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Going green

Madeleine Cummings examines efforts to lower the environmental impact of sports

A typical Montreal Canadiens fan parks their car outside the Bell Centre at 6:30 p.m., orders a couple of beers, watches the game, discards their waste, and then gets back on the highway. From an environmental standpoint, one fan’s half-litre of gas and handful of plastic garbage isn’t a big deal. The problem, of course, is that there are many Canadiens fans. The Bell Centre, with the highest capacity of any NHL arena, can seat over 21,000 of them on any given night. Individual actions add up, and the environment suffers.

It’s not surprising that leagues and teams have begun to recognize the impact their businesses have on the environment, or that they’ve decided to do something about it. Implementing eco-friendly policies allows companies to cut costs and boast about it – going green has become one of the defining trends of our generation, and professional sports franchises are jumping on the bandwagon.

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an American organization dedicated to sustainability and combating climate change. With 1.3 million members and activists around the world, NRDC tackles environmental issues of all kinds, including the impact that the professional sports industry has on the environment.

According to their website, the NRDC aims to educate teams and leagues about the effects that they have on the environment, to help them make changes, and to spread awareness on the importance of environmental issues throughout the industry. The NRDC’s first collaboration with professional sports began in 2004 with Major League Baseball. The success of this partnership led other professional leagues to approach the organization. Today, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, Major League Soccer, the National Football League, and the U.S. Tennis Association have all partnered with NRDC, hoping to “go green.”

Jessica Esposito, a research fellow at the NRDC, defines the “greening” process as, “a colloquial way of saying we are working to reduce an organization’s environmental impacts by reviewing and improving their supply chain and day-to-day operations.” She stresses that discovering a team’s impact is the first step in the process. “When working with teams, leagues, and events,” said Esposito, “we always convey that the first step to improving your operations is identifying your impacts and collecting baseline data on your operations – data on your energy use, water use, waste diversion, purchasing, et cetera – so you can assess your current practices and procurement and develop measurable goals to reduce your impacts.”

Energy audits at facilities can provide a team with the data it needs to start becoming more efficient. MLB has successfully created software that collects and analyzes league-wide data, measuring things such as energy and water consumption, and paper usage. It is the first and only professional league to complete such a project, but other leagues are working to develop similar systems.

Because leagues and teams differ in the number of spectators they cater to, and the ways in which their businesses operate, it’s difficult to create general industry regulations or come up with one policy that works for all. Once a team is aware of its impact, it can then turn to the NRDC Greening Advisor – a customized environmental resource guide, which can be found online. The guide provides stadium operators and team representatives with environmental advice that is tailored to their sport and location, and includes case studies and sample policies.

“Working with sports organizations is a powerful way for the NRDC to mobilize influential cultural forces in our society to promote environmentalism,” said Esposito. “While less than 20 per cent of the population pays attention to science – including the science related to global warming – more than half the population says it regularly pays attention to sports.”

Because of its broad appeal, professional sports teams have a tremendous opportunity: to persuade fans that environmental issues are important, and to encourage fans to make environmentally-conscious decisions at the stadium, at the arena, and at home.

The Vancouver Canucks are the only Canadian team involved with the NRDC, but other teams across the country have made considerable and comparable efforts to reduce their impact on the environment. The Canadiens have been working on an ambitious project – now called The Goal is Green!  – since May 2007, and hope that the initiative will position them at the forefront of the industry’s “greening” efforts.

The Canadiens, working with Société de Transport de Montréal, now offer a shuttle bus service between the Bell Centre and the West Island for each home game. The bus makes only three stops (in Dorval, Pointe Claire, and Fairview) and the cost is normal bus fare – $3.00.

The Bell Centre also now recycles 85 per cent of its residual waste and has met International Organization for Standardization ISO 14001 standards – for planning and carrying out environmental management systems, Ici on Recycle Level 3 recognition from the Quebec government, and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for existing buildings. The latter is a significant achievement considering the Bell Centre had to meet 50 LEED criteria in order to receive this certification. After reducing its carbon gas emissions, installing more efficient toilets, and upgrading its recycling program, the Bell Centre can proudly call itself 35 per cent more efficient than most similarly sized sports facilities.

The Air Canada Centre in Toronto has invested $5 million as part of an environmental initiative that includes waste diversion and a complete re-engineering of the facility’s mechanical and electrical operations.

Another aspect that activists are addressing in sports is the unavoidably frequent travel of any professional athlete. To combat NHL athletes’ high level of carbon emissions, the David Suzuki Foundation has organized the National Hockey League Players’ Association Carbon Neutral Challenge – a competition that encourages players to purchase emission-neutralizing carbon offsets. Robyn Regehr of the Calgary Flames was one of the first NHL players to sign up. Today, he’s joined by over 500 other NHL athletes.

Obviously, some efforts are more long-term and substantive than others. Distributing coupons for the Green Living Show in Toronto during a Maple Leafs home game isn’t going to make a staggering impact. Neither is the Canadiens’ allocation of three prime parking spots at the Bell Centre for hybrid cars. But we’re beginning to see leagues dedicating time and money to address problems of sustainability, and develop programs to deal with these problems.

Esposito is confident that pro sports can play an influential role in the process of saving our environment. “By harnessing the unparalleled visibility of professional sports in the service of ecological progress, we are shifting the debate within the industrial and political sectors away from whether or not global warming and other ecological issues are real threats, and toward implementation of real and effective solutions.”