Milo Bonnin

Milo Bonnin guides reused golf balls down a wooden ramp to fill the WM logo installation in the lake at the 18th hole weeks before the 2020 Waste Management Phoenix Open. It takes crews two days to fill the logo with 140,000 balls.

Every year, TPC Scottsdale transforms into its own city as hundreds of thousands of fans pack the Waste Management Phoenix Open golf tournament.

With those fans, comes trash – and a lot of it.

But instead of sending this waste to landfills, crews at the Phoenix Open take great pains to recycle compost and otherwise divert it to alternative uses.

“It’s like serving a small metropolitan city,” said Janette Micelli, external affairs director for Waste Management.

In 2019, workers collected 229 tons of compostable material alone at the tournament – diverting 99.4 percent of waste through recycling, composting, reuse, donation or conversion to energy.

Waste Management pitches the Open as a “zero waste event” – meaning all of the trash generated at the event is diverted from landfills.

Scottsdale Councilwoman Solange Whitehead applauded the move.

“It’s a big deal when the nationally televised Waste Management Open demands zero waste,” Whitehead said. 

“The benefits won’t stop at our borders; the WM Open has raised the ‘green bar’ and events around the world follow suit,” she added.

The zero-waste movement has picked up steam in recent years, but it is not without its critics.

In a 2019 editorial published by GLOBUS, a journal on sustainability at the University of Warwick, Gwendolyn Tan wrote criticism, which includes movements like zero-waste tend to disproportionately exclude the poor because it is expensive to adopt new, energy-saving habits and products.

“The rich, on the other hand, can afford to be sustainable but tend to consume the most energy in their daily activities,” Tan wrote.

Tan also wrote zero-waste is ultimately a movement reliant on individual action, meaning its overall impact will be limited without significant buy-in.

To that end, Waste Management is spearheading an educational component at this year’s tournament to make sure attendees know how to recycle and compost correctly since recycling contamination drives up cost and resource expenditures down the line.

This educational push includes a new WM Green Scene tent with helpful information about reducing waste and recycling properly. 

Erin Schneiderman, a clinical assistant professor with the Special Events Management Program at Arizona State University’s Watts College, lauded Waste Management’s use of the tournament’s profile to educate consumers.

“I think if you’re going to an event and you learn something and there’s an educational component, then I would hope somebody would bring it home with them and say, ‘okay, now I have a better idea of what it takes to recycle’ and maybe start using it in their day to day as well,” Schneiderman said.

Costs incurred by contamination –coupled with changes in the global market – have driven up the cost to recycle, forcing some cities like Mesa and Surprise to cut back or cancel their municipal programs altogether.

To most fans, the zero-waste effort at the Phoenix Open will be present throughout the tournament in the form of bins for recycling and compostable materials.

While tournament organizers will be encouraging fans to throw their old food into compost bins, they’re also actively looking for ways to repurpose food not being consumed by donating it to Waste Not, a local food bank.

Last year, the tournament donated 14 tons of food to Waste Not and the Joy Christian School.

But Micelli said the sustainability effort extends far beyond what most fans will see.

Behind the scenes, tournament organizers have gone to great lengths to lessen the environmental impact of every aspect of the tournament, from having construction crews separate their waste during set-up to donating building materials and reusing signage year in and year out.

This effort includes the reuse of 140,000 golf balls the tournament uses to fill its floating WM logo in the lake at the 18th hole.

The massive metal logo – stored and reused annually – has been a staple at the tournament since 2012.

Schneiderman said this type of reuse is one of the easiest ways large-scale events can reduce waste.

“We really encourage to not date any collateral, so any posters or banners, so we can reuse them year after year…” Schneiderman said.

The Thunderbirds, the civic organization hosting the Open, is also a part of the effort. It only contracts vendors that fill out a sustainability and zero waste survey.

The survey makes sure all vendors can comply with the tournament’s rules regarding waste, such as banning plastic cups and straws in favor of paper straws and compostable cups.

Many vendors also generate “gray water” – or relatively clean water over devices like sinks and can be used to water grass and other uses.

Last year, the tournament captured 6,679 gallons of gray water.

Thunderbirds Big Chief Chance Cozby said at this point, finding vendors willing to participate is not difficult.

“Entering our eighth year as a zero-waste event, we have developed relationships with vendors creating a robust supply chain easily communicated and manageable,” Thunderbirds Big Chief Chance Cozby said. 

Fans, too, are on-board with the sustainability effort.

“Our fans have become very savvy and encourage an environmentally responsible event,” Cozby said.

While the collective effort by the Thunderbirds, Waste Management and vendors is focused on limiting the impact of waste from the tournament, Micelli said the educational aspect of the tournament will extend beyond the event itself.

“At the 2020 Waste Management Phoenix Open, our biggest goal is to educate fans about how to recycle right,” Micelli said.

Micelli said the goal of the educational program is to combat “wishcycling” and provide information attendees can carry over into their everyday lives.

Wishcycling refers to the all too common practice of individuals to throw items into the recycling bin without making sure they can be recycled.

The result of wishcycling is increased costs incurred by recyclers like Waste Management that have to sort through the waste to remove non-recyclable products.

“If you remember anything at all from this tournament,” Micelli tells fans, “just please take home the tips about how to recycle right.”