News & Opinion

All thrills, no landfills: Phoenix cleans up

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – In 2015, when Francesco Molinari aced the famed 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale, the reputed "Greatest Show on Grass" became the greatest show of trash. A sea of beer cups and hot dog wrappers, among other less sundry items, littered the green and surrounding bunkers, delaying play for more than 15 minutes while the garbage was collected. 

Not a good look unless, of course, your tournament title sponsor is in the trash-removal business. On the surface, Waste Management's involvement in the Phoenix Open, a tournament that dates to 1932, is dubious at best, but the company has used its sponsorship (now in its ninth year and first of a 10-year deal) as a global platform for highlighting its sustainability initiatives and environmental-services businesses.

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PHOTO BY ADAM SCHUPAK
At the Zero Waste Station, fans can spin the sustainability wheel, answer recycling and compost questions and win prizes. 

PHOTO BY ADAM SCHUPAK
At the Zero Waste Station, fans can spin the sustainability wheel, answer recycling and compost questions and win prizes. 

Last year, more than 200,000 fans came out to TPC Scottsdale for Saturday's third round, helping set a PGA Tour weekly attendance record at 655,434. With a forecast of sunshine and temperatures in the low 80s, that mark could fall this week (tee times: http://bit.ly/2nodDe6). Regardless, all those people make for a lot of waste.  

And yet, for five straight years, the Waste Management Phoenix Open has been a zero-waste event, meaning nothing from the tournament has gone to a landfill during that stretch. That's nearly 5 million pounds of material that either has been recycled, composted, reused, donated or used to create energy. The Golf Environment Organization Foundation, based in Scotland, recently named the tournament the first sporting event in the world to be “GEO certified." This week, Waste Management looks to improve on its trailblazing ways of thinking green. 

“We will look to further reduce the tournament’s greenhouse-gas emissions through scrim donations and efficiencies during setup and teardown," said Michele Grossman, managing principal of sustainability services for Waste Management. "In addition, we have expanded our water-conservation efforts through additional gray-water collection points and are powering the tournament with 100 percent renewable energy.”

The Phoenix Open has become the model on how to plan and execute a sustainable sports event. Waste Management has surveyed PGA Tour events on their sustainability efforts and offered a free assessment, consisting of water, energy and waste. Many officials from other golf tournaments, sporting events and large-scale events such as concerts are attending the WMPO or contacting Waste Management to find out how they can pull off a sustainable event. On Thursday, the company is expected to host a day-long sustainability forum, with experts in the field among the speakers. The St. Louis Cardinals are sending a representative, and the Boston Red Sox and Seattle Seahawks have participated in the past. 

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PHOTO BY ADAM SCHUPAK
Fans at the Waste Management Phoenix Open have only two choices for their trash. 

PHOTO BY ADAM SCHUPAK
Fans at the Waste Management Phoenix Open have only two choices for their trash. 

It is a story that goes well beyond golf and this week's tournament in suburban Phoenix. On Sunday, the NFL and organizers in Minneapolis will attempt to pull off the first zero-waste Super Bowl.  

Another sports team that has benefited from the WMPO’s best practices is the Arizona Diamondbacks. The baseball team registered a 22 percent decrease in waste sent to landfill, and more than 100 percent improvement in waste diversion year-over-year, according to Graham Rossini, vice president of special projects and fan experience for the Diamondbacks. It also made a concerted effort at Chase Field to remove paper towels at restrooms and elsewhere in the ballpark, relying instead on electric hand dryers. In one year, it kept 360 miles of paper towels out of the waste stream. 

"That's basically taking the route from Phoenix to Reno, Nev., where we have a Triple-A affiliate," Rossini said. "When you can provide that type of context to the savings, it makes it more palatable, relatable and impactful."

At the WMPO, there are no trash cans. Waste Management makes it simple for attendees to do their part by providing only two options: recycling or compost bins. Vendors are contractually obligated to use certain materials and restrict items that can't be recycled or composted. Hand-washing stations use hand sanitizer instead of water. Since 2011, more than 31,000 gallons of water from cooking and cleaning have been reused in the portable toilets. The tournament's water campaign, in its fourth year, is expected to restore more than 200 million gallons of freshwater to ecosystems across Arizona.

The tournament will again purchase 100 percent renewable energy from the local utility company, which powers all generators plugged into the grid, most of the golf cart fleet, and other power needs during the tournament. The sun continues to be a source of power for compactors and some of the light fixtures around the course.

It takes a village to achieve the world's largest zero-waste event. Staff ambassadors and volunteers stand by receptacles to help spectators understand how to dispose of their trash and change fan behavior. UL, which brings transparency to the green marketplace, has provided a third-party verification of the tournament’s waste diversion since 2013. 

In short, Waste Management has the waste issue figured out in Phoenix. Now, if it could just do something about all the wasted fans at No. 16.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak