Without humans for scale, an NFL stadium can seem quite cozy from the turf. Or so I observed at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles, on a visit last fall.

For 45 minutes, Norman Vossschulte, the team’s Director of Guest Experience and my temporary tour guide, wound us through the cavernous building, from the aluminum baler and kitchen biodigester in the bowels of the structure, to the roof overlooking a solar-paneled parking lot, to the press box and special suites, where eager schoolchildren oohed and aahed over their home team.

When we found ourselves in yet another endless dark hallway, I expected the next set of doors would reveal still more machinery. Instead, they opened to a blinding white light—and a perfectly silent stadium. We stepped out, the fresh green grass beneath our feet and a flurry of wet snow circling over our heads. The stadium seats, which curved toward the sky, felt close and snug. The only sound came from our little voices and the wind.

Lincoln Financial Field isn’t exactly known for such serenity. “When there are 70,000 people in here, it actually feels larger,” Vossschulte says. On game days, the stadium accommodates 69,796 screaming football fans—the population of a decently-sized American town—and event staff adds another 3,000. Between matches, the facility also plays host to conferences, collegiate sports, and world concert tours, most recently The Rolling Stones.

All of that hubbub requires a lot of power for the Linc and other NFL stadiums. While the home of the Eagles consumes about 10 megawatts of energy per year, in 2013 the Dallas Cowboys could reportedly consume the same amount of juice at peak demand in a single game. Such events also generate a lot of waste: a single, spectacular night like the Super Bowl (which Lincoln Financial Field has yet to host) can produce 80,000 pounds of trash. And that’s just football. In the US there are also 29 NBA arenas and 30 MLB ballparks.

That’s why the Eagles have Vossschulte. The charismatic leader, who spent a brief period as a Disney World actor in the Jedi Training experience, wears many helmets—but one of his roles is leading the team’s Go Green initiative, an ongoing effort to shrink the Eagles’ environmental impact. It began in 2003, with a few recycling bins in the office. Now, it snakes through the 1.7 million-square-foot facility and out into the city and wider region.

But not every NFL team has made sustainability a priority. Some owners worry that fans will see eco-conscious policies as a political statement—one that detracts from the franchise’s real goal of selling tickets (and, of course, winning championships). Others shy away from the expense and logistical challenge; without league requirements or governmental regulations to push them, many organizations would prefer the status quo. Even for entities like the Eagles, the goal posts are always moving: “This was literally a 15-year journey for us,” Vossschulte says. And there’s still a long way to go.

An eagle eye on waste

At Lincoln Financial Field, renewable energy keeps the lights on. The 11,000 solar panels on the building and over the parking lot provide about 40 percent of what the stadium needs to operate. The rest comes through a partnership with the local utility NRG, which sells the Eagles renewable energy credits linked to other solar or wind farms throughout the region.

That’s probably the easiest part of their sustainability practice.

After each game, 75 trash sorters fan out through the stadium collecting rubbish. They pick up rolling cans and forgotten cheesesteak wrappers. But they also slice open every single garbage bag and pull out any recyclable materials.

Typically, the NFL demands staff pour all beer into an open cup, to keep fans from throwing full cans or bottles on the field. But that practice creates a lot of plastic waste. So the Eagles asked the league for permission to serve beer in cans, as aluminum is one of the most recyclable materials on the planet. They got the go-ahead, so long as a staffer popped the top before handing it to a fan.

lincoln financial field from the outside
The Linc’s 11,000 solar panels, many of which are pictured here, provide 40 percent of what the stadium needs to operate. Drew Hallowell

Instead of sending recovered aluminum to a recycling company—where’d they earn about $45 to $75 for a ton of aluminum—the Eagles process it on site. By baling their own aluminum, they make $800 and $1,200 per ton.

Of course, plastic persists, from water bottles to shrink wrap.

Standing in front of a box of used plastic bottle tops the size of a USPS mailbox, Vossschulte explained how Braskem, a Brazilian petrochemical company, melts them down into plastic pellets. These pellets become the raw material for new products, like the super-sized plastic Lombardi trophy that commemorates the Eagles’ 2018 Super Bowl win. “The next thing we’re going to do with these is make cup holders for the urinals, so people can put their beer in them. And we’re also looking into making seats out of them, or benches,” he says.

“What Braskem has helped us understand is, instead of recycling, is there a way to close the loop, so instead of leaving the system, it stays in use,” Vossschulte says.

Other materials are treated the same way. Staff collect shrink wrap and send it to a company that transforms it into a material used in drywall. “Next time we’re building something in the stadium that needs drywall, we’re going to try and procure that drywall that was built with shrink wrap from our stadium,” Vossschulte says. Pre-consumer food waste (i.e. the stuff in the industrial kitchens) is sent to a contract composter or tossed into one of two on-site biodigesters, which harness hungry bacteria to decompose organic materials. The resulting energy-rich slurry drains into the sewer, where it’s filtered by the local wastewater treatment facility and turned into energy.

“We’re at 99 percent landfill free,” Vossschulte says.

