UEFA Circular Economy conference 2023: Football targets a waste-free future
UEFA updated its Circular Economy Guidelines this week in an effort to strengthen its sustainability vision, which includes the goal of zero plastic and food waste to landfill from football matches by 2030.
The updated edition builds on the initial guidelines released during last year’s Zero Waste Week and includes enhanced measures to cut waste in apparel, equipment and event materials, as well as energy and water usage.
UEFA marked the launch on Wednesday by hosting a conference that delved deeper into the topic of the circular economy at the headquarters of football’s European governing body in Nyon, Switzerland.
Participants were united in their belief that there is little time to waste in driving change given the scale of the task. Of all materials used by national associations, clubs and stakeholders in the European football community, just 9% are currently reused or recycled.
A panel session featuring various experts on the matter gathered to discuss UEFA’s plans and the broader sustainability challenges facing the industry at large. So, how can the circular economy work in football, and what were the key talking points to emerge from the discussions?
Reduce, reuse, recycle, recover
UEFA stresses the importance of a so-called 4R approach – reduce, reuse, recycle and recover – to minimise the impact of the sport on the environment.
The first aspect of ‘reduce’ involves buying or ordering less to generate less waste at the source. That can be done in many different ways, ranging from the packaging used on snacks to traveling on public transport. The effects of packaging ending up in the oceans were highlighted at the conference.
Reuse involves extending the lifespan of products purchased, such as cups and containers.
Products that cannot be reused should be recycled. As a last resort, products that cannot be recycled are incinerated to be transformed into energy.
As part of this, there was a focus on four areas of football activity – food and beverage, apparel and football equipment, event materials, and energy and water.
Vincent Reulet, an expert in social and environmental sustainability at UEFA, acknowledges the scale of the issues. “The circular economy is not a football-only challenge; it’s a global challenge,” he said. “But football has its part to play in it.”
Diane Caldwell is a footballer that spoke at the conference and wants more discussion of the topics among players themselves to help drive change.
Caldwell is an FC Zurich and Ireland defender, who is part of We Play Green, a foundation that aims to speed up the green shift.
Referring to the topic of sustainability, she said: “It’s not spoken about enough in the locker room, in the general football setting, and the locker room is in many ways a reflection of society. That’s where we come in and we have to make a change, make a difference.”
Caldwell sees sponsors offering materials to players – and can despair at her team-mates’ reactions.
She explained: “Team-mates will get a brand new pair of boots and go over to the trash and I’m, like, woah! What are you doing there? Why are you putting that in the bin? Can we not donate that to charity? Can we not give it to someone to use, to grassroots, to under-age teams?”
Echoing the thoughts of other panel participants, she understands the value of spreading the message more among fans.
She said: “Football is nothing without the fans. That’s why we need to mobilise the football community. It is the biggest social phenomenon in the world. And if you engage the fans, if you engage everything else that accompanies that, you have the reach to literally billions of people. So you need to get word out there, you need to get knowledge out there, and get the topic discussed.”
Fans are part of the shift in public opinion on the subject, and clubs themselves can feel the growing importance of sustainability as a global issue.
Philipp Hessberger, an advisor to the board of Eintracht Frankfurt Fussball AG, said: “When we look at the world in 2023, we have numerous challenges.
“We have high inflation, we have interest rates, we have supply chain issues, we have geopolitical issues, we have war in Europe and of course we have climate change.
“I don’t have to put any more emphasis on the relevance of climate change but what’s clear is that the relevance is increasing and we can feel that among all of our stakeholders – sponsors, fans, media partners, capital providers etc so for us it’s a really important topic.”
Bringing guidelines to life
UEFA’s plans have potential and a key is making sure they are implemented as successfully as possible.
Thomas Klar, head of brand operations at UEFA, already incentivises suppliers to deliver on their sustainable pledges.
He said: “We link the outcome of tenders more towards sustainability. Obviously costs and quality are part – but there is another part now, the sustainability part, which become more and more important.
“If we communicate more and more to our suppliers, to our applicants, that one of the main factors to decide who gets the business is sustainability you will get a lot of ideas coming our way, initiatives, materials that are sustainable being used and not even being much more expensive.”
Klar outlined a range of measures that are helping to achieve their sustainability goals. He spoke about the reuse of events materials as an example, and finding local solutions rather than far-away ones involving long-distance distribution.
He also emphasised “going digital” as another solution. An example he gave was producing fewer tickets and parking passes and instead having e-tickets and usage of a ticket app.
UEFA recently agreed to a sustainability-driven ‘KombiTicket’, a deal with the association of German transport companies, to combine travel with match tickets at Euro 2024.
The governing body also created a Champions Innovate project, with the Greater London Authority, to identify and resolve the most impactful issues associated with the Champions League final.
Healthy and Sustainable Catering guidelines are another recent sustainability development implemented by UEFA.
“The clothing and textiles sector is one of the most environmentally damaging in the world. It’s not just carbon, it’s water, it’s energy, it’s social sustainability."
Tackling the issue of clothing and textiles
Clothing and textiles became a major talking point at the UEFA conference.
Joanna Czutkowna was a speaker at the conference as Chief Executive of 5Thread, which believes in a sustainable future brought about by change in the clothing and textiles industry.
She said: “The clothing and textiles sector is one of the most environmentally damaging in the world. It’s not just carbon, it’s water, it’s energy, it’s social sustainability.
“Every second a truckload of textiles is incinerated or going to landfill. This is causing problems with things like illegal dumping, it’s going to markets overseas. We’re just kind of exporting our waste there. Financially, it’s estimated about $500bn is lost from under-utilisation for garments or from lack of recycling.”
A solution that was discussed, from a football perspective, was encouraging business models that re-use these garments, such as classic football shirts.
“They resell vintage football shirts, and, if you think about shirts, they have so much emotional value to them, it’s a perfect item to have an extended product life,” she added. “Football is responsible for a lot of apparel and it’s time it takes responsibility for that and it has such a power.”
She spoke about an estimate that about 60% of the kit given to professional teams goes to waste – and most of that destroyed.
Responding to challenges
Viviane Gut, senior director in sustainability direction at Adidas, has been analysing decades of data to find ways to deliver efficiency.
Companies such as this mix human and business interests with sustainability.
She said: “We are human so we like to have a new dress or jersey, for example. In the long term, we have to reduce that. But while we are getting there, what are the solutions that we can offer with a lower footprint?”
Gut highlighted one measure in the area of clothing. “Globally 16% of all the polyester is recycled. At Adidas, we are at 96%,” she said.
“Having recycled polyester at the moment has been a solution for us. We are now shifting into textile to textile recycling.
“There, we get a lot of questions. Like, why are you not at 100% yet? Because the volume is not there yet. So here we go into the topic of: we can’t do this by ourselves. We need everyone. We need the suppliers, we need the factories, who make sure they reduce the waste.
“We design products that hopefully have a lower footprint. We need the consumer to understand where to bring back these apparel pieces. We need regulators to actually set up a system that makes it financially viable for us to create these products in that way.
“It’s a full value chain of different stakeholders. Only if everyone plays their role, things actually come together.”
It is clear that sustainability ambitions being matched require a lot of people playing their parts – and, although clothing and textiles are a major component, it is a wide-ranging issue.
If UEFA’s bold vision on the circular economy can trickle down to its national associations and their constituent clubs, then its ‘4R’ approach can have a huge influence on delivering change.