The NFL’s Carolina Panthers will host the Seattle Seahawks in a divisional playoff game next week. Quarterback and MVP candidate Cam Newton and his stellar offense put up gaudy numbers up all season on the way to a franchise record 15 regular season wins, but in Charlotte, numbers outside the stadium are also adding up thanks to the Panther Tailgate Recycling program.
The program, which is in its seventh season, is striving toward a bold goal: Recycling 50 tons of waste from Panther tailgate parties.
Before the program began, all waste generated by tailgaters headed straight to landfill. Seven years ago, Keep Mecklenburg Beautiful Executive Director Jake Wilson facilitated a meeting among the interested parties including parking lot owners, the Carolina Panthers, the City of Charlotte Solid Waste Services Department and others to work together to make sure tailgaters were recycling before home games.
Years later, their success is tangible. At first, the program was recycling 30 tons of waste per season. That grew to a record 45 tons last year. Since the program began, Panthers fans have recycled 198 tons of materials—that’s enough to nearly fill Bank of America Stadium.
“So we are up to a little under a 40 percent diversion rate, so we want to try to improve that,” says Wilson.
And with the Carolina Panthers in the playoffs, he says that goal is within reach.
Tailgaters receive a specifically marked recycling bag, sponsored by Charlotte-based Bojangles Famous Chicken and Biscuits restaurants, as they enter their chosen parking lot. As fans enjoy pre-game tailgating, they are asked to recycle clean cardboard, bottles and cans. Before heading into the stadium, tailgaters leave the recycling bags and collapsed cardboard at the curb to be picked up by the City of Charlotte’s Solid Waste team.
“Our fan awareness continues to grow. We are really excited to build on our success from previous seasons’ recycling efforts. The partnership remains dedicated to diverting waste from our landfills,” says Scott Paul, executive director of stadium operations for the Carolina Panthers. “We will continue to focus on educating our fans about the processes we have in place in order to exceed our goals for the 2015 season.”
Overall, according to Charlotte’s Solid Waste Services Department, tailgating generates between 10 and 12 tons of waste on most game days.
“So now,” Wilson says. “We basically get about 40 percent of that—around four tons per game—that comes to Mecklenburg County’s MRF and it’s recycled and resold.”
The Panthers earned a bye in the first week of playoffs. Their first playoff game is on Jan. 17. If they win that, they will host the NFC title game the following week thanks to having earned home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The recycling target, which is 50 tons, is doable, Wilso says, if the team plays both games. The fans will come to cheer on their team and to celebrate a place in the playoffs. And, they’ll do their part to divert waste from landfill.
“The fans love it. They’ve embraced it. We get between 1,000 and 1,500 bags a game depending on the weather," Wilson says. "Obviously, we are having a banner season, so we are doing very well. And we’ve got hopefully the two home games left. We’ve already done just under 42 tons this season."
“It’s a win-win situation for everybody involved,” he adds. "The Panthers are very happy. The city benefits because of cost diversion from not paying landfill rates. The county benefits, obviously, from it being taken to the MRF and resold and I guess the environment is the biggest winner because it doesn’t go into landfill.”
It’s not yet perfect. And some education still takes place when fans have questions about what can be recycled, but for the most part, they’re getting it right. Some alcohol is consumed, says Wilson, so some people are better than others at properly recycling, but in general the contamination rate is less than what occurs in the residential single-stream that comes to the county MRF. College games can be a challenge, he says, because it’s a different crowd but recycling is still taking place during those tailgates, as well.
“The only problem we have is when the Eagles fans are in town. The Eagles fans are a bit different,” Wilson jokes.