Green Teams: The Cardinals scramble to join the ranks of the environmentally conscious

Last year Cardinals fans purchased 1.5 million plastic soda bottles and scores more plastic bottles of water and beer at Busch Stadium. Nearly all of those bottles were destined for landfills, helping to contribute to the 2,000 tons of garbage hauled out of Busch III in 2007. For those who like to keep score, that's roughly 2.4 tons of trash generated during each of the team's 81 home games.

"Since we moved into the new ballpark, we have not had a lot of recycling in place," concedes Joe Abernathy, the Cardinals' vice president of stadium operations. "We've always recycled aluminum cans and recently began recycling in the front office. Other efforts have been more of a challenge."

Now as the Redbirds struggle to rebuild on the field this season, the club is determined to improve in at least one area: its environmental record. Last week the team installed 250 recycling bins throughout Busch Stadium in preparation for opening day, Monday, March 31. Additional changes this year include the use of fluorescent light bulbs in the stadium's suites and regular energy audits to determine how the team can cut down on the electricity, gas and steam that power the ballpark.

The Cardinals are hardly the only team to have taken a sudden interest in its ecological impact. Earlier this month Major League Baseball announced a partnership with the watchdog group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) designed to reduce waste and energy consumption among all 32 teams in the league. For some clubs — especially West Coast franchises such as the Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners — the partnership with NRDC only reinforces "green" initiatives already in place. For others — including the Cardinals — there's a still a lot to be learned.

"It can certainly be overwhelming," says Jenny Powers, a spokeswoman for the New York-based NRDC. "There are so many factors that go into a ball game, from travel to food and merchandise to transportation and lights — even toilet paper. The question becomes: 'Where do we begin?'"

Some answers are at greensports.org/mlb, a Web-based tool MLB and NRDC developed to assist clubs in their greening efforts. For the Cardinals, the site suggests environmental objectives such as collecting rainwater for irrigation and ensuring that the team's launderer uses low-phosphate soaps. Abernathy says the team is considering many of the recommendations for future use but intends to focus primarily on increased recycling efforts this season.

"A lot of this isn't rocket science. It's just been a matter of getting all the resources in once place, and that Web site is helpful for that," says Abernathy.

But if many of the NRDC recommendations aren't "rocket science," why has it taken the Cardinals until now to implement them? Abernathy says that since the new Busch Stadium opened in 2006, his crew has focused its attention on other functions of ballpark operations. "[Going green] wasn't really a priority," he admits.

In fairness to the Cardinals, it has only been in the past few years that the green movement has made its first steps into professional sports.

In 2003 the Philadelphia Eagles became the first sports franchise in the United States to adopt a stringent environmental policy. The football franchise plants trees to offset the carbon dioxide emissions created when the Eagles travel to away games and powers its stadium and front offices in part with renewable energy from wind, solar power and methane gas.

Last season the Seattle Mariners became the second team in baseball — after the Oakland A's — to send ballpark leftovers to a firm that composts food waste. Mariners vice president of ballpark operations Scott Jenkins says composting reduced waste at Safeco Field by 100 tons. The Mariners also deploy a recycling mascot named "Captain Plastic" to encourage fans to recycle their plastic bottles in the stands. In 2007 the team recycled more than 26 percent of its total waste.

"Not everyone is a born recycler," Jenkins says. "Captain Plastic is our superhero who roams the stands and encourages people to put their bottles in the appropriate bins."

Rust Belt cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh have also made strides to be more environmentally conscious. The Indians installed 42 solar panels prior to the 2007 season and are considering adding wind turbines to help power Progressive Field. This year the Pirates have banned the use of all Styrofoam in PNC Park and encouraged their concession service to use biodegradable plastic cups made of cornstarch.

Like the Cardinals, St. Louis' other professional sports teams are also making initial efforts to implement green programs. In 2005 the Rams participated in the National Football League's first carbon-neutral game when the team played host to the Eagles. The Rams powered Edward Jones Dome that day with renewable energy from methane gas and wind farms. Just this past December, the Rams announced a partnership with Waste Management that will introduce a more robust recycling program in the coming season.

At Scottrade Center the Blues have ordered recycling bins for plastic bottles similar to those installed at Busch Stadium. Until recently the Blues had sold most beverages from aluminum cans that vendors would keep for recycling, says Blues vice president of building operations Fred Corsi. With the rising popularity of plastic bottles, the hockey club is counting on fans to help the team recycle. "These days the Pepsi-Colas, Cokes and Budweisers of the world are using more and more plastic bottles," says Corsi. "People drink them in their seats and then leave them in the aisles or on the floor. Unfortunately, our cleaning crew just doesn't have the time to sort the trash, and much of the plastic ends in the garbage."

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