What’s the environmental impact of the Super Bowl?
Disclaimer: If you were planning to watch a recording of Super Bowl LVI, then this is your heads up that this blog discloses the winner of the game. Also, this blog was written by our Head of Sustainability, Mark Falinski, who is a die-hard member of the Bills Mafia and a Buffalo Bills fan for life. As you read on, you’ll understand why this is an important disclaimer…
Kicking it Off
Unfortunately, the Bills missed out on the Super Bowl again (next year’s the year!), but this was still one of the most exciting and interesting Big Games in recent memory. In one corner, we had a young and hungry Cincinnati Bengals team led by rising stars Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, and Tee Higgins. In the other corner was a Los Angeles Rams team led by the NFL’s best receiver in Cooper Kupp, one of the best defensive players in Aaron Donald, and of course, Matt Stafford, whose success with LA this year is further proof of how good he truly can be without the dysfunction of the Detroit Lions bringing him down. And thankfully, in zero of the corners was Tom Brady, the Patriots, or Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, which is music to my Buffalo-loving ears. Both teams in the game were easy to cheer for, had exciting offense, stout defense, and (according to many unnamed sources) a pretty good-looking coach on at least one of the sidelines.
The Super Bowl was played on Sunday night and, at the end of the day, the Rams got the rings. But, the festivities and preparation began almost two weeks beforehand. Coaches drew up game plans and trick plays. Players practiced and went through sessions with media trainers “so they don’t get fined”. Cheerleaders, pep bands, and dance crews put together their best routines. Fans flew in to enjoy Los Angeles and go a little crazy. Dr. Dre and his crew prepped for the halftime show. And, of course, sports media personnel were all over the place, trying to capture it all.
Like all other events and holidays, Super Bowl Sunday brings with it a slew of impacts on the environment. In this case, those impacts relate to the lead-up to the game, the product on the field, and how more than 100 million people view it at home. The good news? Even though a lot of those impacts are out of our control, there are still a lot of ways we can decrease our own impacts while enjoying the game next year…while cheering for the Bills.
Studies have shown that being a fan at mega-sporting events like the Super Bowl increases a person’s environmental footprint by roughly seven times compared to what they could be doing on a more average day. If you want to skip ahead to what you can do on a personal level for the next Super Bowl at home or your next football game in person, run a go-route to the 2-Minute Drill section at the end of the article. Otherwise, let’s go deep into what you should know in four of the game’s main impact areas: tailgating waste, powering the stadium itself, watching as a fan, and traveling.
Tailgate Goes up in Smoke
There is a huge waste issue in the lead-up to the Super Bowl. Fans have been known to drink bars dry before big games. Millions of beers were probably drunk around downtown LA in the two weeks leading up to the big game, leaving behind millions of aluminum cans and glass bottles. While both of these are recyclable, according to the EPA, about 50% of aluminum cans go to the landfill, while almost 70% of glass bottles do.
This imbibing also continues into one of my favorites parts of each game: the tailgate. It has been estimated that over 35 tons of waste are created at some tailgates, which includes single-use materials, wasted food, and – for some fans – broken tables. For stadiums that are on the water, such as M&T Bank Stadium, Heinz Field, or TIAA Bank Field, it is also common to see cups, napkins, or other trash blown away from irresponsible tailgaters into an area that can harm wildlife.
Then there’s the smoke from car exhaust to worry about. When irresponsible tailgaters keep their cars running to play music or stay warm (or because they hate the planet), there are constant emissions leaving the tailpipe, which are bad for the climate and for those who have to breathe in the smoke. A study found that being behind a running car exposes a person to noticeably high levels of particulate matter, which can be linked to decreased lung function, even when you are outside. Leaving a car on during a tailgate is worse than the NFL’s overtime rules, so make sure to avoid it.
Finally, tailgates can also have a small impact on the health and well-being of those at the tailgate, mostly in the form of smoke inhalation. Setting up the grill and cooking up some sausages, hot dogs, and veggie burgers is an age-old tradition as old as the game itself. Grilling, however, especially with charcoal and charcoal briquettes, can create toxic carbon monoxide, potentially carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon molecules, or lung-irritating soot particles through incomplete combustion. This has the greatest chance of hurting Your Friendly Neighborhood Grill Master. Fortunately, being outside dilutes harmful chemicals, making (plant-based?) burger flipping a safe way to spend a tailgate, but it’s still important to note if you’re in less ventilated areas in the future.
Harmful chemicals can also enter your food if it is cooked over charcoal briquettes before the chemical coating has burned off. However, if your fellow fans stay patient and let the Lord of the Flames work their magic after the briquettes are white in colors, there is not really much to worry about here, either. We still suggest using more natural charcoal options or gas grills if you truly want to avoid any chance of unfortunate chemical exposure.
