Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium is among the venues using aluminum beer cups. (Courtesy AMB Sports & Entertainment)

Some venues move from plastic to a product less likely to end up in trash

The push to achieve zero waste at sports and entertainment facilities has multiple venues replacing single-use plastic cups with aluminum drink containers, and the early results have caught officials by surprise. Fans are taking stacks of the recyclable cups home as souvenirs, and some are selling them on eBay for $40 to $50, according to early adopters.

It’s all good, though. The new version of the souvenir cup is a byproduct of an increased awareness by teams, schools and concessionaires to get rid of all plastic, a material with extremely low recycling rates that is littering the country’s landscapes and waterways. 

AMB Sports and Entertainment recently began testing aluminum beer cups in two event-level clubs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and the Miami Dolphins will introduce the containers for their Dec. 22 home game at Hard Rock Stadium against Cincinnati, with plans to sell event-branded aluminum beer and soda cups when Super Bowl LIV comes to town Feb. 2. 

Legends, the new food provider at Denver’s Pepsi Center, launched aluminum cups this week at the arena, home of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and NHL’s Colorado Avalanche. In the entertainment world, Legends tested the cups at last month’s Farm Aid concert at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. It’s part of event promoter Live Nation’s “Sustainability Rocks” program to achieve zero waste across its 50 amphitheaters by 2020.

Those facilities follow the University of Colorado, which became the first entity to pilot aluminum beer cups for football season at Folsom Field, starting with the Sept. 7 season opener against Nebraska. Ball Corp., the 139-year-old firm that produces the iconic Mason jar and whose headquarters are in Broomfield, Colo., produces the cups for those testing the new product.

Teams and schools are making the switch because aluminum has a much higher recycling rate than plastic, up to 85 percent, which leads to a greater financial return for facilities collecting the materials, said Dave Newport, director of the CU Environmental Center at the University of Colorado and leader of Ralphie’s Green Stampede, a group named for Colorado’s buffalo mascot that works closely with the athletic department on sustainability measures.

The University of Colorado has been using aluminum beer cups at Folsom Field since the beginning of the football season. (Courtesy University of Colorado)

One ton of recycled aluminum generates $1,100 for the school compared with polyethylene terephthalate, or PET plastic, which is often used to make bottles for soda and water, Newport said. Consumers typically think of PET plastic as trash, and the recycling rate can be less than 20 percent. The plastic used for water bottles has decreased in quality over time and fans don’t see its inherent value as opposed to aluminum, a much sturdier material, he said.

“Seventy-five percent of the world’s aluminum ever produced is still in use today and we’re really trying to leverage on that (statistic) and make consumers aware of it as we launch the cup,” said Sebastian Siethoff, Ball Corp.’s general manager. “We’re working with north of 50 customers now. It’s not all sports, but that’s where most of the interest lies. It’s been a snowball effect, and the roster is growing quickly.”

It took seven years for Ball Corp. to develop its aluminum cup concept  after company CEO John Hayes had a conversation with the owner of a chain of Denver bars who voiced concerns about liability issues over glass containers when they broke and shattered at his establishment.

“That where the original idea came from, and we saw the market pulling more and more into the sustainable space,” Seithoff said. 

To this point, Ball Corp. is producing a single model of 20-ounce aluminum cup as part of the test, Siethoff said. To meet the increased demand, the company announced in mid-October that it’s building a new aluminum manufacturing facility in Rome, Ga. It’s expected to open in the fourth quarter of 2020 and employ 145 employees on site.

Aluminum cups are more expensive to produce than plastic containers. Colorado pays 25 cents a unit, Newport said, compared with about 10 cents per unit for traditional plastic cups. Apart from the higher return for recycling aluminum, teams, schools and concessionaires can sell sponsorships of the cups, as they do for the plastic variety, to help defray costs.

In Boulder, for example, Aero Electronics, a big supporter of Colorado’s sustainability efforts, has its brand on the cups, Newport said.

