The GSB Interview: Mike Dohnert, Helping to Green Citi Field

For someone who remembers attending his first big league ballgame¹ at Shea Stadium, the then two-year-old home of the New York Mets in 1966, it is hard to believe that its successor, Citi Field, will celebrate its tenth birthday in April.

Built on what was Shea’s parking lot, Citi Field was at the leading edge of green venues when it opened in 2009. Given the advances in stadium greening in the intervening decade, we decided to see how the ballpark and the Mets have kept up. To do so, we went out to Queens to meet with Mike Dohnert, the Mets longtime director of operations.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Mike, you’ve been at Citi Field since the doors opened almost ten years ago. That means you’re the best person to talk about the stadium’s green history and where things can go from here. How did you come to work with the Mets in what sounds like such a cool job?

Mike Dohnert: Well, Lew, I grew up as a huge Mets fan in lower Manhattan…

GSB: …As a lifelong Yankees fan, you have my sympathies…

Mike: …Let’s Go Mets! I went to the State University of New York (SUNY) Geneseo and then transferred to Baruch College in Manhattan. I studied operations management, graduating in 2001. In 1999, I got an internship with the Mets at Shea Stadium, working for the manager of ballpark operations at the time.

GSB: That sounds like a cool internship…

 

Mike Dohnert Mets

Mike Dohnert, director of operations of the New York Mets, at Citi Field (Photo credit: New York Mets)

 

Mike: Oh yeah! I mean it was sports, it was the Mets, it was great. When the internship ended, my boss, Sue Lucchi, said she needed help. I said “sure.” And I’ve been there ever since.

GSB: What did you do during the internship?

Mike: Anything to do with the playing field and the club offices. Shea was owned by the City of New York; the city was responsible for the structure itself; the electrical, plumbing, etc. So we really weren’t involved in things like energy efficiency. That would change once Citi Field opened in 2009.

GSB: I know that sustainability was embedded in the DNA of Citi Field’s construction. Were you involved?

Mike: Not in the construction phase — I’m strictly an operations guy. Interestingly, the one thing we were responsible for was the maintenance of a 14 foot fire lane between Shea Stadium and Citi Field. The new stadium was built in Shea’s parking lot and the two ballparks were very, very close together.

 

Citi Shea.png

Aerial photo of Shea Stadium in the foreground and the then under-construction Citi Field across a narrow path in the rear (Photo credit: Mark Lennihan/AP)

 

GSB: I can imagine. What were some of the greener aspects of Citi Field when it opened?

Mike: The HVAC system was quite advanced for that time. Since then we’ve added a building management system (BMS) with sensors to collect energy usage data in real time. The front office was upgraded to LEDs over the last two years — we didn’t go with LEDs at the opening since they were so expensive back ten years ago. Since then, the price has of course come down precipitously so we’re doing rolling upgrades, starting in 2017-18 with the front office and plaza level. And this is just the beginning because we know that, by 2025, we need to be in compliance with Local Law 88

GSB: …the New York City law governing energy efficiency.

Mike: We have an engineering firm looking how to help us get there on lighting with LEDs for the field, concourses, bathrooms and everything else. Sensors as well.

GSB: How is Citi Field doing on water efficiency?

Mike: We’ve got waterless urinals and low-flow toilets. Xlerator hand dryers are big energy savers, from a kilowatt hours (kWh) perspective, as well as from saving on paper towels and reduced maintenance. The club looked into a gray water-water retention program a couple years ago but city regulations prevented it. We are looking at sub-metering water usage which would highlight savings opportunities.

GSB: And perhaps those city regulations will change in the not-too-distant future. What about the green roof?

Mike: The 11,000 square foot green roof is atop the administration offices in right field. It’s naturally irrigated and uses hydroponics. We grow fruits and vegetables up there. It provides natural insulation, cooling the indoor spaces below in summer. It also helps regulate water runoff.

GSB: That’s great. Can fans see it?

Mike: There is a partial view for some fans on the promenade level and so some of fans do get a view.

GSB: One thing all fans can see is a comprehensive recycling and composting presence. Where do things stand at Citi Field?

