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Major League Impact: Baseball Goes Green

by Brita Belli

When it comes to green initiatives, Major League Baseball is leagues ahead of other sports.

Three years ago, they launched an environmental data collection system known as the MLB Green Track system in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) which allows teams to crunch numbers related to stadium energy use, water use, waste and paper use. The data collection is now underway at most major league stadiums.

Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, an NRDC senior scientist and director of the organization’s Sports Greening Project, says this effort is not about teams proving which one is “greenest,” and that the data may never go public. “This is giving information and tools to individual stadium operators to help them assess their own operations,” he says. “Awareness is the first step in healing.”

Baseball is the first professional sports league to implement environmental data collection.

Scott Jenkins, vice president of ballpark operations for the Seattle Mariners, says tracking waste and energy use has already led to major improvements. Many stadiums have cut utility use by 20-30 percent, he says, adding that “the highest recycling rate in major league baseball four years ago was somewhere around 50 percent. Today we have four teams recycling over 70 percent. This wouldn’t have happened without MLB taking the lead to benchmark performance and share best practices among teams. We love to compete in our industry and this adds another dimension to the way we run our ballparks.”

MLB teams were the first to embrace environmental initiatives of all kinds under the NRDC’s tutelage, from installing solar panels and reducing water waste to increasing recycling. Hershkowitz said when he sent a letter to MLB Commissioner Bud Selig in 2005, he heard back within two weeks and was invited to meet with him.

“Professional baseball was the first league to launch a greening collaboration with NRDC,” says Hershkowitz. “They were named the most advanced league in terms of breadth of team participation. They are the most advanced league in terms of measurement of environmental impacts. They green all their jewel events—the World Series and the All Star Game. And Major League Baseball shows public service announcements that NRDC produced at the World Series and the All Star Game.”

Many of the stadium initiatives may not be immediately visible to fans, but the cumulative effect of these steps has had a major impact.

Just by switching their scoreboard from incandescent bulbs to LEDs, the Seattle Mariners reduced energy costs by $50,000 a year—they had lowered the scoreboard’s electricity consumption by over 90 percent. The team also cut back Safeco Field’s natural gas use by 66 percent, electricity consumption by 30 percent and water use by 15 percent between 2006 and 2009. They are now aiming to be a zero waste stadium, and with a recycling rate of 82 percent, are closing in on that goal.

Jenkins says, “The big revelation came three years ago when we switched to compostable serviceware for almost all of our food and beverage operation. Last year, over half of all waste generated at the ballpark was composted. A mind shift toward zero waste was critical in changing the way we look at the waste stream. The trash room is now called the recycling center and we are looking for ways to achieve a 90 percent recycling rate [this season].”

The Mariners have partnered with BASF this season for Sustainable Saturdays, which includes, on September 1, handing out peanuts in BASF’s new compostable packaging. The team has saved more than $1 million in utility costs from its greening efforts.

Several stadiums have achieved certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. There’s the Washington Nationals, whose National Park was finished in 2008. The stadium—featuring 95 percent recycled content—is built on a former brownfield site, with a green roof and an intricate water filtration system designed to protect the nearby Anacostia River.

The Twins Target Field also has Silver LEED certification, and faced similar challenges in building on formerly contaminated land in downtown Minneapolis. They tackled water use with a Rain Water Recycle System that allowed them to capture, purify and reuse more than 686,360 gallons of rainwater in 2011. The recycled rainwater is primarily used to hose down seats.

Eight teams have installed solar panels at their fields: the San Francisco Giants, Colorado Rockies, Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, Arizona Diamondbacks, St. Louis Cardinals, Kansas City Royals, and Seattle Mariners. The Red Sox were the first team to unveil solar thermal panels in 2008, which replace 37 percent of gas needed to heat the stadium’s water, and prevent the release of 18 tons of CO2 emissions each year. Last April, St. Louis Cardinals’ Busch Stadium installed 106 solar panels that produce 32,000 kWh of electricity per year, enough to cook four million hot dogs. And just this season, the Mariners’ Safeco Field began featuring Panasonic HIT Double solar panels, which can absorb energy from both their top and bottom sides.

“We have 168 panels on top of our pedestrian bridge that connects our parking garage to Safeco Field,” Jenkins says. “We’ll produce about 40,000 kilowatt hours per year, which will provide about 12 percent of the annual power we use in our parking garage.” 

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Indians’ Progressive Field unveiled a corkscrew-shaped wind turbine this spring, designed with the input of Cleveland State University’s Fenn College of Engineering. The turbine is expected to generate 40,000 kWh per year of power.

Hershkowitz says baseball is uniquely positioned to take a leadership role in making green efforts mainstream. “It is a politically neutral nonpartisan organization,” he says. “There’s probably no other organization in the world that can, in a nonpartisan nature, address environmental issues more legitimately than Major League Baseball.”

Brita Belli is the editor of E - The Environmental Magazine, the largest independent magazine dedicated to green issues, and the author of The Autism Puzzle: Connecting the Dots Between Environmental Toxins and Rising Autism Rates.

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