Sustainability (Field) Goals at SoFi Stadium
When it comes to the game itself, the NFL has estimated that, in 2009, about 500 tons of greenhouse gasses were emitted, which came from powering the stadium and the fleet of vehicles used to transport people and equipment for the game. Back then, the league committed to offsetting those emissions through tree-planting programs and purchases of renewable energy. But now, 13 years later, things are a bit different.
SoFi Stadium, where the game took place, is in one of the hottest and driest areas in the country. Normally, this would mean a huge carbon footprint from cooling, plus more serious water issues. However, SoFi Stadium’s roofing material, called ETFE, was biomimetically designed to act similarly to the fur of a polar bear. It allows for light to come through lighting units during day games to save energy, while also capturing the heat from sunlight for later use during cold desert nights. The roof is also made up of individual panels, which can selectively open and close to naturally harness wind and cool the stadium, eliminating the need for air conditioning or heating systems, and saving literal tons of carbon emissions in the process.
The stadium also features a manmade lake, which collects recycled water from the stadium and more than 80% of stormwater during those rare rainy days in Southern California. While this water is no longer potable, roughly 26 million gallons of drinking water is saved per year by re-using this reserve for environmentally-safe irrigation. Water professionals and experts in California are in agreement that recycled and reused water systems are desperately underutilized during a time when drought is rampant across the state.
SoFi Stadium is also the largest indoor-outdoor NFL stadium ever built and was completed just two years ago. Its Twitter account was kind enough to let us know that roughly 144,000 cubic yards of concrete were used in construction. What it failed to mention was that concrete production is extremely carbon intensive with a carbon footprint of over 800 pounds of CO2e per cubic yard, which contributes to about 7% of yearly carbon dioxide emissions.
The stadium also uses more than 70,000 tons of steel, which is another highly carbon intensive material (1.45 pounds of CO2e per pound of steel) and contributes to nearly 10% of global carbon emissions.
Overall, the embodied carbon of the stadium’s materials is nearly 160,000 tons of CO2e. This is roughly the amount of emissions produced by 40,000 cars in one year. While this number is very big, it is worth noting that the average stadium is used for over 20 years and the embodied emissions from the materials are only a one-time hit.
Unlike the materials used in the stadium, however, the energy it uses has an impact every week. Even though there are no AC or heating units taking up power, SoFi Stadium features the most lighting units in the league and a 120-yard-long video board called the Oculus, which can be seen by those in the stadium, as well as by people flying in planes overhead. Studies have placed the power draw for less efficient, similarly sized stadiums, like Dallas’ AT&T stadium, at nearly 10 megawatts, or the same amount of power drawn by roughly 8,000 homes annually. Luckily, SoFi Stadium is likely to require far less energy, since AC and heating are far and away considered to be the most energy-demanding elements in any stadium.
SoFi Stadium’s Sustainability page doesn’t mention the use of renewable electricity, but it draws its energy from the second least emitting electrical grid in the country, based on California’s high solar energy utilization, which is a clear benefit, even if they could be doing much better in this space.
All in – even though there is a lot of room for improvement, the stadium that hosted this year’s Super Bowl is starting to do things with the planet in mind.
Touch Down at the Game
More than a half a million people have been known to join in on the pre-Super Bowl festivities, including more than 150,000 people from outside of the state. That number was estimated to be just as high, if not higher, for the game in Los Angeles this year, even though SoFi Stadium can only seat about 70 thousand people and ~70,240 people were in attendance at the game itself (and tickets sold for an average $6,136 per ticket, according to StubHub).
This revelry comes with a bit of a cost, the biggest of which is the carbon emissions from flying. The average flight releases about 124 kg of CO2e per person, which is about the same amount that is released from electrically powering a house for 3 days or driving a car 300 miles. Multiply that by all of the fans that make the trek and we are looking at quite the impact on the climate.
There have been efforts by airlines to offset many of the emissions related to flying, but as we’ve talked about in other blog posts, purchasing offsets is better than doing nothing at all, but offsets aren’t 100% effective and they are really a bandage solution that fail to address the larger problem at hand.
Home Field Advantage of Waste
For roughly 112 million people around the world, the Super Bowl was enjoyed at home, a bar, or a party, each of which comes with its own impacts, especially on the climate and waste. Super Bowl Sunday is the second biggest day of the year for food consumption, trailing only Thanksgiving. Over 1.3 billion chicken wings, 12.5 million pizzas, 50 million cases of beer, 88 million pounds of cheese, and tens of millions of pounds of other food will be hiked down Americans’ throats.
There are literally tons of climate and water issues related to much of the food that will be eaten, a lot of which was covered in our blog post on the climate-water nexus. Of course, there are also impacts from the packaging and disposal of food at home, just like there is at any wild pre-game tailgate. Chief among these, however, is packaging from takeout containers.
