Eight things NASCAR should address: #6 – Get Serious About Green

I’ve gotten a little behind in my blogging. My Mom was diagnosed with cancer in February and passed away last week, which threw me for a bit of a loop in terms of catching up. But here it is, Texas race weekend and seven races into the year. So #6 conveniently comes the same weekend NASCAR announces their expanded recycling program.

Recycling is not entirely new with NASCAR. They’ve recycled tires through Goodyear for a long time, and Safety Klean recycles lots and lots of fluids – oils, transmission fluids, etc. That’s inside the garage, though and that’s a small fraction of the activity at the track.

NASCAR has huge events – Texas Motor Speedway can attract 170,000 + fans and a significant fraction of those come for two or three days.

The weight of an empty 20-oz. water bottle is about 20 grams (0.7 oz). A plastic Budweiser bottle weighs more, but let’s take this as a minimum. If each fan drinks two drinks in plastic bottles, we’re talking about 6,800 kilograms – almost 15,000 lbs of plastic bottles. That’s equal to a little more than four Sprint Cup cars (plus their drivers). I know there are a LOT of people who drink much much more than two beverages during the course of a weekend. And then there are the people who drink more than two beverages during the course of a yellow flag.

I talked with NASCAR’s Managing Director of Green Innovation, Dr. Mike Lynch, near the beginning of the year (when I planned on getting all these written) and he told me about some of NASCAR’s plans. In partnership with Coca-Cola Recycling, NASCAR is trying to ensure that a lot more of the waste generated at races is recycled. In the 2009 season, they recycled 80 tons and 2.5 million containers, which is a great start.

Let’s start with Mike’s credentials. He started out as a saxophonist – that’s his B.S. degree, but he moved fields to get a Ph.D. from the University of Miami in Developmental Psychology. That, in my opinion, gives him some unique credentials to deal with drivers! He won tenure at Purdue, but decided the ivory tower was not for him. He earned an MBA at the University of Chicago and became an entrepreneur, mostly working on green medical products among others. He sold that business, started another one and so on. In other words, he’s done a lot of different things with all types of customers and all types of topics.

The amount of recycling in 2009, even given that the recycling program isn’t active at all tracks, is clearly not anywhere near the numbers that end up in landfills. I wondered why NASCAR doesn’t recycle more. You do have to realize that I’m the kind of person who will carry a soda bottle home if it looks like the flight attendants are going to toss it in the trash instead of recycling it. I’ve worked with enough plastics to know that Plastics are Forever. Good for keeping soda fresh. Bad for the land, the sea and the air.

Mike Lynch brought a number of challenges to my attention — the kinds of things you don’t appreciate unless you are first-hand working on something. First off: Getting people to recycle requires placing a recycling container next to every trash container. I started counting trash containers today at TMS. Mike tells me that a small track like Richmond might have 500 trash cans, but a place the size of Daytona or Talladega requires more than 1200 bins to cover the 200,000 to 250,000 people who attend. Texas, I estimate, needs about 1000, plus one for every hauler in the Cup and Nationwide garages. Then you have to have people to empty the bins and take the contents somewhere. At some tracks, there is a remote location that is set up – not too far from the track – where they stage the recycling. That’s one of those things you don’t think about. I can store a blue garbage bag of recycling in the garage until the Friday pickup, but think about the volume those 15,000 lbs of bottles take up.

You also have to have the personnel to empty the recycling bins and make sure that the recycling gets separated from the trash. (The custodial ranks at TMS have orange vests that read “housekeeping”. Shouldn’t they read “track keeping”?) Someone has to make runs to and from the remote site. Mike mentioned that collecting recycling from the fans pretty much has to be a ‘single stream’ process, meaning one bin for everything recyclable (cardboard, glass, bottles, cans). In some locations, the recycling needs sorting – in others it doesn’t. They also have track personnel pick up bottles and cans from the grandstands after the races and add them to the recycling. The track gets market price for the recyclables, which hopefully helps defray their costs in setting up the bins, emptying them and sending them to the off-track facility.

