A practical guide for supporters to reduce their environmental impact
Being able to visit live sporting events was one of the things sports fans missed most during COVID. The anticipation leading up to a game, the journey to get there, the pre-game experience, the atmosphere with thousands of other spectators and then the event itself, combined with everything that’s going on off the pitch; millions of fans around the world enjoy this every year across all types of indoor and outdoor sports.
As we continue to fight the pandemic, the “Return-to-play” protocols - as they so charmingly have been called - have also brought the fans back into the stadiums. While this has definitely revived the games and enhanced the experiences, it has also shed a new light on sustainability challenges professional sports face. Already prior to Corona, fans were amongst the main contributors to a sporting event’s carbon footprint.
What effect has COVID had on this? What can fans do to reduce their own and therefore their club’s and their sport’s impact respectively? What are easy steps everyone can take which individually may not mean a lot but when done by thousands of supporters can make a difference from an environmental point of view? And are these steps that can also help in everyday life?
Below summary should help fans better understand the implications of an event visit but more importantly it should help them make better informed decisions. Let’s start by looking at some of the effects COVID has had in terms of environmental sustainability, though.
More masks, more waste
As seen everywhere else in our daily lives, people wearing masks means people throwing their masks away after usage. Sometimes at the stadiums or - much worse - as landfill outside the stadium. Seeing masks on side curbs has become the norm unfortunately.
More hygiene, more waste
One example stuck with me particularly on this: openly accessible ketchup, mayonnaise or mustard dispensers had to be taken away in most stadiums. They were replaced with individual sachets creating much more (plastic) waste. And some venues preferred one-way cups and cutlery over reusable alternatives because they were scared of the hygenic impacts. Plastic gloves at buffets became the go-to solutions for many restaurants.
More packaging, more waste
I saw this even in my own amateur hockey club. Stadium restaurants would start wrapping pieces of cake or sandwiches individually. And some restaurants that were no longer allowed to serve guests on site started delivery services, using much more packaging materials than previously.
Less public transportation, more cars, more emissions
This is also something that could be witnessed in our everyday lives. People avoided using public transportation and preferred taking individual transportation. Yes, some opted to take the bike but the majority chose cars over trains or buses. It led to more congested streets and a greater negative environmental impact due to higher CO2 tailpipe emissions.
But not everything related to COVID has been bad with regards to environmental sustainability. Related to the transportation topic, the most obvious result once the “return-to-play” mode started were the empty stadiums. Empty stadiums means no fan travel and no fan consumption. However, of course that isn’t an effect that can be sustained once we’re fully back to pre-COVID conditions.
One thing I did notice and that I really liked was the fact that the leagues and sports tried new ways of scheduling games or even found new ways to organize their signature events. The Tour de Suisse (cycling) or the Formula E “Race at Home Challenge” took place online for example. And at least some of the North American professional sports leagues tried to find ways to reduce team travel by scheduling more back-to-back games in the same city. Something that has long been established in Baseball could now well be taken over by other team sports, too. Even after the pandemic. Most teams travel by plane. If they stay an additional night in the same city and play a back-to-back game I am convinced that
the teams are better rested and therefore...
the games are better and cause less player injuries.
there can be an even greater rivalry created between the two teams because you can take revenge the next day.
clubs can find innovative ways to promote the games (e.g. special offers if tickets are bought to both games).
the carbon footprint caused by the teams’ travels can be greatly reduced.
Let’s hope we can overcome the COVID obstacles still in place and get back to what we used to know when it comes to live sport. If we do, there are a few steps every fan can take to lower the impact on a game’s carbon footprint. Inspiration for these steps was primarily found on www.count-us-in.org. I call them "the whole nine yards".
The 9 Steps
1. How do You Get to the Event?
Walk, bike, public transportation, carpool: these are the four most environmentally friendly ways to get to an event. Look for discounts on your public transportation ticket when purchasing your event ticket. And if you have to take a car: ask friends to come along or use car sharing. It makes a substantial difference.
While supporting your team on the road can be a wonderful and enriching experience, try to pick your away games consciously. Look for train connections, even overnight trains instead of flying. It can make the trip much more fun. If there is no alternative to flying, look for ways to compensate for your emissions. Most airlines and travel agents offer this option. If you need to compensate, try choosing the solution that takes the least time to do so, i.e. choose synthetic fuel over planting trees :-).