Mike: Recycling and composting are challenging in New York City. We switched our recycling hauler about a year ago to RTS to help us be more aggressive in combating the challenges. Composting is expensive and there aren’t many places to take it. Right now we compost in the back-of-house only…

 

Mets RTS Recycle Trash

RTS recycling bins on the lower right field concourse at Citi Field (Photo credit: New York Mets)

 

GSB: …Meaning you compost organic material in the kitchens but the fans, or front-of-house, don’t have a composting option yet.

Mike: That’s right. Now, with back-of-house plus recycling, we divert about 40 percent of our waste from landfill. The good thing is that along with RTS and Aramark, our concessionaire, we are going to devise a comprehensive recycling-composting plan in the next few months so we can open up front-of-house. Doing so should get us to 80-85 percent diversion. And we’ll be going front-of-house at the same time as we continue to increase our veggie and fruit choices, much of it locally grown.

GSB: Good to hear. Now I notice that there are no solar panels here. Have you looked into it?

Mike: We’ve discussed it for several years. The problem for us is that our roof really isn’t that big. So solar-powered carports might be the more practical play. But there are complexities there, too. As you could tell when you walked to the office, across the street from our outfield wall is a string of auto body shops.

GSB: I’m well familiar with the “chop shops.”

Mike: Well, they’re not long for this world. The area is undergoing a redevelopment and there could be an impact on our parking lots during construction. So it’s difficult for us to invest in solar-topped carports, or anything else for that matter, in the parking area, at least in the short term.

GSB: So it ain’t easy, especially in the short term. Longer term, how committed to sustainability and the environment are Fred and Jeff Wilpon, the father and son tandem that owns the Mets?

Mike: During Citi Field’s construction, they were committed to building and operating a stadium that was state-of-the-art from a green perspective at that time. Technology has come a long way since we opened and with that opened up new possibilities for us to continually explore. We have inventoried our carbon footprint since 2016. That year, our footprint was 23,839 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MTCO2e), covering Scopes 1, 2 and 3. This includes team and staff travel to and from spring training in Port St. Lucie, Florida as well as fan travel to and from Citi Field. The goal is for us to better understand our footprint and become more efficient in how we go about reducing it, instead of just tackling the buzzwords that may be popular today.

GSB: The fan travel piece is a big deal as it is the biggest contributor to a team’s carbon footprint. Not all teams that measure carbon include fan travel. I know that the club is offsetting some of its carbon footprint through the purchase of carbon and water offsets.

Mike: We’ve done so for the past two ways, through a variety of projects, partnering on water restoration in the American west with Change The Course. On carbon, we’re working with South Pole to provide cleaner-burning cookstoves for women in East Africa. We’ve also invested in wind generation.

GSB: So the Mets have a strong green story to tell its fans. Are the Mets doing so?

Mike: This is where we have the greatest room for improvement. We need to let fans know what we’re doing. Management has talked about it — our concern is not being preachy.

GSB: You guys can do it; there is a sweet spot between not doing anything on one extreme and being too preachy on the other. You can adapt the late, great ex-Met relief pitcher Tug McGraw’s famous “Ya Gotta Believe!” mantra into “Ya Gotta Be Green!” There. My work is done here!

 

¹ I’m a Yankees fan but my dad was a Mets fan. So I cheered for the Cincinnati Reds that day and, if memory serves, went home happy.
 

 

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Sports and Climate Change Summit: Yankees, Mets, MLS, NASCAR and USTA Saving Lives in Africa Via Innovative Carbon Offsets Program

Five high-profile North American sports teams and leagues are helping to save lives in Africa while reducing carbon emissions at the same time.

That powerful message was delivered during an All-Star panel discussion at Friday’s first Sports and Climate Change Summit in New York City, hosted by Sport and Sustainability International (SandSI) and the Global Crisis Information Network (GCINET). Guided by SandSI co-founder Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, senior officials from the New York Yankees, the New York Mets, Major League Soccer, NASCAR, and the US Tennis Association, shared how and why they are making life-saving investments in Africa.

 

The panel that kicked off Friday’s first Sports and Climate Change Summit at New York’s Scandinavia House had a title that many in the audience could not have imagined even two years ago: “North American Sport Invests in Climate Mitigation and Promoting the Sustainable Development Goals in Africa”.

Yet, per moderator Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, co-founder of SandSI, those investments — by the Yankees, Mets, Major League Soccer (MLS), NASCAR, and the USTA — are indeed being made. And they are not only helping to take on climate change, air pollution and several other of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals^, they are saving lives. Thousands of lives. In some of the most needy regions on Earth.

