With a growing number of partners in the plastics value chain, and an intrinsic link between plastic pollution and women’s health, could women’s sport play a key role in reduction efforts?
The problem of microplastics has become “pervasive”, said Victoria Fulfer, a scientist at the National Oceanography Centre, reflecting on the extent of the plastics collected by teams in The Ocean Race during the second leg of the race.
In every single one of the 40 water samples collected by the teams and analysed, all had microplastics ranging from 92 to 1,884 per cubic metre. The fact that these samples were collected in remote bodies of water illustrates Fulfer’s point and demonstrates the scale of the problem.
#BeatPlasticPollution was the theme of this year’s World Environment Day, and it’s clear to see why. According to UNEP, we produce 430 million tonnes of plastic per year, with the vast majority single-use or short-lived products that soon become waste. When it becomes waste, it has a “devastating impact” on the natural environment and contributes to a social and economic cost of $600 billion per year and rising.
Sport contributes to this through direct and indirect means: 36% of plastic is produced for packaging (food and beverage), cars are made up of around 30% of plastic components and 60% of material made into clothing (including sports kit) is plastic.
Although plastic pollution was the theme, the sports industry was reasonably muted on World Environment Day when it comes to plastic. Sport is reliant on plastic in many ways and eradicating it (even reducing it) is somewhat of a ‘wicked problem’.
Building on its ‘Plastic Game Plan for Sport’, which was produced in 2020, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) used World Environment Day to showcase its own progress (including halving the amount of non-recyclable waste per employee) and objectives of upcoming Olympics (with Paris 2024 aiming for a 50% reduction in single-use plastic compared with previous Games).
UEFA unveiled a number of initiatives last month alongside its partner PepsiCo to reduce plastic waste at the 2023 men’s and women’s Champions League finals, working towards an ultimate objective of hosting zero waste finals by 2026.
At the men’s final on Saturday (10 June), 48,000 reusable cups will be available. During last week’s women’s final, won by Barcelona, returnable packaging and trays were used for food and drink, and a deposit scheme for returnable cups was integrated.
In an interview with SportsPro, PepsiCo’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer, Mark Kirkham, said there was a will to “bring to life” brand strategies and create authentic storytelling around sustainability activations like these.
Through this lens, there’s a case to be made for women’s sport – and partners investing in women’s sport – to drive the conversation and action around the reduction and eventual eradication of single-use plastic.
The pervasiveness of microplastics that Fulfer talks about is not just damaging for environmental health, but human health as well. Research is emerging to show that microplastics being inhaled through the air, consumed through our food or absorbed through our skin can be extremely harmful to our lungs, livers, spleens and kidneys.
And, while the full extent of the impact of plastics and microplastics on human health is still unknown, research indicates that women are disproportionately affected.
In an article written for the World Economic Forum by Elsie Odonkor (Ghana National Plastic Action Partnership) and Katherine Gilchrist (Global Plastic Action Partnership), the authors conclude that the plastics value chain is a “near-perfect example” of how gender norms and roles lead to inequalities “when they are not addressed head-on”.
As well as reacting more severely to the toxins in plastic than men physically, Odonkor and Gilchrist explain that women working in the plastics industry are more likely to be exposed to these toxins because of the tasks they typically do.
According to Parley, which works with adidas to produced football merchandise and other products made from ocean plastic, three out of four plastic products contain toxic chemicals and, while “no one is immune from carrying these chemicals in their bloodstream”, women and people who are assigned female at birth tend to store toxins in their bodies more naturally than men.
If, as a sports industry, one of our sustainability goals is to advocate and drive behaviour changes among fans and other stakeholders, our job is to make issues like plastic pollution less abstract and more relatable – and few things are more relatable than our own health and wellbeing.
Highlighting the environmental impacts of an issue like plastic pollution without taking the consequences for human health into account is like playing well for only one half of football; you can make some progress and score or a goal or two, but there’s a good chance you’ll end up losing the game.
What if we could capitalise on the surging popularity of women’s sport to highlight and take action on a significant environmental issue that has a disproportionate impact on the athletes participating – athletes who are coming into regular contact with plastic through drinking apparatus, kit and other pieces of equipment?
Highlight through athlete advocates and engaging campaigns, and take action through strategic partnerships with sponsors.
When it comes to the former, there’s no better example than British sailor Hannah Mills, who established the Big Plastic Pledge to mobilise athletes around reducing their consumption of single-use plastics. Mills, who races for the Great Britain SailGP Team and won two Olympic gold medals, also wants athletes to encourage fans and partners through their platform to take the pledge as well.
Sport, and athletes in particular, have always been effective advocates for good health by virtue of their profession and lifestyle. If we shift the perception of plastic pollution from an environmental problem to a human health problem (and, at a more granular level, a women’s health concern), athletes are positioned well to deliver that message.
And, from a practical point of view, the growth of women’s sport as a commercial proposition has brought a number of big sponsors to the table – many of which find themselves in the plastics value chain. Companies like PepsiCo, which is now the main partner of the UEFA Women’s Champions League and the Women’s Euros, need to fundamentally change their business models if we’re to collectively tackle the plastic pollution crisis.
Sponsor United’s Women in Sports 2022 report revealed that the most active sponsor categories in women’s sport include apparel and accessories (265 deals), automotive (216), non-alcoholic beverages (201) and food products (175) – all of which use plastic extensively. There is potentially a huge opportunity here for sports properties and successful female athletes to put pressure on these companies to find alternatives to the material that is causing them harm.
From where we are now, it may seem an impossible task to remove single-use plastic from our lives and ecosystems. But, just five years ago, it would have seemed impossible to imagine 90,000 spectators attending a women’s football match. If we are to move the needle on tackling plastic pollution, women’s sport could have a small but significant role to play.
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