What do you get when you mix Mark Wahlberg, Phil Mickelson, 600,000 golf fans and a team of recycling ambassadors in green smocks? The 2017 Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Since 2010 Waste Management has been the title sponsor of the Phoenix Open golf tournament, a weeklong event that attracts fans from far and wide to watch their favorite pros — and amateurs like Wahlberg, Michael Phelps and Bo Jackson — compete at the TPC Scottsdale golf course. With each year that passes, the Waste Management Phoenix Open (WMPO) has not only grown its attendance, but has also spread a passionate message of waste diversion and sustainability. This message has been so well received that WMPO has achieved five consecutive years of being a "zero waste" event, making it the largest sporting event of its kind to reach 100% waste diversion from landfill.
Yet, when there are half a million fans at an event, how does WMPO reach such a goal? According to the company's External Communications Manager Janette Micelli, it takes a lot of planning and committed participation from everyone involved. This includes the event's host The Thunderbirds, which is a special events committee developed by the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce.
"It really is a team effort," Micelli told Waste Dive. "It starts with the sponsors, the vendors, all of the people serving food and drinks out here. It's all of us together that are making it a zero waste event. It's attributable to, 'What's possible when you ignore the word impossible?' "
To the WMPO team, becoming the greenest show on grass was far from impossible. And with a variety of educational tactics, reuse strategies and the elimination of trash bins across the course, the team is making sure to reach zero waste again this year.
Educating fans on 'zero waste'
In order to inform the massive crowds on "zero waste" and how to attain it, WMPO has relied on just about every tactic in the book: media advertising, bus ads, signs and even zero waste "stations" placed throughout the event.
"You just have to flat out ignore things to not be educated here," Micelli laughed.
The stations, which are actually converted roll-off containers, allow fans to stand inside and learn about waste diversion through a "spin the wheel" type of game displaying a range of items. If the fan correctly guesses whether the item is recyclable or compostable, they receive a prize — of course, one that is practical like sunscreen, or sustainable like recycled content pencils.
WMPO depends on a volunteer team of "recycling ambassadors" to help run zero waste stations, interact with fans and answer all waste-related questions. This year, dedicated Waste Management staff and representatives from Keep Phoenix Beautiful and Keep Scottsdale Beautiful will assist the ambassadors to properly and effectively relay the message of sustainability.
Use and reuse, year after year
Outside of educating the public, it is also important for Waste Management and The Thunderbirds to practice their own methods of zero waste. While all of the event's signage and banners are stored year-to-year onsite, the organizations also engrain the message of reuse into some of the biggest attractions.
Most notably, WMPO has displayed two large water features on the 15th and 18th holes of the course's lake. At the 15th hole is a branded display of 750,000 recycled plastic golf tees – which has been stored for reuse over the last several years — and on the 18th hole is a 125-foot by 50-foot display of 144,000 recovered golf balls. Micelli notes that these displays offer a marketing opportunity for the company, yet still gives Waste Management the opportunity to explain the value of reusing materials.
It's not only golf tees and golf balls that have been recovered. Micelli notes that uneaten food is placed in the hands of the local nonprofit WasteNot which donates food to people in the Phoenix area. Additionally, all of the scrim that is displayed around the site gets donated to local organizations, including one that focuses on equine therapy and uses it as a shade structure for horses.
All of these efforts have led to WMPO's certification as the Council for Responsible Sport's "Inspire" event, an honor that followed nearly five years of the council attending and analyzing sustainability efforts at the Phoenix Open. As an Inspire event, WMPO is now responsible for mentoring other organizations on how to apply sustainable practices to events. This year, WMPO is mentoring the Golf Environment Organization (GEO) to pilot a new sustainable golf tournament certification, GEO Certified.
"Much like we aim to educate and inspire fans who attend the tournament on how to reduce, reuse, recycle and recover in their daily lives, through the Inspire program, we will now share our best practices with other events so they too can improve," said Michele Grossman, managing principal for Waste Management Sustainability Services, in a press statement.
Participation from the pros, vendors and everyone in between
With education in place and reuse efforts being practiced, it takes participation from fans, players vendors and celebrities to see the zero waste goal through. According to Micelli, the event sponsors even sign an Acceptable Materials Guidelines contract when teaming up for the event.
"The Thunderbirds have actually integrated into their contracts with sponsors and vendors that they ... have to agree to use all recyclable and compostable materials, and if they're offering a giveaway, it has to be something of value or something that would be recyclable or compostable if people decide to get rid of it while they're on course," Micelli said.
High-profile guests like Phelps and Jackson and other celebrities that Waste Management directly recruits for the pro-am are provided with messaging and expected to take note of Waste Management's mission. Additionally, WMPO has teamed with the Golf Channel for a campaign dubbed "Lessons With the Pros" so viewers — including many business executives — can learn lessons from golf pros or sustainability lessons from pros at Waste Management.
To seal the deal on participation, WMPO hosts a "Green Out" on Saturday during the tournament to encourage all fans to wear green apparel and accessories to show support of sustainability initiatives. For every person who participates in the Green Out, $1 is donated to one of three local charities.
"There are people who get really into it and kind of make a big fashion statement out of it," said Micelli.
The organizations to receive the donations — Arizona Recycling Coalition, Arizona Chapter of SWANA and the Change the Course Water Restoration program — all have environmental missions to increase diversion and promote sustainability. Micelli notes that in 2016, $80,000 was raised from the Green Out and split among the charities.
Preparing to do it all again
As soon as this year's Open is complete, the WMPO team will be back at work to analyze which education and waste diversion practices were most effective, survey attendees and write up a sustainability report.
"For the people who may not believe we're [achieving zero waste] again, it's recycling, compost, donation, storage for reuse or waste to energy for anything that absolutely doesn't make it through the line. That's how we do it," said Micelli.
And for attendees who want to continue waste diversion efforts when they leave the Open, Micelli encourages continued learning, engaging and practice beyond the boundaries of TPC Scottsdale.
"We like to say 'Learn it here, live it everywhere.' Take these things back to your homes, your businesses, your communities and really try to translate the value of simple things [like recycling]," she said. "Take a step back and think about the difference you can make each day."