During Sunday’s Daytona 500, the green flag – not the checkered one – will signal the day’s winner: the environment.

Every time the flag is waved, Daytona International Speedway will plant 10 trees in the surrounding area as part of the NASCAR Green Clean Air initiative that began in 2009.

The green flag indicates the start of the race for the drivers and 182,000 spectators at the famed track, but it also has symbolized a growing commitment to sustainability in recent years by NASCAR and speedways across the country.

“That’s a positive outcome coming out of the race weekend to promote the sport’s sustainability program,” said Andrew Gurtis, vice president of operations for Daytona International Speedway. “[NASCAR] wanted to do something in the community that would help offset the impact of the racetrack.”

In fall 2008, NASCAR Green was launched to lessen the motorsport’s environmental footprint through a number of methods, including partnering with tracks to plant trees and transitioning to ethanol-blended fuels that burn cleaner.

Mike Lynch, managing director of NASCAR Green Innovation, said the tree program has become a symbolic event for communities and will be a permanent fixture in the sport going forward.

Last year, Daytona International Speedway planted 110 trees across three locations at the Daytona Beach International Airport, while 100 trees were planted on the grounds of four Flagler County schools in 2010.

More than 1,000 trees have been raised nationwide since the program’s inception. Track participation grew to more than 20 in 2011 after starting with 11 tracks in 2009.

“That’s become something way beyond what we thought it would be. Each of these trees, because they’re so mature, you can expect most of them to survive,” Lynch said. “It’s a very good neutralization of our carbon output.”

NASCAR decided to push for sustainability in 2008 because they felt the country was “tilting in a green direction,” but Lynch said there were critics who believed an environmental focus in a motorsport was an oxymoron.

NASCAR saw things differently and formed alliances with U.S.-based companies like Coca-Cola and Safety-Kleen, a Plano, Texas-based company that collects used oil from race tracks and refines it, to execute a strategy based on three guiding concepts: Conservation of the environment; American job creation; and strengthening American energy independence.

Last season, NASCAR’s three national touring series started using Sunoco E15, a racing fuel consisting of 15% ethanol that was formed from American-grown corn in U.S.-based refineries and production facilities.

The fuel not only cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 20%, but teams also have reported horsepower increases of 6% to 8%.

Waste collection at Daytona’s speedway is a multi-pronged effort that encompasses everything from beverage containers to racing byproducts such as used motor oil, gasoline, brake fluids and antifreeze.

Last year 6.1 tons of aluminum, mostly beverage cans, was collected at the speedway along with 50 tons of cardboard from packaging materials and 20.8 tons of steel.

In addition, Gurtis said Safety-Kleen takes potentially hazardous fluids off-site to its facilities. The company re-refines more than 140 million gallons of used motor oil annually – with 180,000 gallons coming from 200 NASCAR-sanctioned races – and sells it.

Coca-Cola Recycling, a NASCAR Green partner since 2008, will place 600-700 bins at Daytona; roll out its Recycling Education Vehicle to educate consumers on the benefits of recycling; and showcase their Reimagine recycling center that processes bottles, said Mary Anne Biddiscombe, director of customer solutions and consumer education at Coca-Cola Recycling. Beer company Anheuser-Busch will provide bins as well.

Biddiscombe said the company coordinates with tracks to make sure the 10,000 bins they disperse each year are placed next to trash cans in popular congregation spots.

In 2011, Coca-Cola debuted its Portable Processing Center at Daytona as part of a pilot-program with NASCAR.

The processer, which is brought in on a tractor trailer, separates, sorts and crushes drink containers so they can be baled and reused.

“We were able to process material and collect almost 200,000 containers at Daytona last year – not all of them Coke, by the way,” Biddiscombe said.

Contact Waste & Recycling News reporter Vince Bond at vbond@crain.com or 313-446-1653.

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