Managing Partner, Axis Global
#4: GIVEAWAYS & PROMOTIONS
Promotional items are one of the most effective ways to touch fans and promote important brand partners. More than ever, the reopening of stadiums after COVID-19 presents the opportunity to rethink the meaning and possibilities of these items to maximize impact.
Whether it’s the annual bobblehead giveaway day, a chance to win a free cruise at a vendor table, or an on-field interactive game at halftime, promotional giveaways are a mainstay in the fan experience. Not only do fans love free items with their favorite team’s logos on them, but brand partners see value in the opportunity to grow brand recognition and connect directly with fans and teams see value in offering these ‘specials’ to drive ticket sales and provide in-game experiences.
Inevitably, at the end of the game, there will be giveaway items like foam fingers, balloons, or plastic accessories abandoned and littered in the bleachers and parking lots on the way out of the stadium. Not only is this a wasted investment and a potential risk to the brands that provided the item, but it is also a large waste of material, which is often largely composed of un-recyclable plastic. When considering giveaway item choices, generate a list of souvenirs that fans won’t want to lose and work with brand partners to identify items (complete with their logo) that will be taken all the way to the fans’ home and treasured with a long, useful life.
As fans return after the COVID-19 hiatus, wrapping promotional items in single-use plastic will not reduce disease transmission. Consider strategies to provide and enhance the fan experience, while avoiding unnecessary waste in the wastestream.
#5: MERCHANDISE & SOUVENIRS
Fans love to take something home to remember their experience. This is the opportunity to reconsider the types of products offered to enhance the memory and make sure that it’s long-lasting.
A visit to the team shop is a favorite component of many fans’ live event experience. It’s also big business for teams, who invest time and energy in creating customized team-specific products, game day specials, and iconic collectible souvenirs. Not only does the team want to sell the item from the store, but they want that item to be worn, showcased, collected, or used in everyday life. Instead of focusing on getting items out of the door, merchandising teams should ask, “What will fans use? How can these products be helpful to them?”
Instead of a plastic toy that may break after one or two uses, consider providing items that fans may otherwise purchase outside of the stadium. Household goods like kitchen utensils, exercise equipment, car accessories, or even school supplies are ways to find new touch points with fans, while providing them with items that will not be left behind or quickly thrown away or donated. Consider the packaging from the store itself. Instead of providing a simple plastic bag, consider offering a reusable bag, either branded by the team or a sponsor. This may be another item that fans will use in their everyday life and is also a helpful touchpoint for brand recognition.
This is also an opportunity to support local businesses and vendors that are using sustainable materials, such as souvenirs made from reused gameday waste or recycled products.
#6: FOOD & BEVERAGE
Before the COVID-19 shutdown, a highlight of a fan’s experience is the chance to get the classic stadium food or an ice cold beer. As fans return, there is an opportunity to provide that experience, while saving in operational cost and reducing wasted items.
If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest carbon emitter in the world. Reducing food waste needs to be a priority when we consider waste management strategies. COVID-19 has amplified awareness that we need to focus more heavily on localized supply chains in all sectors. From a food procurement perspective, this means sourcing from local farmers and suppliers with minimal packaging as well as finding local solutions to avoid food waste, including both food donation and composting strategies.
Let’s highlight one of many unexpectedly wasteful practices in the professional sports industry: Surplus bread. Many food and beverage policies dictate that bread baskets for hot dog rolls and hamburger buns need to remain full at all times, even if it’s disproportionate to the amount of food available to fill the buns. Much of the bread goes uneaten. Even bread that is served with a meal is often half-eaten and one of the more commonly disposed foods. While food donation to local charities or community centers can often be a solution, in this case, bread lacks nutritional value so charities are unable to accept too much.
Particularly as we move away from buffet-style formats in COVID-19 reopening strategies, hopefully we can reduce the unnecessary food waste.
#7: STADIUM CONCOURSE & CONCESSIONS
One of the most crowded areas of a venue, the concourse and concession areas are in full redesign mode to allow fans to return safely. As everything from condiment stands to garbage cans are being reconsidered, now is the time to consider other ways to reduce waste.
There is a shift towards disposable products in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Single-use plastic items are perceived as safer and are used to instill confidence in customers. In fact, recent research proves that single-use plastics are not safer than other materials when compared with reusables. Additionally, a statement signed by over 130 virologists, epidemiologists, and health experts from 18 different countries endorses that reusables are safe.
In food and beverage, wrapped cutlery, straws, and takeaway container lids are used to minimize exposure. It is actually less wasteful and therefore less costly to find creative solutions like wrapping reusable or cutlery in napkins or selling reusable cutlery kits that guests can use. While reusables may not be feasible in all cases, there are sustainable disposable options that can be considered including items made from materials such as wood, palm leaf, bamboo, and other fiber-based materials (always verify that items are compatible with local waste management infrastructure). See some specific vendor recommendations in Oceanic Global’s COVID-19 Reopening Guidelines.
*Oceanic Global’s Single-Use Plastic Reduction (SUPR) program can support venues or events looking for ways to eliminate single-use plastics in foodservice.
Why take steps backwards to those messy condiment packets, when we could stake steps forward to a more healthy, more sustainable solution?
