For the 40,000 fans who came to the official opening of the Washington Nationals' new ballpark on March 30, global warming wasn't exactly a top concern. The temperature was a brisk 44 degrees when President Bush threw out the first pitch at 8 p.m., and as the crowd sat huddled against the chill, most were focused on whether the home team would deliver a performance worthy of a $611 million stadium and a national TV audience. It's unlikely anyone noted the high-efficiency bulbs in the field lights, or realized that 95 percent of the stadium's steel was recycled, or even that the low-flow toilets would save millions of gallons of water each season. Most of what makes Nationals Park the country's first green professional-sports stadium doesn't look any different from what you'd find at other ballparks, which is one reason its recent certification by the U.S. Green Building Council is so impressive. "It's far and away the most ambitious project we've ever certified," says USGBC vice president Brendan Owens.
In 2004, when the D.C. city council agreed to build the Nationals a new yard to lure the Expos from Montreal, it insisted that it be the first major sports stadium to get the USGBC's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating. At the time that didn't seem feasible. The points-based system was designed to limit the environmental impact of commercial office buildings, not outdoor ballparks. But by recycling 5,500 tons of construction waste, installing a state-of-the-art water-filtration system and placing the stadium close to public transportation on what used to be the site of a contaminated brownfield, the city was able to get the certification with less than a 2 percent hike in construction costs. "This proves it's doable," says Joe Spear, a principal with HOK Sport, the architecture firm that designed the stadium. Beginning with Camden Yards in Baltimore, Spear has had a hand in designing 10 of the last 11 major-league baseball stadiums, and says that other cities are looking to duplicate D.C.'s success. "All my future clients are talking about it."
Each year, more than 79 million people attend a major-league baseball game. They often drive long distances to get there and produce mountains of trash by the time they leave, nearly all of which ends up in landfills. Sports stadiums consume vast amounts of resources, from the electricity to power the lights to millions of gallons of water to flush the toilets and irrigate the playing fields. Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, has been lobbying teams and their facilities to go green since 2002. His efforts have started to pay off through incremental improvements by individual teams. Last year the Seattle Mariners started a composting project at Safeco Field. The team expects to recycle 25 percent of its waste this year, or about 350 tons of glass, plastic and organic trash. The San Francisco Giants, Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians have all installed solar panels in their ballparks. Since 2005, the Oakland A's have used biodegradable corn-based cups at McAfee Coliseum. Last month the NRDC rolled out a team-specific greening-advisory system for the NBA, MLB and NHL, designed to help clubs implement eco-friendly practices by putting them in touch with local companies familiar with things like composting and energy audits. "Sports franchises have a huge responsibility toward environmental stewardship," says Bob Nutting, who, upon assuming principal ownership of the Pittsburgh Pirates last year, was appalled to learn that none of the 760,000 bottles and cans used at PNC Park in 2007 were recycled. This year, 100 percent of them will be.
It's unlikely that Nationals Park will be baseball's greenest stadium for long.
The New York Mets' new $800 million ballpark in Queens, which will open in 2009, just got the stamp of approval from the EPA for the sustainable initiatives it's using. The Minnesota Twins are seeking a higher level of LEED certification for their new field that opens in 2010. And Major League Baseball recently agreed to use some of its $6 billion of yearly revenue to pay for the greening costs of the Florida Marlins' future stadium in Miami. More of the same would be a big hit.