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Wembley Stadium: An illustrious venue future-proofed for sustainability challenges

April 04 2024

Wembley Stadium is one of the most famous venues in the world. It boasts a 90,000 capacity, is the UK’s largest stadium and is the second-largest in Europe behind FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou.

Wembley Stadium: An illustrious venue future-proofed for sustainability challenges

It has also provided the stage for some of history’s most memorable moments – from England winning the World Cup in 1966, to the Live Aid benefit concert organised by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in 1985 for relief of the 1983-85 famine in Ethiopia. 

Of course, that was the ‘old’ stadium. Wembley, in its current iteration, opened in 2007 and sustainability has been woven into its very fabric. 

The original Wembley opened during the 1920s and by the 1990s, it was clear that the old stadium was outdated. Updating the venue or retrofitting was not a viable option, meaning there was only one path: a whole new Wembley. 

Despite being a new design with a very different look, sustainability was a core aspect of the build. The concrete from the old stadium was repurposed into the piling mat for the new Wembley, while all the old steel work was recycled.

Flexibility has also been core to Wembley’s design, as the ability to adapt the venue has been invaluable over the last 17 years.

“Since 2007, when the new stadium first opened, we have been on a journey to ensure we continue to put sustainability principles at the heart of our operations,” explains Ruaidhri Dunn, Head of Procurement and Sustainability at the English Football Association, to Global Sustainable Sport.

Following Wembley’s opening in 2007, the Wembley operations ‘Green Team’ was established in 2009, also known as FAST (FA Sustainability Team).

Over the years since then, Wembley and The FA’s sustainability team have taken on various tasks to aid the London venue’s environmental journey. Since 2010, with help from Veolia, Wembley has been a ‘zero-waste-to-landfill’ venue. The waste management service provider has also advised and trained Wembley’s event day staff to ensure the venue maintains high recycling rates.

A frontrunner

Wembley’s dedication to sustainability also saw it become the first sporting venue to achieve the Carbon Trust’s Triple Standard in 2014. The Carbon Trust was formed in the early 2000s as part of the UK’s Climate Change Levy, a tax on business energy use that is still in place today.

The standard considers an organisation’s impact across three core pillars: carbon, water and waste. In order to achieve the Trust’s Triple Standard, an organisation must actively manage and provide data that showcases its impact in these areas for at least two years prior.

Building on this achievement, Wembley’s team has focused on event sustainability management since 2018, eventually achieving the ISO 20121 international standard.

As part of achieving the standard, a number of initiatives have been implemented. Even Wembley’s famous arch has not been forgotten; along with all lighting, it was upgraded to use LEDs. Elsewhere, the long-term use of 100% renewable energy has been put in place at the stadium.

Some 16 water refill stations have been installed at the stadium, and low-flow technologies have been utilised across bathrooms. The two schemes have helped to drastically reduce water consumption.

Working with catering partner Delaware North, Wembley has reduced the use of packaging, and has further increase its vegan and vegetarian menu options, while also sourcing local produce where possible.

Sustainability meetings are regularly held with partners and suppliers to improve the supply chain, with a focus on plastics reduction including the removal of plastic straws from the stadium’s offerings.

All food waste goes to Anaerobic Digestion (a process that sees microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen) before being used to provide fertiliser for future good crops.

Ahead of this year’s UEFA Champions League final, which is being held at Wembley on June 1, Dunn explains that the team have been looking at implementing carbon labelling for menus. This will be a traffic light system, so that guests will have an idea of how sustainably they are purchasing and consuming.

In 2023, Wembley introduced a fleet of new electric and hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) powered vehicles to help with the clean-up of the stadium post-event. The eco-fleet sweeps up around the stadium after every event, and will reduce emissions by up to 90%.

Pitch perfect

Equal part sustainability and community focused, soil from Wembley’s pitch is donated every year to help regenerate local pitches.

Sticking with the pitch – groundskeepers are some of the most important members of staff in a vast ecosystem at a stadium. There’s a reason a pitch is often referred to as ‘hallowed turf’.

A vast number of modern-day football pitches are a hybrid of grass and synthetic plastic to make the surfaces more durable, meaning it can be difficult to recycle. Following a two-year plan to find a suitable solution for this, Wembley Stadium recently announced the development of a process that makes the pitch 100% recyclable – believed to be a first in the football world.

While the team already recycled many elements of the pitch (rootzone and sand) back into the aforementioned grassroots pitches, the groundskeepers worked with recycling specialists Circular 11 to develop the solution.

The result is the ability to transform elements of the pitch into a number of products that can be used within grassroots football. For example, it is estimated that some 50 benches could be created from one pitch, and a prototype bench is set to be placed within the stadium footprint in memory of an employee that passed away last year.

Wembley Stadium’s sustainability efforts extends to its connection with the local community.

“We want everyone living in the area to feel pride in having such an iconic, national landmark on their doorstep, so the team works closely with residents, schools, community groups and business to provide greater access to the stadium,” explains Dunn.

