Given the legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington and Colorado, this year's Super Bowl featuring the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos has already earned a few chuckles as the "green" bowl. Pot jokes aside, the annual pigskin revelry has become progressively more environmentally friendly over the past 20 years, according to the National Football League.
"Every year we are trying to push harder to make this a greener event," Jack Groh, who has directed the league's environmental program since Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta, told NBC News. Whether Super Bowl XLVIII will be the most environmentally friendly yet is hard to say, he noted, but boasted that it will be "the greenest sports event that New York and New Jersey have ever hosted."
Already, the organization has sponsored the planting of more than 27,000 trees and partnered with the local utility to purchase renewable energy credits for every megawatt of electricity used to power Super Bowl events, including the stadium, team hotels, and a 10-block stretch of Broadway in midtown Manhattan renamed Super Bowl Boulevard that includes two concert stages and a toboggan run.
Earlier this month, MetLife Stadium became the world's first such complex to earn the title of Certified Green Restaurant from the Green Restaurant Association. As such, all waste kitchen oil is converted to biodiesel, all kitchen scraps are composted, and all leftover food is donated. In fact, the NFL will donate more than 85,000 pounds of food from Super Bowl events to local food banks and soup kitchens.
In the beginning, the NFL's environmental program focused on recycling everything from cans and bottles to banners, carpeting and office supplies. It added a Super Kids-Super Sharing project to collect and redistribute used books and sporting equipment and in the process teach children how to use "resources in a more effective way, in a way that benefits people," Groh said.
Global warming challenge
Then, about 10 years ago, "someone came along and jokingly said 'if you guys are so green, why don't you do something about global warming?'" Groh recalled. He took the challenge seriously and worked with experts with the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to determine the Super Bowl's carbon footprint and devise ways to reduce it.
"Mostly, the value of it was the NFL saying 'OK, we acknowledge that climate change is a problem and something needs to be done about it and we are going to do something about it voluntarily,'" David Greene, who worked with the NFL while at Oak Ridge, told NBC News. He is currently a civil and environmental engineer at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
To address climate change, the league started its tree-planting program but soon learned that calculating the carbon soaked up from trees is a controversial science. "We decided we were going to continue with tree planting and when people asked us how much carbon (is offset) we would say we don't know but we do know it is a good thing and greening the community," Groh said.
The league then started to negotiate the purchase of renewable energy credits to compensate for the additional carbon emissions Super Bowl activities cause in the host city. For this year's event, the credits bought by New Jersey utility Public Service Enterprise Group provide a boost to local solar and wind energy producers.
To be really green, sack the ads
While the renewable energy credits and other pillars of the NFL's green agenda are to be applauded, the Super Bowl would be a lot greener if it sacked advertising during the game, according to Daniel Blumstein, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA who blogs about environmental issues.
"I love the commercials in the Super Bowl," he told NBC News, then added "but all of that is about consumption and many of our environmental problems … come down to overconsumption. Anyway that we can de-sexify consumption, reduce consumption, is good."
Rather than the constant bombardment of stuff to go out and buy at the end of the game — smartphones, cars, beer, deodorant, etc. — family, friends and neighbors can build community by watching the game together. Of course, Blumstein noted," this is a complete nonstarter because the only reason you can put on the Super Bowl is through the advertising revenues generated."
Instead of vilifying sponsors, the NFL's Groh holds them on a pedestal. This year, for the first time, he noted, the Super Bowl has an official sustainability sponsor — Verizon Communications, which has held two e-waste recycling events leading up to the game. "That is new for this year," Groh noted. "Each year, we try to push it a little further and never be satisfied that we made the greenest event ever."
As for which of this year's Super Bowl teams is the greenest, Groh declined to make an assessment. Regardless of who plays, he said, "it doesn't change what the overall impact of the Super Bowl is on the local community."
But in their own communities, the green programs of the Broncos and Seahawks do have an impact, according to Opower, an Arlington, Va.-based energy software company that has compiled a scorecard comparing the teams' energy conservation efforts.
For example, Sports Authority Field, where the Broncos play, recently shaved 11 percent off its annual energy consumption. Meanwhile, the Seahawk's CenturyLink Field gets 30 percent of its energy from solar power. Xcel Energy, Denver's utility, is the nation's tops for wind power. Seattle City Light is the nation's first carbon-neutral utility.
Overall, Opower deemed Seattle the energy/environment victor.
"We evaluated a range of performance metrics in the efficiency and clean energy arena, from local conservation goals to renewable energy generation, and Seattle edged out Denver in most categories," Opower's senior writer, Barry Fischer, told NBC News.
"The Seahawks’ hometown boasts the nation’s first carbon-neutral utility; their stadium meets 30 percent of its energy needs through solar panels; and the city overall gets 90 percent of its electricity from hydropower. Sure, the hydropower fact may stem from an 'unfair natural advantage' of Washington’s topography, but then again the Super Bowl playing field is no stranger to unfair natural advantages."
As to who will be the victor when the teams light up the field on Sunday, only time will tell.
John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. He started this role in November of 2005. Roach is responsible for environmental coverage on the website. Roach has also contributed to National Geographic News, MSN, and other outdoor and environment related media outlets. To learn more about him, visit his website.