NFL Green, the league’s environmental program, hoped to complete a local marine conservation project in the host city of Super Bowl LVII.
Just one problem. The game is in Arizona.
“Big, big, big beach, but no ocean,” said Jack Groh, director of NFL Green.
But amid the desert’s open soil and cactuses is the 200-mile Salt River, which flows through Phoenix and empties into the Gila River. The rare, forested desert river not only provides much of the area’s water supply and a source of recreation, but is an oasis and habitat for wildlife, including wild horses.
The vital waterway, already imperiled by climate change and extreme heat, now faces another threat: apple snails. An invasive species that consumes aquatic plants, the snails are destroying the river’s native ecosystem.
Upon learning that, the next mission was identified for NFL Green and Force Blue, a nonprofit that retrains Special Operations veterans to work with environmentalists on ocean conservation projects.
Force Blue — which first partnered with NFL Green on coral reef restoration projects during Super Bowl LIV in Miami and Super Bowl LV in Tampa Bay — offered to remove the snails by hand. NFL Green then collaborated with a local aquarium and organized a one-day project expected to have up to 500 community volunteers on hand to remove the snails and other debris from the Salt River on Jan. 21, the opening of Super Bowl Green Week.
“The apple snail project is going to make a difference in that community for years and years to come by restoring that habitat,” said Susan Groh, associate director of NFL Green, and Jack’s wife. “Because of how much attention fans pay to the NFL, we have a really unique opportunity to lead by example and kind of shine the spotlight on that.
“Far more people pay attention to sports than science. So, if we can bring those two things together, that's really powerful. If we can show fans what we're doing and why it's important, we have a spotlight that others may not have.”
The start of sports sustainability in the United States
At a luncheon in Atlanta ahead of Super Bowl XXXVIII in 1993, Jack Groh and Ed Augustine, a local environmental attorney, asked NFL executive Jim Steeg, who was head of the league’s special events department, what was being done about the game’s environmental impact.
“This was 30 years ago. Nobody was thinking about any of this stuff at the time,” Groh said. “And to his eternal credit, Jim Steeg just turned to us and said, ‘What do you guys think I should do?’ I don't want to blow it up too big, but basically, his response was what started sports sustainability in the United States.”
It also was the start of NFL Green, which oversees sustainability efforts for the league’s special events like the Super Bowl, Pro Bowl and NFL Draft. The first project was to implement solid waste recycling, which was not yet being done at sports facilities, despite a typical NFL game producing 40 tons of waste.
Three decades after that conversation was held in Atlanta about the environmental impact of the Super Bowl, the Falcons’ recently-constructed Mercedes-Benz Stadium now produces zero waste and zero emissions. Also equipped with 4,000 solar panels that produce enough energy to power nine Falcons games, the stadium became the country’s first in professional sports to achieve LEED Platinum certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).
By 2018, the NFL held its first zero-waste Super Bowl, with 91 percent of trash generated by the 67,612 fans at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minnesota recovered through composting, recycling and reuse.
Another of NFL Green’s pillars is food recovery, with an event’s unserved food, packaged snacks and beverages donated to those in need. The program’s material recovery gathers décor, lumber, office supplies and other commodities previously sent to landfill and donates it to local non-profit agencies. Community greening projects include planting trees and gardens. Legacy projects target specific needs of host cities, such as the removal of Arizona’s apple snails.
“It's not unusual for us to do 10 to 12 projects leading up to the game,” Susan Groh said.
NFL teams go green
A monthly conference call now takes place that includes a representative from each of the 32 NFL teams to discuss sustainability initiatives.
The calls began in recent months as a way of centralizing the conversations being held around the league about sustainability, with the current objective of the collaboration to establish one or two league-wide goals to be implemented this season or next.
“We're kind of in that beginning phase where we're all learning about what each of the clubs are doing,” said Christina Hovestadt, the NFL’s senior manager of community relations who organizes the calls. “We're sharing best practices. We're collaborating with one another.”
