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How the U.S. Open aced a sustainable transformation

Efforts involved the U.S. Tennis Association, Billie Jean King and Venus Williams.

Ten years ago, in the fall of 2007, I walked into my office at the Natural Resources Defense Council and found a note from NRDC’s president: "Allen," it read, "I met Billie Jean King [former world tennis champion] at a dinner last night. She would like to speak with you." 

A few calls followed and the request to speak was clarified: On Aug. 28, 2006, the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) National Tennis Center was rededicated as the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Now that the venue bore her name, King wanted to assure it was a model for environmental stewardship. She wanted to make the U.S. Open the most environmentally responsible tennis event in the world.

We arranged to meet at the Billie Jean King center shortly after the 2007 U.S. Open. I was ushered into a conference room to await King’s arrival, along with Joe Crowley, the USTA’s Director of Operations and other USTA officials.

King arrived with her partner Ilana Kloss, commissioner of World TeamTennis and a world-class tennis star in her own right. A partnership was formed between the USTA and NRDC. As King requested, our goal was to create the most environmentally intelligent tennis event in the world. I told King that doing so would take years.

"Great," she said. "I’m in. Let’s do it."

Our goal was to create the most environmentally intelligent tennis event in the world. I told King that doing so would take years. 'Great,' she said.

In 2007, not one recycling bin existed at the NTC. Today, recycling and composting bins abound and 90 percent of all waste is thus diverted from the landfill. More than 20,000 pounds of uneaten meals are donated to charities, reducing hunger and greenhouse gas emissions. We pioneered recycling the 17,000 tennis ball cans used at the Open.

Tennis ball cans are complex products, comprised of four materials (three types of plastic and an aluminum lid), making them impossible to recycle, until we figured out how to do so in 2008 while donating the 45,000 used tennis balls to community organizations.

In 2007, all of the 2.4 million napkins used at the U.S. Open were made from trees. By 2008, all napkins had at least 90 percent post-consumer recycled content, an environmental achievement that protects forest habitat and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, the Open’s daily draw sheet, tickets, media guides, bathroom tissue and paper towels have at least 30 percent recycled content, while paper use, in general, has been reduced through electronic options.

In the spring of 2008, after agreeing on a logo and a tagline for the U.S. Open’s new environmental program — "Our courts may be blue, but we’re thinking green" — we decided to produce public service announcements to educate fans about environmental stewardship. King introduced me to tennis legends Venus Williams and Bob and Mike Bryan (arguably the greatest men’s doubles team of the modern era).

Together we produced the first environmental public service announcements broadcast at a major sporting event, and it was the first time pro-athletes were engaged for this purpose. King, Williams and the Bryans appeared in videos encouraging fans to recycle and buy recycled paper products, use mass transit and buy organic food. The PSAs are broadcast on the Jumbotron at Ashe Stadium to this day.

Discussing global warming with Williams is one of the highlights of my career and I like to think that I encouraged her to become the environmentalist that she is today. We also pioneered using the Open’s daily draw sheet to share money-saving "Eco Tips" each day, and that, too, is still in use at the Open. And we engaged fans directly: During the 2008 Open, 60 volunteers from NRDC spanned the grounds distributing free New York City mass transit MetroCards to fans who answered an impromptu environmental question, such as, "Name one thing you can do to help protect the environment."

The USTA’s greening program has lived up to King’s original vision: The entire event is powered by renewable energy. All energy use is measured, as is waste generation and recycling, paper use and employee and player travel, and these impacts are converted into measurements of greenhouse gas emissions.

Discussing global warming with Venus Williams is one of the highlights of my career.

Over the past decade, the Open has averted emitting tens of thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Unavoidable greenhouse gas impacts are offset for the approximately 9,000 people who travel to work at the event, including the 850 players. Mass transit is promoted and last year more than 55 percent of fans arrived by public transit, making it the most transit-friendly professional sporting event in the nation.

Cleaning products are Green Seal Certified, paints are zero-VOC, water is conserved, and two LEED Certified structures have been built — the newly constructed Grandstand Stadium and the transportation building. The new Louis Armstrong Stadium, slated to open at next year’s tournament, is expected to attain LEED designation as well.

Since 2009, the U.S. Open’s greening program has been expanded and led at the USTA by Lauren Kittlestad-Tracy, recognized as one of the most influential environmental leaders in tennis, with support from MIT-trained Bina Indelicato, co-founder of eco evolutions and one of the top sustainability experts working in the field.

At the time we started the USTA’s greening program, 90 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution was being pumped into the atmosphere each day. Today, that has grown to 110 million tons daily. July was the hottest month on record. Given those grim metrics, the USTA’s work — building on King’s noble vision to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encourage others to do the same — is even more important. All businesses should follow its lead.

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