As stadiums reopen to fans there is an increasing reliance and adoption of individually wrapped condiments to adapt to the risks of COVID-19. Many reopening guidelines include a brief recommendation to use individually wrapped condiment containers, BUT they also note that using bulk containers that are regularly sanitized is an acceptable solution.
Restaurants would actually prefer to use and sanitize bulk containers rather than waste money and throw away unused small condiment sachets or sanitize the small containers, which is unwieldy and more labor-intensive (therefore expensive).
There are also creative solutions to this challenge, including what Sestra Systems has put forward: contact-less bulk dispensers for condiments, as well as beverages and hand sanitizer.
Receipts are the least exciting item on this list, which is exactly why they are so wasteful. In nearly every case, receipts could be eliminated or replaced with a more innovative option.
Sometimes paper receipts are printed for proof of purchase and sometimes they provide an identifier for fans to collect their order after it’s made. In rare instances, they are a touchpoint for fan engagement, such as a coupon for a future purchase, a URL or QR code for a survey, or a ‘chance to win’ promotional giveaway. Notably, paper receipts are often not recyclable and are typically made with toxic chemicals, such as BPA, which can directly enter the bloodstream. This is not only an environmental issue, but a threat to human health.
All of these needs can be achieved with innovative solutions and the help of technology, while reducing paper waste and the harmful ink that goes directly to the landfill and litters the stadium. A small digital screen or app-based solution may meet all of the needs for a receipt, but in a more efficient, less wasteful way. Consider why you are providing a receipt to fans in the first place and ask yourself if there’s another solution to address that reasoning. If the answer is yes, that may be a good place to start.
#10: WASTE MANAGEMENT
Maybe one of the more obvious ways to reduce waste, enhanced waste management strategies are a way to reduce disease transmission and divert more waste from landfill.
During COVID-19 response, it is more important than ever to pay close attention to and improve waste management practices. Since the pandemic has sparked an increase in waste production and reduced labor capacity, waste management workers have been on the frontlines of this crisis and the system has been overloaded. Any efforts to increase sorting and circularity to prevent material from ending up in landfill are significantly important.
Procurement plays a critical role in waste reduction, so instead of ‘waste management,’ we say ‘materials management’. To achieve zero waste, every fan-facing material, whether a promotional item or food container, should be recyclable or compostable – if not reusable. We recommend procuring similar material types across different uses within the stadium, which will simplify the messaging and streamline the signage. Efficient material management will not only enhance the fan experience, but will also reduce operational demands.
Monica Rowand, Chief Operations Officer, Phase 3 Sports
Unfortunately, as fans return to stadiums, there are more than 10 places for waste to show up. As stadiums, arenas and sporting events reopen, continuously audit the waste stream, take a hard look at what is polluting the stands and parking lots after games, and identify wasteful areas where a lot of money is spent without much return. Work closely with your corporate and foodservice partners to find sustainable solutions throughout the stadium and across the supply chain. These potential points of waste are also opportunities to be reprioritized, reconsidered, or completely replaced with more innovative solutions. Now is the time to refine those practices, increase efficiencies, and reduce unnecessary waste to #ReopenSustainably.
If a stadium is looking at reducing their waste, there are specific programs and resources available including: Recipric, SUPR, GSA, Council for Responsible Sport.
Live events and fan attendance will be unpredictable for the foreseeable future. Even at a home tailgate or watch party, consider ways to make more sustainable choices while having fun and enjoying the game:
_ Choose reusable options wherever possible (ex. Cups, plates, cutlery), knowing that they can be safely cleaned.
_ Use reusable masks and focus on hand washing, rather than disposable gloves.
_ Purchase sustainable drink kits (coming soon from SUPR).
_ Recycle cans and bottles!
_ Compost food waste or keep & share leftovers.
_ More fun ideas:
Terracycle’s 5 Tips for a Sustainable Party
Volvo ocean race sporting events guide.
Guide to Sustainable Tailgating
6 ways to have a more eco-friendly tailgate
Cassia Patel has formal training as an environmental engineer, underwater research biologist, and in sustainable design and is the Program Director of Oceanic Global, a global NGO that engages new audiences in ocean conservation. Her work with Oceanic Global includes directing The Oceanic Standard (TOS) program, a free set of industry-specific resources across a range of sectors for adopting sustainable practices that meet both business and environmental needs with a focus on eliminating single-use plastics and improving waste management. Within that framework, Oceanic Global in partnership with NEXUS launched the SUPR program (Single Use Plastic Reduction) specifically targeted at reducing plastic and waste in the professional sports industry.
Learn more about Oceanic Global & SUPR.
Kristen Fulmer, Founder of Recipric, is a sustainability expert, focused on health and performance within the built environment. Kristen strives to drive efficiency through research-based, marketable, and profitable sustainable solutions. She believes that the built environment can influence the human experience at many scales and that it exemplifies the power in the influence placemaking, equitable access to a support system, and sense of community. Following a background in architecture and design within the commercial real estate development industry, she has launched Recipric to address health, wellbeing, and sustainability in the sports, fitness and entertainment industries.
Click here to learn about how Recipric can help teams and venues Redefine Home Field Advantage.