The Long Read: How the sports industry is trying to turn the tide on plastic

SportsPro's Michael Long reflects on sport’s problem with plastic, and discovers the efforts of those within the industry to do something meaningful about a profound environmental threat.

by Michael Long
The Long Read: How the sports industry is trying to turn the tide on plastic

It was during a visit to Seattle’s Safeco Field last September that, for the umpteenth time, the scale of the problem hit home. Strolling through the ballpark’s concourses shortly before opening pitch, the stifling waft of broiling franks and smoke from a distant wildfire hanging heavy in the air, it was impossible to avoid.

Plastic. The stuff was everywhere: bottles, cups, bags, packaging, all fashioned from plastic, all being bought and discarded by the assembling crowd with barely a moment’s thought. It was as if this particular ecosystem could not function without the ubiquitous presence of plastic – and this was Seattle, of all places.

This was the self-styled leader in environmental sustainability, a city whose mayor had just days earlier committed to banning disposable plastic straws and utensils from this coming July. Safeco Field itself had only recently pledged to go straw-less for the month of September, part of a campaign to encourage local residents, sports fans and businesses to #StopSucking by switching to more ocean friendly, 100 per cent paper straws.

Yet this was just the tip of the iceberg. If Seattleites could step up their fight against plastic consumption and still be so overtly awash with this virtually indestructible environmental menace, what hope was there that other major cities and sports organisations were implementing meaningful measures to combat the issue?

It was that question that led me to investigate sport’s relationship with plastic and, by extension, the oceans, and then to Julie Andersen, the global executive director of the Plastic Oceans Foundation, a Los Angeles-based non-profit. Part of the foundation’s mission, Andersen explained, was to ensure sports organisations are aware of the impact their activities are having on the oceans, and to encourage them to reduce their plastic consumption by limiting their use of packaging such as drinks bottles and giveaway bags.

“The line that we travel is how do you get bigger events like football games and soccer games to lower their plastic consumption?” she told me. “That really becomes the hurdle because, ultimately, where are their alternatives? They make so much of their money at these events by selling cups of beer and sodas or whatever. It’s not that they’re not for it, they just have no alternative.”

How do football games and soccer games to lower their plastic consumption? It’s not that they’re not for it, they just have no alternative

It was a valid point, no doubt, but one which left me deeply unsatisfied. In the days before our phone call I had spent many hours researching the global emergency that is plastic pollution in the oceans. What I found was both shameful and overwhelming. There were surveys that suggested a truckload of plastic enters the ocean every minute, amounting to an estimated eight million tons each year. In the last decade, one report noted, humans manufactured more plastic than over the course of the preceding century. The situation had grown so dire that plastic already makes up roughly 80 per cent of the total marine debris in the world’s oceans and, based on current trends, will outweigh fish stocks by 2050, according to the UN.

Inundated by this deluge of depressing evidence, I read on about how half of the oxygen every human being breathes comes from the oceans, and how human activity is the sole contributor to the worldwide production and consumption of plastics that are suffocating them from the inside out. Worse still, much of that plastic makes its way into the food chain, with micro-plastic contamination having been found across the globe in drinking water, bottled mineral water, fish, and even beer.

Surely Andersen was wrong, I reasoned. Surely a scaleable alternative to single-use plastics at sports events was out there. It had to be. And sport, as I came to learn, was playing its part; sports organisations really were getting serious about tackling marine health issues.

Those in sports like sailing, surfing and cliff-diving were leading the way, alarmed by the impact that plastic pollution is having on the environment in which they work and train. Series such as the Volvo Ocean Race and the World Surf League (WSL), not to mention countless elite watersports athletes, had become vocal advocates for ocean conservancy, inspiring their fanbases and counterparts in landbased sports to follow suit.

Adidas teamed up with Parley for the Oceans, a marine health organisation, to create ‘up-cycled’ shoes made from ocean plastic and old fishing nets.

Adidas, much to my surprise, was one shining example. Having teamed up with Parley for the Oceans, a marine health organisation that rallies the creative industries behind its cause, the sportswear giant was selling shoes and swimwear from ‘up-cycled’ ocean plastic and old fishing nets collected from the shores of Africa. It had also created ecofriendly soccer kits made from similarly repurposed marine debris.

With a little digging, I found dozens of these examples, but I doubted how much the everyday sports fan knew of them. Why had these organisations been so reticent to promote their initiatives? Clearly, it wasn’t that sport was doing nothing; it was that those in the industry weren’t shouting loud enough, or that the public wasn’t hearing them.

I asked Andersen whether there were concerns about provoking a backlash through such activism, or if organisations were perhaps gagged by hidden commercial interests. She fired back that finger-pointing was futile. Instead, she said, sport and pro athletes were simply trying to raise awareness, to affect behavioural change among consumers who “have the power with their dollar”.

“But,” she continued, “you have to also inform the consumer of where they should spend their dollar and why it’s important to refrain from buying certain things to force an industry into finding alternatives. It’s really about how you get that collective consciousness, so you get the scalability, you get the purchase power, and you get an overall social and ethical approach.”