Let’s just get this out of the way right now: any 14-day event that involves hundreds of thousands of hungry and thirsty people cramming into a sports center to watch a game that uses intense lighting, giant television screens, and a blaring PA system is going to have an inherent level of unsustainability built into it. That being said, the U.S. Open and the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center are doing a bang-up job of trying.
The US Open launched a comprehensive sustainability plan last year, hiring an environmental consultant, partnering with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and starting up a 16-person task force along the way. Last year was a chance for the USTA to test-drive the initiatives that are coming out in full force over the next two weeks. Among the new initiatives: the recycling of all 20,000 tennis cans and 60,000 balls used in the tournament, 2,000 megawatts worth of renewable energy certificates from wind farms, biodegradable utensils, plates, and cups, a composting pilot project, a hybrid transportation fleet for players, and concessionaire food from local farms. Over the long term, the USTA hopes to save on energy costs.
Some of these initiatives seem obvious–why wasn’t the USTA always recycling tennis ball cans?–but more work went into them than you might expect. “Before 2008, tennis ball cans were trashed,” explained Rita Garza, the Director of Public Relations for USTA Pro Tennis. “That’s because the can alone is recyclable, but it’s got this little metal rim on it so you can’t recycle it. It stalled us because we didn’t want to throw it in the trash, so we talked to multiple recycling places and the NRDC and found that we can cut off the rim at this one facility (Sims Group) and recycle the remaining plastic. It took about four months to solve that.”
And since the US Open attracts 700,000 people during its yearly run, the USTA has the opportunity to influence practices of its suppliers as well. Garza claims, for example, that Levy (the US Open’s concessionaire) learned alot from the USTA’s requests for local food and biodegradable earthware. “The NRDC helped us understand how much we influence,” Garza explained.
Of course, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. In the future, the USTA hopes to have the entire player transportation fleet made up of hybrid vehicles, and the composting pilot program will likely be expanded next year. Perhaps the biggest problem is the massive amount of virgin rubber used in tennis ball production. But judging by the USTA’s influence and willingness to wield that influence for good, that might change soon. “It’s a learning experience,” Garza said.