On that note…the impacts of individual pizza boxes might be a bit over-blown (unlike the Deflategate footballs Tom Brady definitely cheated with, in my unbiased opinion). We have all been told that pizza boxes are non-recyclable. However, in 2020, a cardboard company ran a recyclability study that was later presented by the American Forest & Paper Association. They found that more than 93% of AFPA-member recycling facilities accept pizza boxes and that issues around reuse of greasy fibers were not founded in science. They actually suggest recycling pizza boxes without fear of contamination… just make sure to remove all of the pizza, cheese, and sauce first. So, check with your local recycling center to see how to best dispose of those heaps of boxes.
Unfortunately, the same recycling guidance can not be used for single-use silverware or most other takeout containers. Most notably, those that claim to be compostable or biodegradable should never be sent to recycling centers, as we talked about in our blog post on biodegradable items. Since only 11% of Americans have access to industrial composting facilities that accept compostable packaging and silverware, chances are that your town does not. That means you would be better off just throwing your compostable goods into the trash. (If you really want to check if there are facilities near you that can handle bioplastics/industrial compost, then check out this site and make sure your closest facilities can specifically handle packaging.)
Instead, try to order food for the big game that has as few single-use items as possible. If you must use single-use, look for (the virtually impossible to find) at-home compostable options. Or, do one better and pull out the silverware and plates that you can wash later. You’ll limit your footprint and make sure there are fewer plastics in the world that could harm Eagles, Dolphins, Bears, Seahawks, Cardinals, or Ravens out in the wild.
The 2-Minute Drill on Fandom
So, how can you enjoy the Super Bowl more sustainably at home? What can you do to make sure your next live game is also good for the planet? Well, we have officially hit 4th down territory with two minutes to go, so let’s not hold anything back.
First Down: At-Home Plastic Waste
If you, like millions of other Americans, order takeout food for the game, limit waste as much as possible. Recycle all of your beer and soda and choose to drink from aluminum cans over plastic or glass bottles. Recycle your pizza boxes once you clear them of solid foods (if your local facility accepts them) and avoid single-use plastics at all costs, even if they claim to be biodegradable and/or compostable. Unless your town has the appropriate facilities to deal with those materials, you might just be falling prey to a trick play.
Second Down: Safe Tailgating
Next time you hit up your favorite parking lot or front yard for some pilsners, pigs-in-a-blanket, and pigskin passes (though the ball is likely actually made of cowhide), be safe and smart for yourself and the planet. For the more experienced burger flippers out there, elect to use lump charcoal instead of briquettes to still get that smoky taste. For those with less experience or fewer things to cook, lean on gas-powered grills to get your kabobs cooking. Under no circumstances should you ever leave your car on during the tailgate because it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and exposes all of your guests to potentially hazardous particulate matter that could harm their lungs. And, of course, clean up your trash and avoid single-use plastics at all costs.
Third Down: Football Food
Cut down on your carbon footprint by cooking at home (limiting travel by delivery drivers) and try to eat less carbon and water-intensive foods, as we showed in this blog post. Vegetable-based foods and white meats will usually be your best bets, while red meats and seafood might sack your carbon footprint. Most importantly, don’t let any of that food go to waste. Food waste is one of the largest contributors to climate change and Super Bowl Sunday is one of the largest food waste days of the year. Instead, consider using the Save the Food Guest-imator to get only as much food as your party needs.
Fourth Down: Hail Mary Time
If you’re the type of person that tuned in for the commercials and halftime show, then take pride knowing that you enjoyed watching a game that took place at a stadium that is fairly sustainable. Instead of worrying about the footprint of the enormous fortress that was shown on screen, remember that many biomimetically-inspired engineering marvels have been put in place to make the stadium more environmentally-friendly than other massive stadiums out there. This includes naturally-occuring heating and cooling, water collection and recycling infrastructure, low-flow water infrastructure to save the most valuable liquid on the planet, and high efficiency LEDs to limit electricity consumption. Of course, there is much more to do before SoFi Stadium can be considered truly sustainable, but in the meantime, know that this stadium will hopefully pave the way for more stadiums to follow.
Overtime: Bashing Table Smashing
This one is for my fellow Bills fans out there. I know that it is tradition to jump off of a car onto a flaming folding table, smashing it to smithereens. (Links are here for those who are out of the loop.) But, hear me out here… we can we find a more sustainable way.
Is the Bills Mafia table-smashing tradition unsustainable? Yes.
Each folding table that is broken at a tailgate essentially becomes a single-use item, contributing to waste buildup. The embodied carbon footprint of the polyethylene top and steel legs can be quite high, adding up to more than 50 lbs CO2e per table.
Now, I love smashing a table as much as the next person and I have more than once (my mom will be so mad when she reads this). I am aware of how important traditions are, but I suggest trying to resist the urge to smash and embrace saving your table until it is on its last legs. Then, get to smashing!
For those unwilling to wait, consider using a smaller table or invest in replacement parts for your table, so you can repair the broken bits, and break the same table over and over again! Gotta love reusing your stuff!