Seattle Mariners Go Green: Time to Give Praise to Those Who Take Responsibility

Ross Zelen@@RZelenCorrespondent IIDecember 22, 2011

There might be nothing more American than spending a Sunday afternoon at a ballpark: watching a baseball game with a couple hot dogs, beer, peanuts and a box of cracker jacks.

Throughout history, the end result of almost all sporting events has been comprised of a winner, a loser and a whole lot of trash from the spectators who came to watch.

In this century’s shift towards a more ecologically conscious consumer, the Seattle Mariners have taken the bold risk in becoming the first baseball team to spend a sizable amount of money to go green.

Sure, some teams around the MLB have taken steps in their stadium renovation to watch their ecological footprint, but none have gone to the lengths of the Mariners. The eco-conscious Mariners propelled a green revolution in professional sports led by Mariners Vice President Scott Jenkins.

This change brought to the forefront the work of the Green Sports Alliance, of which Jenkins is on the Board of Directors. The Green Sports Alliance is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help sports' teams, venues and leagues enhance their environmental performance. The Mariners were a founding team in the Alliance, and now currently more than 50 teams have joined the Alliance and it is beginning to become talked about in all sports circles.  

Much of that is because of the great environmental work done in the Pacific Northwest. Within the confines of Seattle, Scott Jenkins was the spearhead behind the Mariners decision to ban non-compostable plastic products at the Mariners’ ballpark, Safeco Field. 

Safeco Field is the first Major League Baseball stadium and the first professional sports stadium in the United States that has completely reformulated their waste cycle, implementing a zero-waste initiative.

In addition to energy efficiency through CFL lighting and limiting water waste, utilizing plant-based biodegradable disposable plastic-ware and working cooperatively with both recycling and local composting services has significantly diminished the Mariners’ ecological footprint.

Although it required extra costs, a financial risk for a baseball franchise whose sole purpose is to win games, mainstreaming and educating fans about composting and recycling has paid huge dividends and inspired Major League Baseball to implement green measures for all 30 teams.

The Mariners are the reason teams in all sports around the continent, from San Diego to Toronto, are trying to watch their habits and their choices when it comes to waste and energy. 

The back story to how the Seattle Mariners became the shining example of a sports franchise going green is quite a recent development.

Even though Seattle has been an environmentally progressive city for decades, until Scott Jenkins became Vice President of the Seattle Mariners in 2006, the Mariners were no more innovative than any other team in dealing with their waste issues.

Jenkins, in charge of ballpark operations, managed to completely restructure the culture of waste throughout the entire franchise.

Jenkins, after seeing the city of Seattle begin to think more ecologically, wanted to be the shining light of the city.

As Jenkins said in a February interview with GoGreenSeattle.com, “As the center of a city, the ballpark has the ability to galvanize fans behind a zero-waste movement and can inspire people to make changes. Furthermore, if the city can see a successful trial, it is a crucial component to moving a city’s entire policy on waste forward.”

The groundwork for the first commercial use of biodegradable products in a major sport stadium started for Scott Jenkins and the Mariners about five years ago. It was a fairly small step, merely putting out hundreds of recycling bins next to garbage cans throughout Safeco Field with the goal to get fans to put compostable materials into clearly marked compost bins.

Organic waste that could be composted, such as leftover hot dogs, pretzels and peanuts would go straight to the local Cedar Grove Composting service. The rest of the trash would end up in the normal garbage can.

The nonorganic trash, comprised of the utensils, the packaging of the food and the leftovers from merchandise, was supposed to just end up in the garbage bin. 

Jenkins believed that fans would separate the forks, straws and the plastic wrapping around so many food products, from the organic waste and reduce their wastefulness.

Seattle, one of the leading cities when it comes to home composting, should have been roused by this dedication to the environment. But, to use baseball terminology, Jenkins struck out with the idea.

The failure to get people to utilize the composting bins was not by a lack of education on the Mariners part. Jenkins understood that not everyone understood the intricacies of composting and recycling, so he placed hundreds of posters up around the stadium above basically every waste receptacle area. 

The poster showed exactly what was compostable (organic material), what was not (plastics and Styrofoam) and where the recyclable bottles were supposed to be placed. Still, the garbage container was unfortunately mostly full of compostable stuff.

So, Jenkins decided to swing for the fences and be bold. Jenkins decided to stop using any item that was not biodegradable, compostable or recyclable. By banning almost all non-compostable items from Safeco Field, Jenkins took away the decision making from fans who failed to learn how to separate their waste properly.

