by Marc Gunther
Last Updated: March 28, 2008: 7:07 AM EDT
Email | Print    Type Size  -  +

Major League Baseball changes its colors

From corn-based beer cups to flex-fuel team cars, pro baseball is going green.

By Marc Gunther, senior writer
A general view of the Washington Nationals new stadium, Nationals Park.
New bottle receptacles are part of a broad recycling program that the Pittsburgh Pirates are instituting this season.

(Fortune) -- When the Washington Nationals play their home opener against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, the grass on the field won't be the only thing that's green.

The Washington Nationals' new $311 million stadium, built by the District of Columbia, is the first big league ballpark to meet standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council. It will have energy-efficient lighting, ultra low-flow lavatory faucets, low-flush toilets, recycling bins, a green roof, bike racks and preferential parking for high-mileage cars.

The team isn't the only one stepping up to the plate when it comes to reducing environmental footprints. Last summer the Cleveland Indians put up solar panels at Progressive Park - and the Boston Red Sox are in the process of installing them up at Fenway Park. The Seattle Mariners recycle food waste, as well as paper and plastic containers. And when you buy a beer at an Oakland A's game this season, expect a cup made of biodegradable cornstarch.

The Pittsburgh Pirates probably won't reach the top of the league standings, but they just may be baseball's environmental mascot. The Pirates use corn-based cups, toilet paper made from 100% recycling input, and game-day programs printed with soy-based inks. Their scouts even drive flex-fuel cars. (Quick aside: Did you know that Pirates owner Bob Nutting comes from a newspaper family that also publishes Mother Earth News and the Utne Reader? Me neither.)

Much of the impetus for these changes comes from a partnership between Major League Baseball and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that has also worked with the NBA, the National Hockey League, and organizers of the Oscars and Grammy Awards.

"By getting America's pastime to embrace environmentalism, we can move beyond the debates about left, right and politics," says Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at NRDC, longtime Mets fan and manager of his son's little league team. Hershkowitz is especially hopeful that baseball's green drive will influence fans too. "There's nothing comparable to the brand loyalty that professional sports teams generate."

The NRDC began working with baseball several years ago after Robert Redford, one of the group's trustees, suggested during a board meeting at his Sundance Resort that NRDC work more in entertainment and sports. Robert Fisher, a trustee whose family owns a stake in the Oakland A's, offered to connect the group with the baseball commissioner's office, according to Hershkowitz.

Since then, Hershkowitz has spoken with more than 20 teams and visited numerous parks. (He's been invited to throw out the first ball at Fenway on Earth Day next month, when the Red Sox gets an award from the Environmental Protection Agency.) NRDC is asking teams to look at their ballpark operations, which consume energy and generate greenhouse gases, and their supply chains, where opportunities abound to buy recycled paper, organic cotton T-shirts or locally-grown food. Soy dogs, anyone?

Most of baseball's greening happens behind the scenes. The new Washington Nationals ballpark, for instance, is built on a "brownfields" site, which was once home to an asphalt factory, according to Susan Klumpp, one of 22 architects and designers on the project. Construction waste was recycled, and a sophisticated water treatment facility is built under the stadium, so that wastewater doesn't pollute the nearby Anacostia River. "How to pursue LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification without additional construction dollars was the tough part," she says.

Still, there's an obvious way that teams could save energy: by scheduling more day games to reduce the need for power-sucking field lights. (Most teams play at night to attract more TV viewers.) I'm looking forward to my first trip to the Nationals park on Sunday, but I could do without the 8 p.m. start time and the 30-degree temperatures. Baseball should play more games in the afternoon - for the fans and for the earth. To top of page