Unlike the league’s special events, stadium operations are not under the purview of the NFL, Jack Groh said. Each stadium essentially operates as an independent entity, with each team implementing its own green initiatives, though Jack Groh said that will change slightly beginning with Super Bowl LX in 2026 when the NFL enforces that host stadiums in the bidding process meet certain environmental requirements. While some initiatives are universal, such as the reduction of plastic use, others vary by market based on resources and facilities.
The Philadelphia Eagles’ eco-friendly efforts began in 2003 with some recycling bins placed around the office. The franchise has since become a sustainability leader in sports, with Lincoln Financial Field, which was built in 2003, certified as LEED Gold. The stadium is 99 percent landfill free, with roughly 60 staffers opening and sorting every trash bag and bailing aluminum on game days. Philadelphia also has the largest solar power plant in the NFL, with some panels in the stadium’s lot forming a pseudo parking garage. The Eagles produce 40 percent of the energy needed to operate the stadium all year. The team sells the energy produced at the stadium to corporate partner NRG Energy in exchange for reduced-rate green energy, helping to fully power Lincoln Financial Field by green energy.
The Eagles had long planted trees to offset all carbon emissions generated by team travel, although this method is sometimes questioned as a flawed way of combating carbon emissions. In 2021, after partnering with Ocean Conservancy and recognizing the dire need for ocean-related efforts, the team planted three acres of seagrass in Puerto Rico to offset blue carbon.
“That's really where all life starts, and we need to rescue that first. Otherwise, it doesn't matter how many trees we planted,” said Norman Vossschulte, the Eagles’ director of fan experience and sustainability. “Sustainability is such a shifting project or initiative because you may do one thing one year and then realize there is another better way to do it. There's so much innovation happening in this sector.”
But when it comes to placing recycling and composting materials in the proper bin on the stadium’s concourse, it's not always effective to rely on the decision-making of emotional fans whose team may have just orchestrated a game-winning drive or missed a last-second field goal.
So, the Kansas City Chiefs encourage fans at Arrowhead Stadium to leave trash under their seats, helping to keep waste streams clean. After the game is over and the stands are empty, sorters do a triple-pick of the seating bowls. One crew places recyclable materials in a clear bag, another gathers compostable materials in a green bag and another conducts a sweep for the minimal remaining waste like peanut shells — though the team was the first in the league to use a compostable peanut bag.
“It's actually easier for us to send a crew through and sort while we pick it up versus trying to get a very focused fan to make a decision on if they recycle or compost,” said Brandon Hamilton, the Chiefs vice president of stadium operations and facilities.
After Miami Dolphins president and CEO Tom Garfinkel saw a story on marine plastic pollution in 2019, the team formed a committee at Hard Rock Stadium to eliminate single-use plastic. Of the nearly 150 single-use plastic items identified in the stadium prior to the COVID-10 pandemic, 94 percent were eliminated, Jack Groh said.
The Seattle Seahawks, through a partnership with Cedar Grove Composting and Sound Sustainable Farms, used a closed-loop cycle that produced consumable food from the waste Lumen Field. The compost from the stadium’s food waste was used as a natural fertilizer at a local farm, an area of which was dedicated to Lumen Field in order to grow potatoes and vegetables to sell back to the stadium.
In 2017, the Seahawks held their first game where all French fries served came from 6,000 pounds of cut potatoes raised with compost that originated at the stadium.
“So, the waste that was leaving our building was going to a purpose and then coming back into the building,” said Christy Briggs, the Seahawks logistics and sustainability manager. “From a diversion standpoint, you want to close your loops. The more we can do that in all of our areas, whether it's recycling or composting, it really is the best form of diversion.”
The Seahawks, whose waste-diversion rate went from three percent in 2006 to a peak of 97 percent in 2017, are launching a school program this season to teach students about sustainability and ultimately give them a tour to see how operations work at Lumen Field.