 

Allen Hershkowitz J. Henry Fair

Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, co-founder of SandSI (photo credit: J. Henry Fair)

 

You may be asking yourself these three questions right about now:

  1. What problems are these North American sports teams and leagues trying to help solve with these investments in Africa?
  2. What types of investments are they making to solve those problems and save lives?
  3. Why are they making these investments?

 

COOKING WITH INEFFICIENT STOVES IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA ADDS TO AIR POLLUTION, DEFORESTATION AND CARBON EMISSIONS

In his presentation preceding the panel discussion, Hershkowitz cited chilling statistic after chilling statistic that laid bare the severity of health problems, borne largely by women and children in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, caused by cooking with inefficient, dirty, primitive stoves:

“The number one cause of death in the world is air pollution.”

“Close to half the deaths from pneumonia of children under age five are caused by household air pollution.”

“Three billion people cook over open flames or with simple stoves powered by unhealthy coal, wood or other forms of biomass.”

“According to the World Health Organization, three to four million people, mostly women and girls die prematurely because of inefficient, dirty stoves.”

Add to these grim metrics the fact that significant deforestation results from scavenging for the wood that is used in the inefficient, old stoves, and you have a recipe for a public health and environmental disaster.

 

NORTH AMERICAN TEAMS AND LEAGUES QUICKLY RAMP UP TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA BY FUNDING CLEAN, EFFICIENT COOKSTOVES AND AVOIDED DEFORESTATION

How did Major League Soccer, NASCAR, the Mets and Yanks and the USTA decide to get involved in helping to reduce the Sub-Saharan African air pollution problem?

Hershkowitz showed each of them that, by funding efficient cookstoves that emit 30 to 50 percent fewer emissions, they would be creating healthier cooking environments for women and children, extending and saving lives in the process. And, since the cookstoves require far less fuelwood, the teams and leagues are also playing an important role in avoided deforestation.

The clean cookstove initiative is supported by the United Nations. Consequently, these cookstove purchases — which reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, other air pollutants and deforestation — qualify as third party, independently certified carbon offset programs, burnishing the teams’ and leagues’ sustainability credentials.

Hershkowitz began connecting the teams and leagues with private sector firms like The South Pole Group, Eco-Act and Allcot. They do the important grunt work of designing, developing and implementing environmental and climate change mitigation projects on the ground.

 

Cookstoves

Clean burning cookstoves (Photo credit: South Pole Group)

 

Although the initiative is in its early days — cookstove purchases only began late last year — the results are impressive. Collectively, the benefits of the offsets purchased by the Yankees, Mets, MLS, NASCAR and the USTA include:

  • Distribution of 7,250 cookstoves for use in cabins and huts
  • Positive impacts on the lives of 13,000+ women and girls
  • Avoidance of 39.4 metric tonnes of carbon emissions
  • Keeping 22.4 metric tonnes of wood from being cut down
  • The manufacture and maintenance of cookstoves being handled by locals, bringing much-needed economic activity to the region

 

TEAMS, LEAGUES SEE COOKSTOVES, AVOIDED DEFORESTATION AS “NO-BRAINERS”

When asked why the Yankees are investing in Africa, Doug Behar, the team’s senior VP of operations, said it was a logical next step in the team’s long-standing commitment to sustainability: “We’ve evolved on sustainability over time, seeing that it made sense from a business perspective to measure and reduce our energy usage, and that it made sense to recycle and compost. So we were ready when the cookstove investment opportunity was brought to us. Really, it was a no-brainer as the impact on human life was too big to ignore.”

 

Doug Behar Profile

Doug Behar of the Yankees (Photo credit: New York Yankees)

 

NASCAR focused their investments on avoided mangrove deforestation projects on the shores of Lake Kariba in Northern Zimbabwe. Catherine Kummer, senior director of NASCAR Green, echoed Behar’s “no-brainer” sentiments. “When something makes sense to management and fans alike, you know you’ve got something,” shared Kummer. “Management got it right away. And the avoided deforestation aspects of our investments matches our fan base’s commitment to the outdoors.”

