Friday, March 1, 2024

WM’s Sustainability Efforts Aren’t Getting Lost At Golf’s Phoenix Open

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Party with a purpose. That’s the vision of the Phoenix Open for WM
WM
, which has sponsored the PGA Tour’s rowdiest event since 2010.

Unfortunately, the second part of that mantra may be missed by many.

Most of the media attention around the WM Phoenix Open over the past week centered around the tournament’s party atmosphere.

Social media posts and story headlines often highlighted examples of raucous fans: excessive drinking, boorish behavior, even the occasional fisticuff. During the second round, a woman was hospitalized after she fell from the grandstands at the 16th hole, a par 3 fully enclosed by stadium seating that’s known as the loudest hole in golf. On Saturday afternoon, officials cut off admission to the tournament and alcohol sales in the interest of safety due to overcrowding. By Sunday and Monday, several players had voiced displeasure with the unruliness of the overall scene at the best-attended event on the PGA Tour.

For some, those chaotic scenes and moments are the leading – if not only – takeaway.

And that’s truly a shame because the WM Phoenix Open has grown into one of the most impactful events on the PGA Tour schedule and one of the most influential sporting events in the world.

Not only had the tournament raised more than $125 million for charity entering this past week, but it is the biggest zero-waste sporting event anywhere — recycling, repurposing, and reusing. That’s a tribute to its title sponsor, which used to be known as Waste Management before rebranding to simply WM several years ago in an effort to recognize it’s far more than a garbage company.

Today, WM is not only the biggest recycling company in the nation, but it has become a valued consultant to other leagues, teams, events and venues when it comes to sustainability in the sporting world.

“The visibility of the event is tremendous,” WM President and CEO Jim Fish said ahead of this year’s tournament, which Canadian Nick Taylor won in a playoff over Charlie Hoffman, who during Sunday’s final round was decked out in a green shirt with a WM logo prominently featured. “The PGA (Tour) is one of the great forms of entertainment and so having people watch, and watch the stadium hole at 16, and then hear the message around zero waste… all of that really does help with not only the message of our brand, but also sustainability.”

Beyond Bars

Whether in person or in pictures and video, those who experience the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale know all about the party scene – from the outrageous outfits and loud chants to the beer and booze served at the 60 bar stations within the venue.

But they don’t get to see the large plastic tubes behind the scenes that help deliver waste material from the upper levels of the three-tier stadium into one of the six compactors tucked behind the grandstands that hold six tons apiece. And they’d likely look right past the 30 holding tanks for melt-off from ice at all the bars on that single hole, a recent introduction that over the course of tournament week repurposes 20,000 gallons of water to be re-used in portable bathrooms on site.

While there was a “Green Scene” prominently located on site to help educate fans about sustainability efforts, most attendees probably didn’t appreciate the thought that went into the design of the more than 6,000 boxes for compost and recycling that were spread around the golf course.

The well-marked bins were designed for “children and drunk people,” explains Lee Spivak, the director of WM’s Advisory Services team, with the most recent iteration — featuring one opening with a circle and the other with a smaller triangle — leading to a 30% improvement in patrons correctly sorting their waste material.

More than 3 ½ million alcoholic beverages were sold at the event last year, in addition to all the non-alcoholic drinks and sundry food items.

The tournament did away with aluminum cans several years ago (mostly as a safety precaution) and Spivak notes that he was the one who recently eliminated all candy wrappers from the event, from Oreo cookies to Snickers bars.

Given WM’s extensive experience, it’s not recycling that’s the biggest operational challenge at an event the size and scope of the Phoenix Open, it’s vendor relationships. If companies weren’t using sustainable materials or couldn’t conform, they had to go. A popular brand like Chick-fil-A that uses polystyrene cups for all its drinks would be a no-no, as an example.

“Those are tough conversations to have,” acknowledged WM Senior VP and Chief Customer Officer Michael Watson.

And while some many have seen images and video of fans lining up outside the TPC Scottsdale gates at 5:30 in the morning, few got to see the more than 60 WM employees from around the country who were gathering at the same time in a back-end compound to prepare for the day ahead. Their contributions as section leaders spread across all corners of the golf course helped keep the zero-waste element of the event running smoothly, despite some of the fan fallout around the property.

Purposeful Partying

As a result of some of the aforementioned issues, there will likely be some changes to the fan experience at the 2025 WM Phoenix Open.

Executive director Chance Cozby noted that the security plan and number of general admission tickets will be re-evaluated next year. But WM officials aren’t worried that the overall sustainability message isn’t getting lost in the huge crowds.

The company has had a sustainability services group for over 20 years now, working in big industries such as automotive, petrochemical and manufacturing to help their customers figure out how to recycle more or reduce their waste streams.

WM is investing over $2 billion in sustainable projects, half of that in recycling infrastructure across the country; building in new markets that haven’t had it, or retrofitting older plants with state-of-the-art technology that can process more material. Education is a continuing part of the company’s ongoing efforts; like recycled water bottles being turned into employee uniforms, or its network of landfills that generates biogas which is converted into renewable natural gas and powers WM’s fleet, the largest of its kind in North America.

To that end, the WM Phoenix Open is a highly visible stage that leads to influence in other sports, other industries and beyond.

“The way we like to frame the Phoenix Open and the work we do here is to really make this event the art of the possible, and how can you take certain elements of this and work with customers on their sustainability journeys,” said Tara Hemmer, WM’s Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer. “So, the work we do with composting, recycling, water conservation, food rescue for the hungry, and giving back to communities, we try and show all the things you can do here in an integrative way with vendors collaborating. Then we can take that, outside of this one week of the year, to other customers.”

Beyond the party, there’s plenty of purpose.

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