Students help bring sustainability to Chicago’s professional sports

In addition to donning team colors, sports stadiums in Chicago will become ‘greened’ as part of the Sustainable Chicago Sports Project, an environmental conservation effort led by the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition, the city of Chicago and the University of Chicago.

The project will engage fans, sports teams and venues through a large-scale engagement campaign that will run during April, using the hashtag #greenchisports on social media and posters on the CTA and in transit stations. In addition, the University will host a green sports event in May and share results at the Green Sports Alliance Annual Summit at McCormick Place this June.

The project aims to identify and implement the best sustainability practices for all teams and stadiums in Chicago’s sports industry—practices such as composting, recycling water, donating food waste and switching stadium lighting to LED lights.

In fact, most teams and stadiums already have implemented wide-ranging sustainability programs. The Chicago White Sox, for example, have a permeable parking lot to divert storm water and have made food service operations more sustainable, with their partners Levy Restaurants and Delaware North Sportservice, by recycling fryer oil and donating leftover food.

Soldier Field, which was the first football stadium to receive LEED-EB—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-Existing Building—certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, has a comprehensive recycling and waste diversion program and is currently looking into composting food waste.

“The project is a great benefit to Soldier Field, and I hope it leads to new insight and new techniques that we can bring to the table in terms of green technology,” said Bill Shaw, director of operations at Soldier Field. “I’m very excited for Green Sports Alliance to come to Chicago.”

The project helps by measuring the impact of sustainability programs, packaging them in a way that the public can understand and coming up with new recommendations. Leading the research branch of the project is Sabina Shaikh, lecturer in the College and director of UChicago’s Environment, Agriculture and Food Working Group.

Student engagement

“We’re on board to provide research on the knowledge and preferences of sports fans, evaluation of sustainability practices within sports and the packaging of information for use in the fan engagement campaign and by the teams themselves,” she said. “The students’ contributions are essential to the overall project, and their level of engagement has been very high.”

UChicago has a two-quarter practicum course in the environmental studies and public policy programs, in which 30 students have been documenting details on every sports team in all of the major leagues in the United States. Additionally, with support from the UChicago Program on Global Environment, students from the Green Economics Group and Sports Business Club student organizations are collecting baseline data in Chicago’s stadiums and arenas.

Students track historic and current energy use, water use, electricity use and waste volume to find trends in the data and compare those trends to other teams and cities. The goal is to use these data sources to measure the impact of new sustainability practices for each of the teams and venues, in order to make recommendations going forward.

“What’s exciting to me is how many students have been involved and the support from the environmental studies and public policy programs on fostering a study that’s much different from classroom-type learning,” said Shaikh. “Some of the students are big sports fans, while others are not, but they know something about sustainability, so trying to put these two together has been both fun and challenging. It’s a different avenue for pursuing sustainability. Sports have such a huge reach and we are looking into it as a way to promote environmental conservation.”

Carey Glenn is a fourth-year student in public policy, political science and environmental studies enrolled in the practicum course. “The class is a unique way to engage with Chicago,” she said. “We always hear about the importance of engaging with the city as if it were a classroom, but here we actually do that.”

Action implementation

While the UChicago teams involved in the project recommend courses of action, the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition implements them. The GCRC provides interns and consultants that directly help the teams and stadiums work sustainability practices into their regular operations.

“The Sustainable Chicago Sports Project was conceived to find the intersection between behind-the-scenes corporate and operations-based environmental stewardship and consumer education about conservation,” said Eloise Karlatiras, GCRC’s president and CEO. “We are excited, as this work will help venues and teams highlight their sustainability efforts and succeed in presenting recommendations for improvements in sustainable practices for these venues in the future.”

Shaikh’s working group and the GCRC have collaborated before on a project that led to a new national certification for green food service and restaurants, and the current project builds on that work. The project’s catalyst was the Green Sports Alliance Summit, which Chicago will host for the first time in 2015. The project is aligned with the city of Chicago’s Sustainable Chicago 2015 Action Agenda, in which Mayor Rahm Emanuel set a course for a more livable, competitive and sustainable future.

Karen Weigert, the city of Chicago’s Chief Sustainability Officer, commended the partnership with UChicago and GCRC. “This effort is highly visible, given the passion and national presence of Chicago’s sports community, and it represents the commitment of many to Chicago’s sustainability goals,” Weigert said.

With the GSA Summit coming to Chicago, the goal of the project is not only to reduce environmental impact for the Chicago sports industry, but also to educate Chicago fans about sustainability and encourage them to participate.

“We’re going to recommend some relatively easy fan engagement practices, like an e-waste drive where fans will be given an incentive to turn in used cell phones at games, which was done at the Super Bowl this year,” said Shaikh. “Beyond that, there will be a broad range of recommendations from what fans can do, to things that happen behind the scenes that you don’t really even know about, but could potentially have large environmental impacts.”

The potential for such impacts are what excite students such as Mitchell Vashon, a third-year in economics who is taking the practicum course.

“The Chicago Sustainable Sports Project represents an opportunity for the sports community to contribute to the reinvigoration of the greater Chicago community, as well as instill green principles in our culture that will benefit future generations,” Vashon said. “Increasing sustainability in sports is a major stepping stone on the path to a more environmentally aware society.”