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MetLife Stadium Runs All-Out Blitz On Trash

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When Jets safety Antonio Allen intercepted a Tom Brady pass and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown Sunday, Anthony Willis could hear the roar of the football crowd. But Willis couldn’t see the play — he was out in the MetLife Stadium parking lot, alone with the sea gulls, sifting through plastic trash bags purposely left by fans.

Manuel Tajada cleaning up early Monday after Sunday's Jets game.
Manuel Tejada cleaning up early Monday after Sunday's Jets game. The stadium was full of fans again when the Giants played host to the Vikings later last evening. 

When Jets safety Antonio Allen intercepted a Tom Brady pass and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown Sunday, Anthony Willis could hear the roar of the football crowd. But Willis couldn’t see the play — he was out in the MetLife Stadium parking lot, alone with the sea gulls, sifting through plastic trash bags purposely left by fans.

A little later, as Nick Folk kicked a 42-yard field goal to help the Jets win in overtime, Francisco Gomez was in the stadium, but he didn’t see the kick. Gomez was busy inside a trash room off Concourse One, where he manned a bright orange baling machine and picked through an open plastic trash bag, pulling out bottles, cans and other recyclables.

Willis and Gomez were part of a small army of about 250 people who worked Sunday night and into Monday to clean the stands, the 220 stadium suites, the club sections, the locker rooms, all the glass windows and the parking lots — managing in less than 24 hours to finish a task that normally takes three days.

The MetLife Stadium cleaning crew worked so quickly because, just 20 hours after the last green-garbed Jets fans had departed, hordes of blue-clad Giants fans started to descend on the same parking lots and suites and stadium seats to watch the Giants play the Vikings on Monday night.

And despite the tight turnaround — shortened even more because the Jets game went into overtime — the tons of trash and food left by Jets fans was still carefully separated and sorted, by hand, to reduce what would end up in a landfill. In fact, more than half of garbage and construction debris generated at MetLife Stadium each year now gets pulled out of the waste stream and either recycled or composted — making it one of the nation’s more environmentally sustainable arenas.

Today, the cleaning crews will be back, separating the crushed hot dog buns and paper Pepsi cups (compostables) from the beer bottles and cans (recyclables) left on Monday night.

“For many of us it’s a competition with other stadiums that have environmental programs in place,” said Dave Duernberger, the stadium’s vice president of facility operations. “Success is driven by what goes on behind the scenes — how staff collects and separates.”

Another challenge for that staff: birds. Starlings and pigeons love to roost in the stadium’s open steel beams, and bird droppings require more frequent power washing. To reduce the use of water, stadium officials tried installing fake owls to scare the birds. “Within days the starlings were nesting on the owl heads,” said Henry Rzemieniewski, the cleaning operations manager.

Then they brought in a falconer, who released his trained falcon to fly around the stadium and scare the birds away. But a native wild Meadowlands falcon appeared, attacked the falconer’s bird — and killed it.

Finally, the stadium installed fine mesh netting high in the exterior rafters — barely visible to fans, but so far a success at keeping the birds from their favorite roosts, and reducing water used for power washing.

The biggest challenge, though, remains how to handle all the event-generated trash in an environmentally friendly way.

The stadium concourses have stainless steel bins — one marked for recyclables, one for everything else. But fans often ignored the signs. Rzemieniewski said small rubber baffles attached to the lid openings now make it harder — though not impossible — to stuff anything in the recyclable bins other than bottles and cans.

The stadium has also worked with its concessionaire, Delaware North Companies, to use different packaging at the concession stands. Anne Marie McManus, Delaware North’s environmental engineer, said this year’s goal was to have all the products and food containers served in the main concession areas made from compostable material.

“For instance, we changed out a nacho tray,” she said. “It had been recyclable plastic, but we switched to a compostable tray.”

The compostables that get collected at MetLife Stadium — paper cups, hot dog and french fry sleeves, the cardboard trays fans use to carry drinks back to their seats — are hauled to a commercial composting facility in Delaware.

Then there’s the trash left by tailgaters in the parking lots.

Last year, Rzemieniewski started a pilot project. He had four workers in golf carts weave through the lots, handing out translucent blue plastic bags to tailgating fans for recyclables. The fans were instructed to leave the filled bags by their cars, and during the game staff would collect them.

The pilot worked so well — they diverted 150 tons of recyclables from the waste stream — that Rzemieniewski wants to boost the number to 200 tons this year.

“We received comments from the teams that fans were writing in excited, saying that at end of the games they were no longer weaving around mounds of trash in the parking lot,” Durenberger said. “And it costs more to get rid of trash, so pulling the recyclables out helped save $20,000 in the parking lots last year.”

Willis, who spent much of the Jets game out in the parking lots picking up the filled recyclable bags, said season-ticket fans have come to embrace the program and actually seek him out for bags.

Collecting and sorting the parking lot trash can double as a primitive social science experiment. Willis notices a difference in the recyclables left after games. Jets fans trend younger, and their drinking detritus ranges far and wide, from the countless Bud Light cans to a bottle of Angry Orchard Hard Cider that Willis found Sunday. The Giants fans trend older, he said, and their drinking tastes seem slightly more upscale — more Heinekens and Coronas.

The same recycling and composting efforts will be used when MetLife Stadium hosts the Super Bowl on Feb. 2. Jack Groh, the National Football League’s environmental projects director, said Super Bowl crowds don’t produce any more trash than regular season crowds. For starters, fewer parking areas are open to tailgaters — the lots are needed to house broadcast and telecommunications equipment. In addition, fewer people tailgate at Super Bowls, since fewer arrive by car.

The NFL also ends up removing some seats from the arena to build temporary broadcast and TV camera platforms, so there are fewer fans than the nearly 80,000 who attend a regular season game.

Following Sunday’s Jets game, crews began to gather in a tunnel that connects the field to the team locker rooms.

First, dozens of workers pushed carts stocked with brooms, mops, cleaning solution and vacuums up the tunnel and disbursed to clean the 220 suites strung around the stadium. That crew would vacuum up the last piece of spilled popcorn from a suite rug at 2 a.m. Monday.

Waldo Davila of Clifton, an assistant manager with UGL Unicco, the contractor that oversees the stadium cleaning operation, arrived at 5:45 p.m. Sunday in the same tunnel. A long row of workers stood near him, holding bunches of plastic bags. They would use clear bags to collect compostable material in the stands, and an opaque blue bag for recyclables.

Davila dispatched groups of workers to various sections of the stands. Wearing latex gloves, they spent the next several hours bending, grabbing bottles, stuffing them into the bags they carried, bending again, picking up cups and trays and half-eaten food, and dumping them into separate bags.

“Sometimes it gets crazy with so many people on a short turnaround,” Davila said. “But by the time we’re done, you’d never know there had been an event here. Like nothing had happened.”

The stands were picked clean by 1 a.m. Monday, and crews started power washing the concrete steps, the spaces between each row of seats, and the seats themselves.

At 1 p.m. Monday, the power washing was finished. “To be honest, I’m exhausted right now,” said Davila.

At 3:40 p.m., less than two hours after staff finished the Jets cleanup, stadium management Tweeted arriving Giants fans: “Lots NOW OPEN for @Giants vs @Vikings #MNF. Help us recycle! Use blue bags from tailgate patrol — we’ll pick up during the game!”

The trash sorting process began again.

Email: [email protected] Twitter: @JamesMONeill1

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