It’s a small price to pay for doing the right thing, and teams and schools say they have not had to raise the price of beer sold in aluminum cups. The cups have another benefit over plastic in that they’re better able to keep beer and soda cold, similar to aluminum cans.

“There’s a higher cost because it’s metal, not plastic,” Seithoff said. “But when you add it all up for a stadium event … it’s thousands of dollars. It’s not an insurmountable issue. Most venues have done the math and they’ve come to the same conclusion.”

The cups are a natural fit for Colorado, which started the first recycling program on a college campus in the 1970s and established the first NCAA Division I sports sustainability program in 2008, Newport said. Ball Corp. sponsors Colorado’s vehicle-free tailgate zone at Folsom Field and the two parties agreed to pilot aluminum cups tied to the school’s decision to start selling beer in public spaces at the stadium this season.

“To say people love the cups is a bit of an understatement,” he said. “You get a real feel for it when you’re at the game and watch people walk out of the venue with literally armloads of used cups to take home. The only thing I rue is … we’re not getting the revenues. But they’re getting recycled, and that’s the important part.”

The same thing is happening in Atlanta, where premium patrons are taking home stacks of aluminum cups, said Scott Jenkins, general manager of Mercedes-Benz Stadium and a founding member of the Green Sports Alliance, a trade group committed to sustainable arenas and stadiums. The test is tied to about 6,000 club seats, Jenkins said. 

The aluminum cups left behind at the stadium for recycling play a key role in helping transform lives on Atlanta’s west side. 

AMB Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and MLS’ Atlanta United and the facility’s operator, runs a program called Recycle for Good in tandem with Atlanta-based Novelis, a stadium founding partner and the world’s largest aluminum recycler.

The money generated through Recycle for Good is donated to Habitat for Humanity to build houses for families in need. It takes about 3 million aluminum cans (and now cups) to build an $80,000 house. To date, the program has paid to build two homes, and officials are now in the process of collecting enough aluminum to pay for a third, Jenkins said.

“The industry is starting to realize that we can play a role in the shift away from plastic and aluminum cups as a way to solve the issue,” he said. “We were the first LEED Platinum stadium for new construction and have been promoting recycling of all kinds since we opened. We’re pursuing a zero waste mindset and trying to avoid sending things to the landfill.”

AMB Sports will test aluminum cups in the clubs through next spring before deciding whether to go stadiumwide with the effort, Jenkins said. 

In South Florida, the Dolphins are going all in to eliminate 99 percent of all single-use plastic by the 2020 season, said team President Tom Garfinkel. The effort extends to plastic soda cups and mini-helmets that food vendor Centerplate uses to serve ice cream. All plastic ware in the suites and clubs will eventually be replaced by plant-based utensils.

“We’re getting rid of all plastic cups and bottles,” Garfinkel said. “We sell 600,000 bottles of water (per NFL season). Aquafina is going to deliver water in recyclable aluminum cans and we’re partnering with Ball for aluminum cups. Pepsi has been a great partner. They’re ahead of the curve in terms of what they’re doing with water and other products.”

It’s a massive effort. All told, the Dolphins expect to eliminate about 3 million pieces of plastic annually, according to Garfinkel. 

In the early stages, Centerplate has ordered 100,000 aluminum beer cups to cover the Bengals-Dolphins game and the Capital One Orange Bowl on Dec. 30 in addition to the Super Bowl, company spokesman Paul Pettas said.

It all started when Garfinkel watched an episode of “60 Minutes” in mid-August featuring a segment on plastic containers pooling in the Pacific Ocean and threatening wildlife. He formed an internal committee to research the issue, and the group discovered Ball’s aluminum cups. 

“This is really about trying to lead change,” he said. “If we can get 100 venues to follow our lead, you’re talking about over 250 million pieces of plastic that will get eliminated. This is a real problem; it isn’t about politics or some liberal agenda. It’s about doing the right thing.”

Colorado has set the same goal of being free of single-use plastic by this time next year for the school’s sports venues, Newport said.

“It’s a good thing because we’re thinking about this stuff and society is looking for solutions to the problems that confront us and the solutions present business opportunities,” he said.