The US Open: Now 100% Wind Powered & Recycled - Locally Grown and Composted Too

All photos: Matthew McDermott

The US Open is pretty staggering in scale when it comes to one-a-year sporting events. Over 700,000 people attend over the tennis tournament's two weeks at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York. So when an opportunity to see how the USTA, working in conjunction with NRDC, has ramped up their green efforts this year I jumped at the opportunity. Overall it's really an impressive effort and commitment encompassing increased recycling and composting efforts, renewable energy offsets, transportation, food service and merchandising. Here are the details:
Recycling Covers 100% of Facility Space

After a pilot program in 2008 which covered 15% of the the Tennis Center's grounds, recycling efforts have expanded in 2009 to cover 100% of the facility's space.

To enable this some $200,000 was spent this year to ensure that wherever there is a trash bin, a recycling bin is right alongside it -- a decision made based on last year's pilot program experience, during which consultants Environmental Research Management studied how tournament attendees actually used then available recycling facilities.

As far as how much waste actually makes it into the recycling bins: This won't be actually known in detail until after the tournament is over and an audit completed.

Tennis Ball Cans = Recycling Nightmare

Unless you're involved intimately with recycling, the average tennis ball can -- plastic sleeve, metal ring, aluminum pull-top, and plastic cover -- probably seems pretty innocuous. It's not. That little metal ring at the top makes it incredibly hard to recycle using ordinary methods.

In fact, this really presented the USTA with a problem. Over the US Open itself and the qualifying rounds preceding it somewhere between 17,000-20,000 cans of tennis balls are used.

The balls themselves (up to 60,000 of them) can be reused post-match at recreational tennis facilities for a while, and then reused again for myriad non-sporting uses. But the cans remain.

Recyclers initially said it couldn't be done, efficiently removing the metal rim from the plastic sleeve -- which incidentally has been redesigned by Wilson and made with 25-30% post-consumer recycled plastic.

Finally, however, Sims Recycling Solutions came up with, urr, a solution to the little metal rim and all the tennis ball cans used during the tournament are now collected and recycled.

Renewable Energy Credits Purchased for All Electricity Use
Though recycling is really the public face of the Open's green efforts, in terms of environmental impact, its energy usage perhaps has far greater impact -- USTA Senior Director of Corporate Communications & chair of green initiatives, Rita Garza says approximately 2000 MWh of electricity are used during the qualifying matches and tournament itself. Efficiency efforts have knocked that down 4% over the past 4-5 years, but it's still a lot of power.

Which makes it a decidedly good thing that renewable energy certificates have been bought for all of that electricity usage. Constellation Energy has supplied to RECs (100% wind power) and, good financial news for the USTA, supplied them at no premium over normal electricity rates.

That last part may not seem like a big deal, put when you're purchasing that much electricity over such a short period of time, that small premium paid for green power can add up. Quick back of the napkin math shows that the tournament saved about $20,000 by paying their normal electricity rate for wind power.


Restaurant Composting, Recycled Paper Products, More
Now this is a pretty startling stat: 2.4 million napkins are used over the course of the tournament and in 2007 all of those were made from virgin paper. In 2009, however, things have changed. Now all these napkins contain 90% post-consumer content.

Behind the scenes, in 2009 a composting pilot program has been launched in the two largest of the Levy Restaurants-run kitchens at the Open. Both compostable pre- and post-table waste is gathered in 65-gallon bins and taken offsite daily. It's expected that this will be expanded to four kitchens in 2010.

First steps are being taken to incorporate more local produce as well: This year about 10% of produce has been sourced locally. Considering the number of meals made over the tournament -- unlike other sporting events, the US Open is an all day affair, with fans often attending through two or three meals -- this is an very important step.

Public Transportation + Hybrid Player Transport
Transport has not be neglected: In 2009, the US Open worked with New York's MTA to increase the number of trains heading out to the tournament as well as increase public outreach and education.

In terms of getting players to their matches, this year 52% of player transport vehicles are hybrids -- Lexus hybrid SUVs in fact, which while a definite improvement over their non-hybrid cousins and the average New York taxi, aren't exactly hyper-efficient vehicles compared to other hybrids on the market. All in all, a good effort there, nitpicking aside.

Organic T-Shirts + Recycled Tote Bags
Now, not all of the merchandise available at the tournament is eco-friendly, but there are now organic options available, in the form of a Venus Williams designed organic cotton/recycled polyester t-shirt.

US Open tote bags made from recycled materials are also available -- this part being pushed on by the efforts of ban-the-plastic-bag evangelist Billie Jean King.

OK, so probably more could be done here too, but some good first steps nonetheless.

"You Can't Force Values on People"
The bigger thing in all this really is leading by example: Rita Garza described the greening of the US Open as a kind of evolutionary change, adding that "you can't force your values on people, you have to lead by example." And that's obviously the next step in all this, when it comes to greening tennis more broadly -- expanding the efforts begun at the Open to other tournaments, clubs and public courts across the country.

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Tags: New York City | Recycling | Renewable Energy | Sports | United States | Wind Power