“We give away free tickets to local residents groups to all of our events and have a private box which is now available to community groups on all our event days.”

Since September last year, more than 1,300 complimentary tickets have been donated to local schools, with 1,000 complimentary tours of Wembley delivered to community groups. In December, the stadium also held a Community Pitch Day with schools from across the London borough of Brent to take part in football activities. A Learning Zone located on the ground floor of the stadium for young people in Brent and further afield.

Major events

Wembley is a gracious host and provides the stage for the some of the world’s most spectacular sporting events and concerts. This includes international and domestic football competition, the NFL, major tours from international artists and more.

But how does this affect Wembley’s approach to sustainability?

“The plan doesn’t change – we still want to minimise our impact as much as we can,” explains Dunn. “But the tactics to do that sometimes change for each event. Each type of event has different audiences and it is important we recognise the different opportunities and challenges that presents.”

Providing the stage for a number of different events also means that Wembley had to adapt.

“I think it was partly seen as a differentiator for the stadium, but also partly because Wembley is such a multi-use venue, it’s something that more and more event-owners are looking for,” adds Dunn.

“Whether that’s UEFA, FIFA, NFL, concert promoters or more. We essentially classify our events here into two types – there’s FA events, which includes FA Cup, England games, the Community Shield, and we set our own rules for the events there, because we operate the venue and we own the event.

“Then there are the third-party event owners, and we’re quite often asked to comply with certain policies or standards that they have.”

Each type of event also creates different levels of waste and recycling. For example, music audiences will traditionally spend more time on site so will naturally create more waste than an ordinary football game. This will be the same for NFL matches, where crowds descend on stadiums several hours before the start of the game.

Adapting to this sees the team at Wembley placing bins at strategic points, with more refillable water stations set up; more are situated along the pitch area for concerts. Even backstage, Wembley insists that the stadium is a plastic bottle-free zone, encouraging road crews and artists to also use the refillable water stations.

“We work closely with all our event owners and operational teams to work together and adopt the policies and procedures we know that work,” says Dunn.

“I think it’s also the realisation that if you’re hosting events where there are 80,000 or 90,000 people coming onto the land, you have a duty of care to at least think about the impact it’s going to have firstly on the surrounding environment, and the long-term environment,” adds Paul Collins, Wembley’s Communications Manager.

In June, Wembley is set to host the UEFA Champions League final. The sustainability team at the stadium will work with the organisers of an event, whether that is by recommending its own sustainable framework or adopting additional practices.

“We work with all our event owners to understand their requirements and how they might work best with our knowledge and understanding of the building,” explains Dunn. “Generally, there is an acceptance of the procedures and processes we have in place and some event owners are happy to go with that. However, each event is unique and some will want to adopt policies that their own commitments.”

For example, when British band Coldplay last performed at Wembley in 2022, they asked for all drinks to be served in recyclable cups at concession bars. Alongside global venues on the band’s tour, Wembley was asked to accommodate a kinetic floor that generated energy by the fans’ dancing and movement.

“Organisations such as UEFA, the NFL and more will also have their own requirements, which we will implement as much as we can,” adds Dunn.

An unavoidable aspect of an event’s footprint is, of course, Scope 3 emissions.

Wembley’s communications encourage more fans and guests to use transport when visiting the stadium, and some 75% do use public transport. The aim is to increase this to 85% in 2024.

In fact, Wembley’s first major event of the year – the Carabao Cup final between Premier League clubs Liverpool and Chelsea in February – saw around 90% of all guests travel to the stadium by public transport.

Additionally, the stadium promotes cycling with onsite bicycle storage, and the use of electric vehicles by working with Quintain to install charging points in nearby carparks.

Of course, Wembley is not always in use, but the venue incorporates office space for over 350 members of staff from The FA, the stadium, London FA and The Football Foundation. There is an on-site team that manages the building all-year round, always looking for ways to operate more sustainably.

Last year, Wembley upgraded five container-sized boilers that achieved a 13% reduction in overall gas use. The venue also recently moved to a Power Purchase Agreement tariff, which means money is paid to a wind project that produces electricity for the grid – in this case, the Burn of Whilk wind farm in the north of Scotland.

A bigger picture

Sustainability is not only important to Wembley Stadium, but for the FA as a whole. Last year, the FA launched its five-year sustainability strategy ‘Playing for the Future’, which sets out its plan to make a positive impact on the environment and local communities by 2028. This includes Wembley.

The plan includes reducing carbon emissions, minimising impact from waste, ensuring good governance, maintaining a safe and healthy venue, and ensuring diversity, equality and inclusion.

As part of this strategy, and more than a century after the original Wembley Stadium staged its first football match – the famous White Horse Final of the FA Cup in 1923 – and nearly two decades on from the rebuilt venue opening, it is clear that this prestigious ground will remain a beacon for sustainability for years to come.

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