Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: A Look at Super Bowl Sustainability Efforts

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Photo via the NFL

Twenty-five years ago, the NFL Environmental Program started its Super Bowl sustainability efforts in Atlanta prior to Super Bowl XXVIII with recycling bins around the Georgia Dome. Now, the program returns to Atlanta prior to Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The bins were meant to help offset the massive amount of waste the annual event produces. Since then, the NFL Environmental program has grown tremendously with multiple green initiatives.

NFL “Green Week” started Jan. 15 with more than a dozen urban forestry projects in the Atlanta area.

“The NFL decided to support our effort 25 years ago at the Georgia Dome,” said Jack Groh, director of the NFL Environmental Program. “We still try to push the envelope every year, pushing it a little further and see how much we can go.”

READ MORE: College Football Playoff Green Initiative Goes Beyond Just Recycling

The NFL Environmental Program only oversees the sustainability efforts of the NFL’s major events — like the Super Bowl, Pro Bowl, and the NFL Draft — because team stadium operations are still the responsibility of each stadium owner. Still, Groh said more teams are moving in the direction of sustainability and often consulting he and his wife, Susan, who is the program’s associate director.

“As the years go by, more teams take advantage of it,” Groh said. “The Philadelphia Eagles are a shining example, with a wide range of sustainability projects. People really would rather do the right thing.”

The sustainability efforts around the NFL’s major events act as an example at the sport’s highest stage, which can be influential as the Super Bowl is likely the sporting world’s most wasteful event. A typical NFL game produces approximately 35 tons of waste, Groh said, or approximately 1.5 pounds per fan. The Super Bowl, however, can boost that number up as much as 50 percent.

“Our challenge is how to reduce that as much as possible with recycling, composting and even preventing things from coming in that aren’t recyclable and compostable,” Groh said.

Along with the typical reduce and recycle, Susan Groh said another major initiative for Super Bowl sustainability is to repurpose materials. Now, up to 90 nonprofits are enlisted to reuse items like temporary carpets and leftover foods.

“We’ve had really creative uses as we team up with local partners and find out what their needs are and some folks have taken fabrics and turned it into evening gowns and baby clothes,” she said. “Last year, in Minnesota, they took wood pallets and built birdhouses. Lots of creativity, but no reason to throw them away.”

On Jan. 17, Super Kids-Super Sharing will welcome more than 100 schools as students will come in the morning to donate books, sports equipment, and school supplies. Later in the day, designated schools and organization serving children in need will select the donated supplies they can use. The children’s program started in Atlanta 20 years ago prior to Super Bowl XXXIV.

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Sustainability efforts are often hindered by two aspects, Groh said: a lack of knowledge and affordability. The NFL Environmental Program creates a massive database of a city’s nonprofits and contacts for their efforts, and they’ll share it with whatever event might be coming to the city next. The database helps eliminate the lack of knowledge. In Minnesota, they handed over their network to the X Games, which was coming to town following the Super Bowl.

Jack Groh said while the NFL competes with other leagues for fan attention, they all need to cooperate to take care of the earth.

The Grohs’ simple idea 25 years ago to put recycling bins around the stadium has led to Super Bowl sustainability efforts setting an example at an event looked up to across the globe.

“The Super Bowl is the crown jewel of events,” Jack Groh said. “They’re looked at by other event managers, sports leagues, team owners as a model to run their events. Whenever they try an experiment, if you wait a year or two or five, you see those strategies implemented in other venues and sports.”