On February 4, over 66,000 people will stream into U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis for Super Bowl 2018, trailing in their wake countless hot dogs, beer, and a burger named after the local 612 area code.
For decades, the Super Bowl has existed at the apex of brawny Americanism. Everything–from the food to the game run time–is about excess. But underneath all of the pageantry, there is a lot of waste: around 40 tons of it.
In previous years, the majority of waste generated by the Super Bowl crowd would end up in landfill. But this year, the NFL, along with U.S. Bank Stadium, the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, food service provider Aramark, and sponsoring company PepsiCo are teaming up in an attempt to host the first-ever zero-waste Super Bowl.
It’ll be a steep undertaking. The coalition began planning for this effort last summer, and the aim is for around 90% of the waste, like food containers and paper, to be either recycled or composted. The remaining non-recyclable plastics will be carted to a local waste-to-energy incinerator.
To get the initiative, called Rush2Recycle, up and operating on game day, the sponsoring companies hired around 200 local students who, along with a team of volunteers from PepsiCo, will serve as project ambassadors at the stadium; they’ll be stationed around bins, informing visitors as to what can be composted, recycled, or thrown in the trash. “Some of the tactics we’re employing reflect tactics that are needed in the U.S. in general,” says Roberta Barbieri, PepsiCo’s VP of global water and environmental solutions. “You need proper infrastructure, which is a fancy way of saying you need the right bins, and you need proper signage and education.” That infrastructure, along with the paid student ambassadors, made up the bulk of the cost for the initiative, which PepsiCo declined to make public.
Making sure those extra bins will actually be filled required other tweaks throughout the stadium. Aramark, in advance of the game, converted over 70 different products–from draft beer cups, to nacho trays, to portion cups for cheese sauce–to compostable versions made by Eco-Products. (This will be, for instance, the first Super Bowl to feature peanuts sold in compostable bags.) The Rush2Recycle team has also been running a social media campaign in advance of the game, and videos with recycling tips will air during the Super Bowl; former NFL player and Rush2Recycle ambassador Hines Ward will rally fans and hand out prizes throughout.
While certainly an improvement over landfill-inundating Super Bowls of the past, this year’s initiative is still not emissions-free: Waste-to-energy incinerators can be an iffy solve for non-recyclable plastics, because the carbon emissions from their operations still damage the climate (still, though, it’s an improvement over landfill). And instead of partnering with local community gardens or organizations that could benefit from direct donations of compost (the Twin Cities have seen community gardens triple in the past few years), food scraps and compostables will be carted to an industrial composting site. However, leftover food and bulk ingredients will be carted to Second Harvest Heartland, a food bank in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area that distributes to local pantries and kitchens.
And fundamentally, if the defining all-American event can embrace composting and recycling, perhaps it will set a new bar for the zero-waste effort across the country.