Through it all, the Eagles have approached sustainability incrementally—a reduction here, a new initiative there. Vossschulte says this strategy has allowed the organization much-needed flexibility. Instead of doing everything at once and being stuck with it for years to come, the team incorporates new technology and ideas as they develop. But it also means it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly comes next. Beyond Braskem recycled benches and closed-loop drywall, Lincoln Financial Stadium’s green goals remain somewhat mysterious.

But Vossschulte says the team’s commitment is steadfast. “There are owners who are invested in this. Jeffrey [Lurie] is one of those owners,” he says. “He really believes we as a company, or a team, or a stadium are a citizen … We have a responsibility.”

Friendly competition

The Eagles aren’t the only ones going green—especially in recent years.

One of the driving forces in stadium sustainability is LEED, a certification developed by the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council. “It’s a way of legitimizing the work that they’re doing,” says Timothy Kellison, an assistant professor at Georgia State University who studies sustainability in sports. “Before that, teams had less opportunities to demonstrate that.”

In 2018, Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia upgraded its LEED silver certification to gold. A few other NFL venues have the same cred, including 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium and the Minnesota Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium. But they were built recently, with sustainability in mind. “For an existing building, that’s pretty rare,” Vossschulte says.

Some new construction has done even better. In November 2017, the Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes Benz Stadium, was the first professional sports stadium in North America to achieve LEED Platinum. In addition to renewable energy efforts like installing solar panels, the organization “got every water credit you can get under LEED,” said Scott Jenkins, the general manager for Mercedes Benz Stadium. Atlanta is “plagued by flooding issues,” he told me. The stadium can store more than 2.1 million gallons of stormwater on site. It keeps rain from surging through the surrounding neighborhood, and reduces the stadium’s water usage by 47 percent.

There are other motivations for NFL teams to go green: “These owners are competitive, just like their sports teams,” Kellison says. “Something like having the greenest stadium in the world is a nice feather in the cap of an organization or an owner.” And while some owners are also genuinely altruistic, Kellison continues, “we can’t discount the business sense that it makes.”

By moving to 100 percent renewable energy, Lincoln Financial Field, for example, has freed up more than $200,000 a year for other projects, Vossschulte says. NRG buys the energy the stadium produces every day to power other parts of Philadelphia. Then, when the stadium needs it, they buy back solar and wind energy at a reduced rate. Normally, “energy prices fluctuate quite a bit,” so stadiums have to reserve a pot of money for surges, Vossschulte says. But with its NRG agreement, the Eagles are “able to budget to literally [to] the dollar what we spend annually on our energy costs.”

Still, not every team has incorporated sustainability in its mission. Kellison attributes this, at least in part, to concerns about fan response. “The difficult question a lot of organizations are running into is whether they want to jump into this perceived political question,” he said. While some, like the Eagles, believe sustainability will help them appeal to the next generation of season ticket holders, other teams worry climate action will alienate the ones they already have.

It’s not easy being green

I asked Kellison how far we are from a totally sustainable sports industry—one that’s carbon neutral and zero waste. “If you catch me on a different day, I’ll give a different answer,” he told me. “Some days I wake up and feel very optimistic about things, and other days I’m less optimistic. So my answer today is, I think we aren’t close on an industry-wide level.”

Plenty of organizations have sat idle on climate action. Some don’t want to deal with the headache of updating policies and facilities, and others are worried that investing in sustainability will look political and alienate fans. Even the most eco-conscious teams can’t always compensate for their enormous footprint.

“We can celebrate the fact that Mercedes Benz stadium is the most sustainable stadium in the world,” Kellison says. But it replaced the Georgia Dome, which was only built in 1992. “The lifespan of these buildings tend to be short, not because the buildings are becoming necessarily outdated or falling apart, but because team owners tend to be able to get new buildings. They have a lot of leverage in the city.” Owners want the latest technology, diverse ticketing options, and a beautiful canvas for sponsors. And they argue that stadiums are an economic boon for the adjacent city (though that doesn’t always go as planned). But if teams were to truly minimize their carbon footprints, they would have to reckon with the environmental costs of construction and recognize that “the best thing you can do to keep a building sustainable is to keep a stadium up and running.”

While there are “some teams that are just doing remarkable things,” Kellison argues that lasting change will have to come from legislation. “Enlightened ownership,” as Jenkins calls it, and common sense business strategy can be a force for good, but local, state, and federal governments are the only ones who can guarantee a more sustainable future.

Fandom of the future

The industrial underbelly I saw at Lincoln Financial Field is invisible to most Eagles fans. It’s meant to be. “Fans don’t come here to talk about sustainability, they come here to be entertained,” Vossschulte says. But the Eagles think they can have it both ways. “What we’re trying to do is convey the message in a fun way,” he says. Case in point: the “Recycle Your Beer Here” signs over the urinals.

Some teams may worry climate action will turn fans away. But Vossschulte believes the opposite is true, at least for the Eagles. Among season ticket holders, who are about 45 to 60 years old, sustainability is 9 or 10 in their top 10 reasons to support the Eagles. “However, with the demographic of 20 to 30 [years old], it was the number two driver of why to be a fan,” Vossschulte says. “It’s very important to continue with sustainability strategy from a marketing perspective, because [of] young fans who are coming up, and are eventually going to fill your seats.” And it’s important to do it now. “I don’t want the younger generation to be in charge when it’s too late.”