Everything food-related sold at Safeco Field, except for the plastic bottles and potato chip bags, is now compostable. The cups are made from compostable corn resins, while the utensils are made from the leftovers of potatoes.

Styrofoam containers, long believed to be a necessary evil, were replaced with a recycled corrugated paper product.

These changes did cost the Mariners more up front, which was a major risk for Jenkins and his staff because they would certainly lose their job if the initiative failed.

Since the Mariners are a baseball team, their main responsibility is to put the best players on the field to win games, not recycle. The President of the Mariners showed great faith in Jenkins and expected to incur losses.

However, the Mariners immediately made up the cost difference by not having to hire someone to separate the trash, and as they quickly found out it also cost the team less to haul from the ballpark to a compost facility than it does to a traditional landfill.

With an average diversion rate between 2007 and 2010 of over 70 percent, the Mariners were able to save about $70,000 just by recycling and not utilizing a landfill at all.

Before the new compost policy went into effect, the Mariners were recycling about 12% of their trash. Last year, the team was able to recycle as high as 82%. And they didn't stop with recycling.

The Mariners invested $3 million on an energy-saving binge, putting dual-flush toilets in the women's bathroom and low-flow urinals in the men's, cutting water use by 60%. The lighting bill for the parking garages were cut by 70% by putting in fluorescent lights and motion sensors.

The changing of the out-of-town scoreboard to L.E.D. lights saved enough energy to power 100 homes a year. The Mariners have been able to save about $1.2 million since the major shift in 2006, and even in spite of rising utility rates, Jenkins says that they have continued to reduce their operating costs.

Jenkins still had one more task in order to complete his goal: educating fans on the changes being made so they were not perplexed not to see a trash bin.

The posters placed above the bins designated compostable material vs. recyclable material, but in order to get fans to not just leave their trash behind, the Mariners got proactive and creative.

To raise awareness about not just recycling and composting in the ballpark, the Mariners used many mediums to enact change.

Artwork and signs were placed all around the seating areas, training videos about home composting were played in between innings and the Mariners hired two “superheroes” in Kid Compost and Captain Plastic to connect children to environmental education through spreading the word and recycling during games.

Customer service employees and ushers were also educated in how to instruct fans in their waste disposal choices, making sure every person in the ballpark knew about the progressive changes transpiring while baseball was being played.

The overhaul of the waste disposal system was not enough for the Mariners, as they took measures to eliminate the creation of waste wherever possible. Jenkins managed to eliminate the packaging for promotional items, which was usually plastic wrapping or unnecessary paper product.

Jenkins left no stone unturned, also changing the approach of employees and office workers.

By switching to china and silverware for catered events and eliminating both the use of plastic bottled water and disposable coffee cups by giving all administrative employees hygienic refillable bottles and coffee mugs, waste creation was mitigated significantly.

Office workers went to double-sided copies only, and for the grounds crew, all of the clippings from the field were merely transferred to the compost pile.

Even further, the Mariners establish a grey water system that recycled municipal wastewater and filtered through an internal system where it could be later used to water the field.

Since the Mariners play 81 home games a year, the field must be watered and manicured daily, and now it is done in the most ecologically sound way possible.

For the Mariners, they were quite lucky to find an industrial size composter willing to take on a client that produced over 400 tons of waste a year.

Recognizing that between all of the games and the events at Safeco Field, about 5 million people utilize the facility in a given year, it is still a fairly responsible number even though it is so big.

Cedar Grove and the Mariners also have a partnership in which Cedar Grove markets their products through giveaway days at the stadium.

To a certain extent, a baseball stadium can never be truly zero-waste. However, with aggressive measures to ban plastic ware and replace it with Bioplastics from food waste, the ecological footprint of our luxury lifestyle would significantly decrease.

Going to events and seeing the bags of trash afterwards would not be such a depressing thought if the used disposable plastic ware were destined for complete compost and eventual return of all materials to soil.

Soon perhaps all city events will be mandated to use biodegradables, and the Mariners can lead the way in changing public policy. With other teams like the Minnesota Twins and San Francisco Giants pushing environmentally-friendly choices and taking huge steps in their own infrastrcture, the movement is growing across the nation. 

The transformation of the waste cycle is a huge step, and has already been proven to be successful with the Seattle Mariners, but in order to live sustainably and fight the environmental issues putting the planet in peril in the coming generations, we must hit a home run with new technology and a regulatory system that is determined to pitch an environmentally perfect game.