How Bad Is Football for the Environment?
In which we discover the most environmentally-friendly way to watch the World Cup.
Some England fans hanging out with some penguins in South Africa. Photo: Splash News / Alamy Stock Photo
"Oh FFS" is a column where I pick out all the stuff you love most in life and look at how it's destroying the planet. Enjoy!
What is it? The World Cup.
What's that? Eleven men running around a field, trying to put a ball into a net guarded by one member of another 11-man team, who are also running around the same field. But on a global scale.
Is it biodegradable? The spirit of football is eternal and can never be biodegraded. Also, most of the stuff used to play football – balls, stadiums, kits – is very much not biodegradable.
How bad is the problem?
The World Cup is here, and as you may have heard: "football" is "coming home". While that optimistic spirit might be good for the morale of a country beleaguered by an inescapable crisis that threatens to damage the UK in all sorts of of ways, how bad is the World Cup – and, more generally, football – for the world at large?
"The environmental impacts from a football exist across all the various stages of its life cycle," explains Phillippe Pernstitch, a consultant for corporate carbon footprint consultants Carbon Trust. "These include the production of the raw materials used to make the ball, the energy used in the manufacturing process, the transport of raw materials and final product around the world, and what happens to balls at the end of their useful life. Most of the raw materials contained in modern footballs will, ultimately, be manufactured from oil, although some of the adhesives and textiles could come from natural sources as well."
And what about the new Nigeria kits – the ones that had the Niketown queue looking like Supreme's on a Thursday morning? How bad are they, and all the other kits like them, for the Earth's resources?
"Most modern sportswear is made from lightweight synthetic materials – typically polyester – and as polyester is a type of PET plastic, the main raw material in football kits will be derived from oil," says Phillippe. "Environmental impacts occur [for both footballs and kits] when extracting oil from the ground [and] refining it into plastics, or recycling used plastics into new materials. You then need to look at energy used to process those plastics into a polyester fibre, weaving or knitting that yarn into a fabric, then turning that fabric into a garment. Then there is the dyeing process, for which dyes have to be produced. There are also transport emissions associated with global supply chains and logistics."
Phillippe adds: "Garments are only manufactured once, but they can be washed hundreds of times. This means the energy and water used by washing machines is often the biggest single impact across the full life cycle of a football kit."
And the game itself? Not watching it on telly, but actually travelling to the stadium – how does that destroy everything we love and value about this planet?
"It's difficult to give a general number for the environmental impact of a match," says Phillippe. "It will be quite different for a League 2 game in bright sunshine on a warm Saturday in April, or for a Premier League clash under floodlights on a cold Wednesday night in January. But unless everyone is walking or cycling to a game from near a stadium – as may happen with some non-league clubs – it's likely that fan travel will be by far the most significant impact for a football match."
He adds: "When we measured the carbon footprint of an FA Community Shield game between Manchester United and Wigan Athletic in 2013 at Wembley Stadium, we found that the carbon footprint of stadium energy use was the equivalent of around 60 tonnes of CO2, whereas fan travel was more like 5,000 tonnes."
A lot of tonnes, then. So while they're supposedly brilliant for uniting the planet under one common interest, are events like the World Cup actually eating Earth alive?
"In the grand scheme of things, one big international tournament every four years is not the biggest or most important factor contributing to climate change," says Phillippe. "But flying is a very high carbon activity – one of the most significant impacts an individual typically has on the planet. So having tens of thousands of fans fly around the world does add up to a meaningful total. The World Cup is just one example of the total environmental impact from tourism, which recent estimates put at around 8 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions."
What's the solution?
"One of the best things you can do to lower the impact of football is to do things together with others," Phillippe explains. "Travelling to games by sharing coaches or cars with teammates or fellow fans reduces each of your individual impacts. And watching football down the pub, or round at a friend's house, means that more people are watching a screen and in the same room, requiring less total energy use."
He adds: "It can also be more efficient to drink beer at the pub, with the carbon footprint for a pint of draft beer typically being lower than a can or bottle at home."
So travelling to the pub with your friends and drinking draught beers while shouting at the TV is good for the environment? Well hey, even if England get booted out tomorrow, there's something we can all celebrate.
See here for more coverage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.