The Mets’ senior director of ballpark operations, Mike Dohnert, shared a different motivation when Hershkowitz brought the African investment opportunity his way. “I know it sounds cliche, but it was incredibly powerful to be able to explain to my six year-old son how important it is do the right thing,” Dohnert recalled. “I am very lucky that Mets management allows me the freedom to pursue these types of initiatives.”

Switching to tennis, why would its governing body in the United States make investments in Africa? “That’s an easy one — the US Open is an event that draws 800,000 fans from all over the world and tennis is truly a global sport,” offered Lauren Tracy, the USTA’s director of strategic initiatives. The organization funded the sending of 300+ cookstoves to women in Malawi. That purchase helped offset the carbon embedded in the millions of player travel miles to the recently completed US Open.

Major League Soccer, which joined with SandSI and The South Pole Group to advance a big sustainability push at this summer’s All-Star Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the LEED Platinum home of Atlanta United, also found the global nature of the cookstove program compelling. “Since the All-Star Game pitted MLS’ best vs. Juventus, the perennial champion of Italy’s Serie A and one of the most popular teams in the world, we decided to go ‘glocal’ with our sustainability initiatives,” said JoAnn Neale, the league’s chief administrative and social responsibility officer. “Locally, we undertook a tree planting program in Atlanta. And our investments in 1,450 cookstoves in Kenya represented the global side of the equation.”

 

M-B Stadium 2a

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, LEED Platinum home of Atlanta United (Photo credit: Lewis Blaustein)

 

 

GSB’s Takes:

  • If five teams and leagues can get the kinds of life-saving and carbon emissions-reduction results detailed above in less than a year, imagine if all of the major pro and college sports leagues in North America rallied around cookstoves, avoided deforestation and other climate change and environmental programs in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. This is a huge opportunity for SandSI and the entire Green-Sports movement. Perhaps a team or two could pry their PhD analytics gurus away from their advanced metrics spreadsheets for a minute to calculate the macro public health and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions benefits of a massive Pan-North American sports cookstove/avoided deforestation/clean water initiative.
  • There was a kind of Bizarro World, up-is-down aspect to the Summit when it came to fan engagement on climate change and the environment:
    • NASCAR — whose brand image to this observer is decidedly “Red State”/skeptical on climate change — is in fact aggressively connecting with fans on environmental and climate change issues. Why? Because NASCAR fans have indicated that they care about the environment, to hell with the GSB’s stereotypes. “Ten years ago, 50 percent of our fans said they cared about the environment,” Catherine Kummer reported. “Fast forward to our April 2018 survey, and 87 percent of NASCAR fans now believe Earth is going through a period of climate change and 77 percent feel they have a personal responsibility to do something about it. So now we run environmentally-themed TV spots on NASCAR broadcasts.” I do have questions about how to square these results with polling before the 2016 Presidential election that showed NASCAR fans preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. But that’s a subject for another day. For today, the fact that NASCAR runs green TV spots is a very cool thing.

 

 

The 30 second NASCAR Green TV spot

 

  • On the other hand, while the Mets and Yankees have done exemplary greening work at Citi Field and Yankee Stadium, including eliminating trash bins and replacing them with recycling and compost bins, they have chosen to communicate their sustainability bona fides to fans in a much quieter fashion* than NASCAR. The clubs have not yet aired green-themed public service announcements on TV or radio. I mean, they play in climate change-is-real, humans-are-the-cause, “Blue State” New York. One would think their fan bases would react positively to such TV ads. What gives? Mike Dohnert acknowledged that, for Mets management, climate change “politics is an issue. They’re still trying to figure this out.” The Mets and Yanks might want to talk to NASCAR.
  • Kudos to SandSI and GCINET for hosting the first Sports and Climate Change Summit! This needs to be an annual event. 

 

 

 

^ The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are: 1. No Poverty, 2. Zero Hunger, 3. Good Health and Well-Being, 4. Quality Education, 5. Gender Equity, 6. Clean Water and Sanitation, 7. Affordable and Clean Energy, 8. Decent Work and Economic Growth, 9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, 10. Reduced Inequalities, 11. Sustainable Cities and Communities, 12. Responsible Consumption and Production, 13. Climate Action, 14. Life Below Water, 15. Life on Land, 16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, 17. Partnerships for the Goals
* The Mets and Yankees communicate their greening initiatives to fans by posting sustainability information on their websites, leading sustainability-themed tours of the ballparks for high school students and more.
 

 

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