Whew. That’s without the problems. For example, Daytona has Pepsi as a track sponsor and, since the NASCAR recycling program is doing by Coca-Cola, there is a problem there. This is one of the things about NASCAR that makes me really irritated. When it comes to doing good, there is no such thing as exclusivity. What I really want to see is a program whose first priority is getting as much recycled as possible and secondarily concerned with who gets credit. We’ve had similar problems with the educational materials we’ve been trying to develop to get students more interested in math and science: we can’t post them on YouTube, for example, because NASCAR Media group owns the rights and there’s some issue with Turner having web rights, etc. etc. etc. Like our educational programs, I am highly doubtful that anyone is making money on the recycling program. It’s fine for Dale Jr. to be exclusively pitching AMP energy drink, Wrangler Jeans and whatever else he wants, and he and Kasey can arm wrestle about whether there is room for more than one beverage at Hendrick Motorsports: I don’t care. There is no such thing as exclusivity when it comes to our planet.

Tying everything to a sponsor raises some other problems. Office Depot is sponsoring…, well, I’m not totally sure. Here’s what the press release says:

“Office Depot, along with Coca-Cola Recycling, will have co-branding on all NASCAR recycling elements at the track in Texas, including special locations for ink cartridge recycling. The Office Depot show car program in the local area also will promote recycling to fans, including race ticket giveaways providing an incentive for fans to “grow greener.”

I don’t know about you, but the chances that I remember to bring my empty toner cartridges with me to the track is pretty slim. Staples gives me a $3 credit for every one I return to them, and given my office supply habit (awaiting a 12-step program), that’s a better deal for me. Now, if Office Depot gives me something NASCAR-related year round for bringing my cartridges to me, I would patronize them over Staples just because they support the sport and won’t continue to do so unless they are getting business out of it.

NASCAR is a little cautious about pushing green, as there are those uninformed people who think that motorsports are about as wasteful a sport as there is. Not true.

Do the math: Even on a weekend that includes a Cup race, a Nationwide race and a Truck race, the total amount of gasoline used for the races and practices is less than the amount the whole country uses in ten seconds. NASCAR wastes less gas than I do when I have to run back to the grocery store for something I forgot, or back to work because I can’t remember whether I turned off the diffusion pump or not.

NASCAR is in an important position because they can influence so many people. That means they have the potential for doing great good. It also means they have the potential for doing great damage.

The tree planting program is a great example. NASCAR is committed to planting ten trees for every green flag that appears in the Cup race. Great PR move, except the amount of carbon dioxide (which is what is meant to be remedied by the trees) is determined by how many gallons of gasoline are combusted. It is totally unrelated to the number of green flags. Here’s a great example of what we call in education a ‘teachable moment’ and they’ve blown it.

One gallon of gasoline produces about 19.4 pounds of carbon dioxide. You don’t need much to believe this, just the ability to balance a chemical equation and do some simple multiplication. No calculus, I promise.

The average NASCAR Sprint Cup car gets about 4 mpg under green and 8 mpg under yellow. Let’s just assume, again overestimating, that all 43 cars run 500 miles without any cautions. That would correspond to 43 x (500/4) = 5375 gallons of gasoline. At 19.4 pounds of CO2 per gallon of gasoline, the average Cup race is responsible for about 105,000 pounds of CO2.

Remember that people breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide and plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. The perfect symbiotic relationship, which is why people plant trees to offset carbon emissions.

The question of how much CO2 a tree can remove from the environment is an open (and complicated) question. It depends on what type of tree and how long you allow the tree to grow. Bigger trees take up more CO2. To NASCAR’s credit, they are committed to planting larger trees, which removes more CO2 from the environment faster. A single large “mature” tree can take up anywhere from 25 to 70 lbs of CO2 per year. In the best case (70 lbs/year), you’d need 1500 trees to absorb all of the CO2 in one year. Of course, the trees should live for more than one year, so you could amitorize the carbon remediation over several years.

The whole question of how much carbon dioxide a tree can remove from the atmosphere is uncertain, so I’m a little skeptical of the whole idea of claiming that one can mitigate emissions by planting trees — especially if you’re planting trees without providing for their continued maintenance. There are a couple of studies that suggest that the majority of trees planted for carbon remediation never receive any attention after planting and thus never serve the purpose for which they were planted.

I suppose that there are people who will do something simply because a NASCAR driver or crew chief tells them it’s good. I really hope that this is a minority of people. I hope the majority of people want to understand why they are doing something rather than just doing it. But even if that’s not the case, it’s better for people to do the right thing without knowing why than to do the wrong thing. Kudos to NASCAR for doing what they’re doing – but there is more they could be doing.

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