“We know the impact that we have," Briggs said of teams in the NFL introducing fans to new environmental practices. “So, if every one of the fans that come to our game change one behavior from something they learned at the stadium, whether it's composting, whether it's water reducing or recycling, and they implement that in their lives, it has such a far-reaching impact on our environment than just what we can do here at the building.”
Meanwhile, the Eagles, after previously replacing all plastic straws with paper straws, are set to introduce a biodegradable straw made from fermented canola oil that dissolves in saltwater. According to the manufacturer PHADE, it maintains the feel of a traditional straw but biodegrades in a matter of months, compared to plastic straws that can take hundreds of years. The straws are also used at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and Gillette Stadium in New England.
Gameday staff members at Lincoln Financial Field wear compostable rain ponchos made from sugarcane ethanol, and the team is working with the company that designed them to create a bag to be used by fans entering the stadium under the NFL’s clear-bag policy.
It's one of the many measures, large and small, the Eagles have made to reduce the organization’s carbon footprint.
“We also have a voice, and we’ve got to use that voice,” Vossschulte said. “We reach millions of fans. We look to entertainment first and sports first, that's why our fans follow us. But on top of that, we can do some good for our planet… It resonates with your fan base, especially with the up-and-coming fan base. We believe in utilizing that platform for the right purposes.”
What more should the NFL be doing?
Joel Makower, the co-founder of GreenBiz Group and a sustainability advisor for various firms, believes the teams have made improvements in their respective communities, but that the league itself holds the most weight in making long-term progress on a much larger scale.
“They’re doing well on acting locally,” Makower said of the NFL. “But I think they need to be thinking globally.”
The league, he said, could make its greatest environmental impact by using its reach and influence to enact global change.
“We're facing an existential crisis here and we're just not moving fast enough,” Makower said. “So, we all need to be pedaling harder. I think all of [the NFL’s green initiative] is great. What I'm concerned about is that this isn't just something you do on 17 Sundays a year. This has become year-round… So, how does the NFL become a catalyst for change beyond its teams and venues?”
Roger McClendon, the executive director of Green Sports Alliance, said the NFL and other professional sports leagues can ensure that the sponsors and companies they do business with enforce similar climate strategies.
"They have a huge influence, some of these owners and obviously the athletes," McClendon said. "So the businesses, if you want to do business with me, if you want to be a supplier to the NFL, we need to have the same standards as far as sustainability."
Makower said the NFL needs to use its influence and voice, not only at the local and business levels, but at the government level.
“How does the league, not just the teams, but the league have a megaphone on ensuring that our politicians are watching out for us?” Makower asked. “This isn't a Democrat versus a Republican kind of thing. This is a conservative thing, which is conserving our resources, conserving our way of life. And I would be stepping up because the future of sport is at risk in a climate-changing world.”
Removing the snails
The NFL’s local impacts can be effective and lasting.
NFL Green ensures its projects will be maintained by teaming up with local partners involved in similar projects that have the resources and commitment to push the initiative forward. Jack Groh said part of the advance agreement with those who control the area in which a project is performed is that they provide a minimum of two years maintenance.
That will be crucial in ensuring that the growing population of apple snails in Phoenix does not once again invade the Salt River.
When the project begins, divers from Force Blue and OdySea Aquarium will take shifts underwater searching for snails, which will be removed and turned into usable compost for farms and gardening. Some community volunteers will patrol the water on kayaks and paddleboards removing snail egg clusters, while others will walk the shoreline to clear debris.
“I think that's going to be one of the most stunning environmental projects that we're going to see this year around any sports event anywhere,” said NFL Green director Jack Groh, who added that the partnership with Force Blue combines environmental restoration for the local community and human restoration for the veterans who repurpose their skills learned in the military.
“The Super Bowl spotlight is bright,” Susan Groh said. “If we can shine that spotlight on some of these environmental issues, that message gets out there on a global scale. And we hope that people follow our example and continue to do this kind of work.”