Sports stadiums may be ideal for experimenting with sustainable food service, recycling, and composting programs. Seattle’s Lumen Field is committed to minimizing its environmental impact. It extends that promise to fans who attend games and concerts, diverting an average of 90% of waste at the venue from landfills. Imagine if every local restaurant could promise the same results.
Lumen Field hosts hundreds of large and small events each year. This summer, it broke attendance records when Ed Sheeran performed for 77,286 fans, beating Taylor Swift’s mark of 72,171 fans earlier in the summer. The Swifties produced seismic tremors equivalent to a 2.3 magnitude earthquake as they danced along with her music. With more than two million visitors annually, the stadium relies on carefully selected concessions packaging, recycling bins, and innovative processes to collect, sort, and send as much material as possible for reuse, recycling, and composting.
“We have a Seahawks game on Sunday,” Christy Briggs, Logistics and Sustainability Manager at First & Goal Incorporated, who manages Lumen Field’s recycling and other sustainability programs. “It’s our home opener and overnight we are turning the building over to get ready for Beyonce to move into the building.”
Technology also helps track what is used and recycled or composted inside the stadium. Lumen Field is part of the Green Sports Alliance’s Play to Zero initiative, which is helping more than 300 member facilities integrate measurement practices that can identify gaps in collection and processing to reduce waste.
Because Lumen Field is a tightly controlled space — security concerns limit items allowed in — fans can leave everything they purchased to eat during a game under their seat when they go. And the lion’s share of the waste left will be collected, sorted, and processed. However, fans may arrive with unrecyclable materials. After Taylor Swift’s shows, for example, Lumen Field collected feather boas and beads that had to go to landfill.
The stadium has invested heavily in sustainable operations. It sources all its janitorial supplies from Green Seal-certified companies and buys as much food as possible from local farmers, donating tons of unconsumed food to the community.
Curated Foodservice and Compostable Packaging
Lumen Field’s process begins with selecting the cups and packaging used in its concession stands.
Over a decade ago, the stadium adopted fully compostable cups for soft drinks and beer. Food service packaging is also chosen for compostability. Beverages in aluminum cans are collected in bins with openings that allow only the cans and bottles, not cups, to fit in. These steps produce pre-sorted bags that can be quickly sent to recycling without additional sorting.
Look at waste bins next time you visit a quick-service restaurant. Do they allow the mixing of items? Tossing everything in one bin may seem convenient, but Lumen Field’s example suggests a better way. Point out to the manager that by limiting what goes in each compartment, the restaurant can efficiently capture and process food waste, cups, utensils, and packaging.
With almost total control over what comes in, Lumen Field has been able to focus on improving its process. When new sustainable options come along, they may not fit into the infrastructure built to handle previous packaging choices.
“[When] the aluminum cup came onto the scene,” Briggs said. “But for me, our compost cup was better than the aluminum cup. And that’s not saying the aluminum cup was bad. It’s just that or our solution, it would have really kind of been almost a backward proposition.”
However, aluminum cups are the better choice for other stadiums without access to commercial composting services than unrecyclable plastic cups. Earlier food service choices do not limit what Briggs’ team will consider. New options must fit into its evolving strategy. For example, the music venue at Lumen Field, the WAMU Theater, has begun testing reusable beverage cups.
Mighty Mini MRF
Having fans do some sorting using bins designed to limit what goes in is a crucial step, but additional sorting is required. Unrecyclable packaging, like chip bags, can slip in.
“90% of [our waste] is compostable,” Brings said. “But you’ve got those chip bags, you’ve got those, but instead of putting three cans out there, we’re going to eventually then have to sort and open those bags.”
Following a decline in recovery rates in 2019 and during COVID, Briggs’ team, in collaboration with Reno, Nevada-based Waste Xperts, designed and tested a MRFI, or mini materials recovery facility sorting system, that operates onsite at Lumen Field after big events.
Before the MRFI, bags were ripped open and sorted on large tables, which reduced recovery rates. For instance, some food and liquid waste was lost in the process. The new system uses a conveyor belt on which materials are dumped and sorted to remove contamination like chip bags. Liquid waste is also collected below the belt.
The MRFI flattens the waste, which passes by four to six sorters who look for exceptions to what can be composted, removing recyclables and items that must be sent to a landfill. Unlike a municipal MRF, where a wide range of materials collected at curbside must be sorted, the Lumen Field system focuses on negative sorting. Not much needs to be removed — most of the material is food waste and compostable packaging chosen for use in concession stands — so the work goes quickly. Now, Lumen Field can manage waste created by back-to-back events.
“[The mini MRF] also cleaned up the process,” said Briggs, thinking ahead to the next improvement her team is seeking to make. “The garbage is dumped it sorted it all the liquid kind of drains off and we’ve got bins underneath that collect it. Our next step is hoping to try to find a way to take that and turn it into energy. “
The conveyor belt system has made the job more enjoyable, resulting in better employee retention. Some people who previously quit the unpleasant sorting work came back and stayed after using the MRFI.
Walking the Talk
“Here’s a very counterintuitive, very odd thing. [We urge fans to] leave your garbage where you’re at,” Briggs said. “That makes it at least twice as fast to clean up and sort.”
In addition to the sorting performed by fans at the recycling and waste bins, Lumen Field staff make three passes through the stadium after a game or show. They pick up the recyclables, next food waste and compostables, then trash, eliminating the need for additional sorting.
Following almost 20 years of progress at Lumen Field, Briggs said there is still work to do to reduce the stadium’s environmental impact. Nearly 95% of incandescent lighting has been converted to LED. However, the stadium still needs to improve its measurement of its Scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions associated with fan travel, among other issues. With 90% of its waste circular already, Briggs said the organization will continue to search for composable or recyclable alternatives to its remaining waste.
Labeling an item “recyclable” or making a recycling bin available without following through on the promise to sort and send the material for processing has become too familiar an experience. Lumen Field delivers on its promise to make a visit as sustainable as possible.