Atlanta’s State Farm Arena scored its first major sustainable victory in 2009 when the venue was known as the Philips Arena.
Home to the NBA’s Hawks and the NHL’s Thrashers, it earned the U.S. Green Building Council LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification in the “Existing Building: Operations and Maintenance” category, making it the first existing NBA or NHL facility to earn this honor.
After taking over the arena’s operations in 2015, Hawks ownership (the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg in 2011) embarked on what has been described as the second-largest venue renovation in NBA history. While the nearly $200 million makeover involved many fan amenities (from giant scoreboards to new seating), it also emphasized sustainability as ownership eyed achieving a Gold LEED designation. “Creating a responsible, sustainable building for our employees, fans, and community was of the utmost importance in that vision,” Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena CEO Steve Koonin stated in 2019.
LEDs were installed in all-new fixtures, reducing lighting energy consumption by 41%. The arena replaced several existing plumbing fixtures with more efficient ones, and lowered potable water usage by 540,000 gallons. Additionally, air quality improved after the building was made smoke-free zones while implementing sustainable housekeeping practices created a healthier environment for staff and fans.
Over 900 tons of waste were diverted from the landfill during the multi-year renovation, with many salvaged items donated to Atlanta’s non-profit Lifecycle Building Center.
12,500 old seats were recycled (with 64 tons of recyclable material being recovered) through a partnership with Rubicon Global, a leading company focused on recycling and waste. Rubicon also provides the Hawks and State Farm Arena with cutting-edge software and hauling equipment and a variety of operational recycling assistance. This collaboration paid early dividends when the arena recycled 12 tons of waste generated from the five major events it hosted during the 2019 Super Bowl Week.
State Farm Arena’s environmental upgrade earned a USBGC’s Gold certification in 2019 for Commercial Interiors. While thrilled with the accomplishment, the Hawks realized they still had work to do. The arena’s diversion rate, for example, only hovered around 10% in 2019. Improving their recycling and waste diversion efforts was particularly important because the Hawks’ post-LEED Gold goal was making State Farm Arena the first TRUE-certified zero-waste sports venue. The highly coveted TRUE designation is administered by the Green Business Certification organization, which the USGBC helped to establish.
The Hawks made several eco-smart decisions to increase State Farm Arena’s recycling efficiency. The team store replaced plastic shopping bags with paper bags made from 100% compostable cardboard, eliminating around 36,000 plastic bags each year. By shifting from a single stream to a multi-stream recycling system that separates items between plastic/aluminum, cardboard, glass, and scrap metal, the arena lessened the chances for contamination, which improved the recyclable materials’ value. The team added another contamination-avoiding measure by substituting clear bags for black plastic ones.
To assist fans in utilizing the arena’s 100+ multi-bin waste station properly, the Hawks started the Zero Waste Squad. Around a dozen green shirt-clad volunteers help fans discard their trash properly at every game. “Our job is to advise people what goes where before they even get ready to throw it away,” explained Sofi Armenakian, director of sustainability and operations for the Hawks and State Farm Arena.
The arena’s changes have influenced vendors. Georgia-based WinCup has begun manufacturing plant-based biodegradable drink stirrers and straws. The firm’s philosophy is to see where we can take it to bring environmental solutions.
In 2021, the Hawks established a strategic partnership with the Atlanta-headquartered Novelis, a worldwide leader in aluminum products and recycling, that proved to be a winner. In 2021, State Farm Arena averaged over a 90% diversion rate at Hawks games and other events and prevented nearly 1,035,000 pounds of waste from reaching landfills. “Achieving more than one million pounds diverted from landfills this quickly is awe-inspiring,” said Novelis EVP & North American President Tom Boney. The impressive numbers included recycling 165,623 pounds of drink and food containers, 49,565 pounds of glass, 122,125 pounds of cardboard, and composting 365,290 pounds of materials. The team, however, also gave back to the community, donating 5,872 pounds of food (approximately 5,000 meals) and 3,576 pounds of old retail merchandise. This impressive recycling system prompted the Sports Business Journal to hail the State Farm Arena as “one of the best examples of the closed-loop in action.”
Two 2021 games particularly exemplify the Hawks’ sustainability success. When Atlanta hosted the NBA All-Star Game, State Farm Arena achieved a 97% diversion rate, making it the first-ever zero-waste NBA All-Star game. “As we strive to make State Farm Arena a sustainable venue for all events, we are proud that our zero-waste program exceeded expectations during this marquee event,” Sofi Armenakian told the Green Sports Alliance. A few months later, at a Hawks playoff game, the arena’s diversion rate and overall sustainability efficiency were high enough to earn a TRUE certification, marking the first time a sporting event was recognized.
Achieving a TRUE Zero-Waste certified event pushed the Hawks closer to reaching its mission of having State Farm Arena being named a TRUE Zero-Waste venue. The team, however, recognizes bigger issues are at play too. “We consider ourselves a community asset,” says Hawks Senior VP Facilities and Events Geoff Stiles. “We really see diverting waste from landfills, making responsible decisions, and showing people that if you can do it at one of the largest buildings in Atlanta [shows that] you can do it at your home.”