2. Watch Your Merch
Wearing appropriate gear is part of being a fan. And merchandising has an important financial role as it generates a significant part of a club’s revenues. But producing and sourcing merchandise leaves a footprint, both socially and environmentally. A shirt made from polyester - as most football shirts are - has more than double the carbon footprint of one made from cotton. So watch what products you buy, where they were made, by whom they were made and what materials they are made from. And think twice before you purchase yet another jersey. Do you really need the latest kit every year? Try every two years. And if you’re tired of your fan gear, don’t throw it away. Give it to someone who will continue to love it like you did. So maybe reconsider putting your own name on the back of that next jersey of yours.
3. Speak to Your Club Management and your Peers
If sustainability or the environment are topics that are close to your heart, talk to your club’s management about it. Ask them what they do to lower their footprint. Demand sustainable merchandise, more plant-based food options, public transportation tickets, solar panels on your team’s stadium or for your team/event to power its operations from 100% renewable energy, a proper waste management process, reusable cups. This is not about “never try, never know” but rather “never know, never try”. If the management doesn’t know it’s something the fans are concerned about, they will probably never do something about it.
Fans together have a chance to create change, they have a voice they can use. So talk to your fan friends about sustainability. Find agreement on certain topics and then approach your club’s management.
4. Repair, Reuse, Recycle
This relates to the merchandising topic #2: if your fan gear gets worn down, try to fix it before you throw it away and buy new merch. Give it a chance to become a vintage item before you buy a new item with a vintage look. Look out for reusable cup options. If none are available go to step #3. But let’s face it; not everything can or should be reused. So there will be waste. While not all venues are equally advanced, check if there is an opportunity to separate your waste. Look for the signs that indicate where your paper, aluminium, food or general waste goes.
5. Go Paperless
Thanks to increased digitization efforts by the clubs, most fans already get their tickets paperless, directly to their phones. And digital club magazines or more digital content delivered to apps and email inboxes instead of traditional mailboxes is starting to become the norm. And that’s important looking at the numbers: for 907kg of paper that is recycled, 17 tree lives are spared - along with 380 gallons (1,727 litres) of oil, three cubic yards (2.29 cubic metres) of landfill space, 4,000 kilowatts of energy and 7,000 gallons (31,822 litres) of water. (source: www.usi.edu/recycle/paper-recycling-facts/)
6. Eat More Plants
Speaking of plants. Fans love their patty or hot dog at the game. And in certain venues meat-based food is part of the culture. Just think about the Philly Cheesesteak. But why not try some plant-based options once in a while? Maybe not every game but every other game? This time it’s right to say: “never try, never know” :-)
7. Eat and Drink Seasonal/Local
Of course the club dictates what’s on the menu. But if there are different options available or if there’s a stadium restaurant with a proper menu: take a look at what’s seasonal and regional, especially when it comes to fruits and vegetables. And if you can choose between an international beer/wine and a local one, go for the local one, even if it’s more expensive. Chances are its CO2 footprint is smaller, you can support a local business and the money you spend more can easily be saved elsewhere.
A word on coffee: it has the worst CO2 footprint of all beverages. So try saving it until you’re at home.
8. Cut Food Waste
What works in normal restaurants should also work at concession stands: if you aren’t able to finish your meal, have it wrapped, take it home and eat it later. Juggling food quantities is a big challenge for clubs, so don’t make it harder for them and create more food waste. More waste means more costs for the club.
9. Cold is Cool
In some stadiums the option to wash your hands with hot water doesn’t even exist anymore. You may have been disappointed by that. But you know what? Heating water uses a lot of energy, and waiting for the cold water to turn warm uses a lot of water. So use soap, endure the cold water and you’ll be just fine. And your club saves money. Imagine what happens when 60’000 people wash their hands in cold water instead of warm water...
Why all This Matters
A lot of these tips can also be applied to everyday life situations. And there are more tips on www.count-us-in.org. As a fan, your actions matter. Your choices matter. They matter to the environmental footprint but they also matter to your club’s balance sheet. Being smart in terms of your resource consumption and your own waste management, choosing seasonal vs. exotic products, paying a premium for sustainably sourced products that last longer; these are all actions that can help a club save or make money. That is money that can be invested elsewhere and can therefore directly benefit the sports performance. Supporting your team singing and clapping is one thing. But there’s more fans can do if they understand how and why.