World Environment Day 2023 calls on sport to #BeatPlasticPollution

June 05 2023

World Environment Day is the biggest international day for the environment and the world’s largest platform for environmental outreach. This year, as it celebrates its 50th edition, it will focus on an ever-important issue: finding solutions to plastic pollution.

The #BeatPlasticPollution campaign is calling on governments, cities, organisations, and industries to invest in solutions so that we can bring a decisive end to plastic pollution across the globe.

As a global industry with a vast reach, sport could play a huge role in the campaign to end reliance on plastics. As the world marks a historic 50th World Environment Day, it is the perfect opportunity for the sports industry to lead the charge.

Plastic pollution and the triple planetary threat

Plastic pollution poses a serious threat to the health and wellbeing of the planet, and plastic production has grown exponentially since the 1950s. Humans produce around 430 million tonnes of plastic every year, and over two-thirds of this almost immediately become waste. Only 10 per cent of plastic is ever recycled.

But plastic isn’t just a pollution problem: plastic contributes to the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss. Critically, around 98 per cent of plastic products are produced from fossil fuels, and plastic contributes to around 3 per cent of global emissions. Meanwhile, up to 23 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into oceans and aquatic ecosystems each year.

There has been a growing focus on plastic pollution in recent years. In 2018, World Environment Day addressed the issue of plastic pollution, with an emphasis on reducing single-use plastic consumption. Five years on, the narrative has now shifted to a focus on the entire life cycle.

Taking a life cycle approach means addressing all stages of the plastic life cycle, from production and extraction to recycling and collection services, and reducing waste and pollution at each step.

This renewed focus comes at an important moment for global discussions on the issue. Over the past year, world leaders have been working to agree an international legally binding agreement to eliminate plastic pollution. A landmark agreement to develop a treaty was agreed at the UN environment assembly in Nairobi in February 2022. The International Negotiating Committee (INC) met in Uruguay in November 2022 and again in Paris in May, in negotiations that concluded just last week. The committee aims to conclude negotiations by the end of 2024.

The issue of plastic pollution is not new, but it’s clear that momentum is building. ‘In the last five years, a lot of progress has been made in the discussion around plastics,’ says Stephanie Gerretsen, Advocacy and Campaign Coordinator at the UN Environment Program.

The Clean Seas Campaign, which was launched in 2017, focused on reducing plastic waste in marine environments. To date, 69 countries have joined, covering more than 76% of the world’s coastlines. The #BeatPlasticPollution campaign will build on this effort to focus on solutions.

This year’s World Environment Day will showcase some of these solutions to plastic pollution, and encourages individuals, organisations, cities, and industries, as well as governments, to take a life cycle approach.

The Beat Plastic Pollution Practical Guide, produced for World Environment Day, explains how individuals, NGOs, educational organisations, cities, governments, and business and industry can help to solve the plastic crisis, while a recent Turning off the Tap report examines the economic and business models that can create a circular economy.

As the renewed focus on plastic pollution grows, how can the sports industry play its part?

Sport celebrates World Environment Day

Many sports organisations across the world have marked World Environment Day and have committed to raising awareness, reducing plastic use, and shifting towards a circular economy.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has outlined four examples of how the organisation is accelerating the transition to a circular economy, including a waste management policy, a reduction in single-use plastics, and an emphasis on sustainability at the 2024 Olympic Games. Meanwhile, World Rugby marked the day and outlined its sustainability plan, the International Biathlon Union focused on their environmental activities around major events and Roland-Garros organised a day of environmentally-themed activities.

While it is not the largest plastic polluter, the sports industry undoubtedly contributes to plastic pollution. Major events often generate a huge amount of plastic, while sports kit, venues, and catering also play a role in generating plastic waste.

But the sports industry is also attempting to tackle the problem. Major federations and organisations, including the IOC, World Sailing, and World Rugby, have committed to eradicating single-use plastics, while innovations in catering, sustainable sports kits, disposable cups, and merchandise are reducing the amount of plastic produced and wasted at venues and during events.

Cities, venues, and organisations are also increasingly working together to effectively solve the problem. The Oslo Bislett Games has worked with city authorities to install a waste management system, while host event cities in Denmark have worked with event organisers to reduce single-use plastics.

Marine sports have often lead the way in addressing plastic pollution. Organisations such as Ecomar, founded by Olympic gold medallist Theresa Zabell, have been working to raise awareness of the issue for many years. More recently, The Ocean Race has conducted a scientific programme to collect data on sea temperatures, carbon dioxide levels, and trace elements. The Race recently made headlines with its findings of microplastics in sea water samples collected during the race: researchers found microplastics in each one of the 40 samples analysed so far, with as many as 1,884 microplastics per cubic metre (pm3)* of water in some locations.

The future of plastic pollution

As World Environment Day is celebrated across the world, many people will be considering how they can play their part. The sports industry, in particular, can use its global reach for good.

‘What the sports industry can really think about is using its platform,’ says Stephanie Gerretsen. ‘No other industry has the reach of billions of fans to talk about sustainability issues, and people often listen to athletes and entertainers.’

The sports industry can also make a particularly large impact because of its intersection with other industries, including construction, infrastructure, and tourism.

So what can individuals, teams, organisations, venues, and federations across the sporting world do today to make a change?

The Beat Plastic Pollution Practical Guide provides some concrete solutions, including eliminating unnecessary plastic, ensuring plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable, and cooperating with local authorities to ensure proper waste management.

Most importantly, the #BeatPlasticPollution campaign emphasises the importance of moving from a linear plastic economy to a circular approach. This means accelerating reuse and recycling and reorienting and diversifying the market to encourage safe, sustainable alternatives to plastics.

If the sports industry continues its commitment to tackling plastic pollution, the impact will be felt on a global scale. World Environment Day 2023 marks an important step forward for finally eliminating plastic pollution and protecting our planet for generations to come.

Read moreBethany White

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