May 7 , 2024

Plastic pollution continues to be a growing concern that permeates every aspect of our lives. We feel it’s only right to narrow in on what the sports industry can and should be doing to prevent plastic use from rising at a time when the conservation of resources and giving back to the planet is more crucial than ever. However, although progress is being made, the sports industry in the UK is still overlooked as a key ‘offender’ for plastic overuse as this article reveals. Writes Annie Button

The Growing Problem of Plastic in the Sports Industry

The sports industry, as stated above, is not immune from scrutiny when it comes to excessive plastic use. Plastic production has more than doubled in the last two decades to a figure bordering around 450 million tonnes each year, and, according to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), only 9% of plastic waste is ever recycled. 

Sports events, be they grassroots and local or international and watched by millions, involve the use of plastic. Water bottles, cups, disposable food containers, and other single-use items are all used and, invariably, discarded after the event concludes. While each event may seem insignificant in the scheme of the broader global plastic waste crisis, that does not absolve providers and organisers from doing their fair share to be more eco-conscious.

It’s believed that major sporting events can generate up to 750,000 plastic bottles, which, considering the estimated 12 million tonnes of plastic entering our environment every year, is astounding. This doesn’t even account for the packaging of sports equipment and apparel, and the disbursement of containers used by spectators. Post-event, much of this plastic ends up in landfills, oceans, and natural environments, causing significant harm to ecosystems, wildlife, and biodiversity. 

Plastic is in many items that we all regularly use or wear and - let’s not beat around the bush - often take for granted. Plastic takes many years to break down and degrade, which is far too long when considering the harmful chemicals that are emitted, not to mention the proliferation of microplastics in food and water supplies. As the climate crisis continues to escalate, reducing our reliance on fossil fuel-derived plastics has evolved from a minor concern into an urgent priority.

However, it’s reassuring to know that, on a national-global scale, brands - in sport and beyond - are being more transparent with their plastic usage and carbon emissions. In fact, given the UK’s pledge to reach net zero by 2050, it is not surprising why many companies - particularly those that distribute plastic-containing products - are beginning to alter their business models and operations to be more sustainable and hold themselves accountable through honest and data-driven impact reports, pledging commitments for further improved action.

Why is Plastic Use Still So High?

Several factors have contributed to the increasing use of plastic in the sports industry. Firstly, plastic is a cheap, lightweight and durable material that can be used to create a variety of products. Put simply, single-use bottles, containers and utensils are easy to manufacture, distribute, and dispose of, providing the perfect mixture of both sustenance and convenience for spectators and participants. 
While there are more eco-friendly alternatives to plastic, including compostable cups, biodegradable containers and utensils, and an increased use of reusable water bottles, these options do come with a higher wholesale price tag. They’re also less widely available given that plastic manufacturers have such a prominent presence in the market.

Many sports brands have also, over the years, cultivated mutual relationships with companies that produce plastic products or packaging, or those that are heavy polluters like Coca-Cola (#1 polluter for six years running according to the 2023 Break Free From Plastic Brand Audit report). These decisions are usually executed at the director or shareholder level, leaving participants often powerless to intervene. 

Bilaterally, however, this activity, coupled with other large-scale logistical challenges ranging from infrastructure and supply chains to waste management and recycling, is often the remit of club owners and decision-makers. If there is no incentive to make these large-scale changes, there’s very little that can be done.

How to Reduce Plastic Use in Sports

Despite the challenges, there are several ways that organisations, athletes, and fans can collectively prevent plastic use from continuing to proliferate at unsustainable levels. The first step is to promote the use of reusable systems in venues. More conscious efforts need to be made to provide reusable cups, bottles, and containers at events, for spectators and participants alike. Considering the short life cycle of food and drink at hospitality events, it only makes sense to invest in renewable and biodegradable alternatives to prevent such excessive waste. Water refill stations, composting infrastructure and recycling stations all need to be made more readily available to provide more accessible opportunities to dispose of or reuse items.