In 2019, Subaru Park, home to the Philadelphia Union soccer team, produced more than 357,000 pounds of waste. Of that, just 40,000 was diverted to recycling—meaning that the remaining 317,000 pounds of waste went into landfills, which are detrimental to the atmosphere, producing highly toxic chemical runoffs and emissions of methane, a gas more destructive than carbon dioxide.
But by the end of this year’s Major League Soccer season, the stadium plans to divert 100% of its waste from landfills. For the past year, Subaru and the Philadelphia Union, which kicked off its first game of the 2021 season in April against Columbus Crew, have been working on ways to make Subaru Park the first “zero landfill” MLS stadium in the country. To achieve that by December, the park is changing the kinds of containers they give out to fans, as well as its waste streams, to increase the potential for recycling. It’s also raising awareness for fans on how to best dispose of materials.
The jump from diverting 11% of trash to a full 100% of that annual 357,000 pounds of waste is huge. (In a very Philly-centric analogy, that total amount of waste is equivalent to a cheesesteak 50 miles long and 19 miles high, according to Subaru.) But the car company has experience in this realm: Since 2004, all the Subaru factories in the world (one in Indiana and five in Japan) have been zero-landfill, even as they manufacture 1.1 million vehicles per year. “It’s really a remarkable environmental effort,” says Alan Bethke, a senior VP of marketing for Subaru of America.
Because of this experience, Bethke says Subaru has trained 800 companies at its Indiana plant on zero-landfill best practices. Now, it’s taking the effort to Philadelphia’s MLS stadium, where it’s working not only with the owners and managers but also with the Union’s recycling partners and with each on-site concessionaire, including local Philly favorites such as Chickie’s and Pete’s, Chank’s Pizza Cones, and Philly Pretzel Factory.
“A lot of what some of the food and beverage providers would have normally brought in, we have completely changed that,” Bethke says. Already, vendors have been directed to cut out items that cannot be recycled, such as shrink-wrap. The items they give out to guests will be as recyclable as possible, including plastic bottles, cups, containers, and plates. Subaru will separate the waste into three different streams and has purchased 111 new bins for the effort. One set of bins is for the recycling of plastics and metals. (Of course, not everything that we intend to be recycled is actually recycled, but reuse is difficult in sports venues—fans can’t bring reusable cups onto the grounds for security reasons—so Subaru is focusing on reducing and recycling.)
The second set of bins is for food composting, and the third is for “miscellaneous” items—which are the 10% of items that still cannot be recycled, such as utensils, potato chip bags, condiment packaging, and paper towels from the bathrooms. These will be sent to one of the Union’s environmental partners, Covanta, a waste-to-energy company, which will incinerate the garbage to create steam and generate electricity for the Philadelphia area. (Covanta’s overall yearly waste-to-energy facilities power a million homes.)
The partnership will also educate fans, via new signs, videos, and messaging, to help them dispose of trash correctly. Volunteers, called Subaru Ambassadors (who may be Subaru car owners or employees) will be on-site to help direct fans to the correct bins. This effort, Bethke says, is important not just for disposal best practices but also for getting the fans’ buy-in, to get them to be a part of the community initiative.
If this happens, the Union will be the first MLS team to divert every piece of its waste. It won’t be the first U.S. sports team to do so: In 2012, Ohio State’s college football stadium became the biggest zero-landfill stadium in the U.S., and nearby Lincoln Financial Field, home to the Philadelphia Eagles, now diverts 99% of its trash. The cost and time investment may be stopping others: Bethke says there are unavoidable resources needed for bins, signs, logistics, and personnel. “We’re looking at the bigger picture,” he says. “That’s worth it, to keep 350,000 pounds of trash out of the ground.”