How to become a circular football cub

We’re using up our planet’s resources and filling the oceans with plastic.

If this is to change, we must reimagine how we consume natural resources. Football clubs can lead the way.

This guide explains how football clubs can become circular.



Part 1: What is a circular football club?

What does circular mean?

Circularity, and the ‘circular economy’, are about rethinking how we do things, in order to address the problems of plastic pollution, waste and resource depletion.

The idea is based on 3 principles:

  1. Designing out waste, so that it is not created in the first place
  2. Keeping products and materials in use for as long as possible
  3. Learning from nature and enhancing the environment

This is in contrast to our traditional ‘linear economy’, in which we take resources from the earth, use them to make things that will soon be thrown away, and pollute our natural environment in doing so.

Which clubs are becoming circular?

In 2018, the Premier League teamed up with Sky Ocean Rescue to launch Pass on Plastic, which encouraged football to address it’s plastics problem and assisted clubs, including Arsenal and Chelsea, to implement reusable cup trials.

A subsequent campaign by Friends of the Earth and BASIS called on clubs to do more to eliminate single-use plastics, such as cups, straws and carrier bags, from their stadiums.

Tottenham Hotspur have made the commitment to phasing out single-use plastics from their operation, and Southampton are among several clubs to have committed to sending zero waste to landfill, by re-using materials and increasing recycling rates.

Who else is becoming circular?

The UK government plans to move England towards a circular economy and eliminate all avoidable waste by 2050, with the aim of becoming a world leader in resource efficiency and waste reduction.

Leading businesses including Google, IKEA, Unilever and BlackRock have partnered with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, who’s mission is to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.

Part 2: How does a football club become circular?

Step 1: Commit to becoming circular

Football clubs should make a strategic commitment to embed circular economy principles, eliminate single-use plastics and send zero waste to landfill. 

Zero waste to landfill is a common overarching goal because landfill is the worst option for the environment. However, achieving this without making other improvements would not be consistent with a circular approach.

Recycling, while preferable to incineration or landfill, is not as good as finding ways to reuse materials, or even not creating waste in the first place, both of which should be prioritised.

This concept is illustrated by the ‘waste hierarchy‘, which a football club’s circular economy commitment should be based upon.

What is the waste hierarchy?

The waste hierarchy is a model which prioritises options for managing waste, based on what’s best for the environment. 

In order of preference, the waste hierarchy options are:

  • Reduce: Avoid the use of materials which are likely to become waste
  • Reuse: Find ways to reuse products and materials
  • Recycle: Turn waste into a new product or material, including composting
  • Recover: Get value from waste, by using it to produce biogas or electricity
  • Dispose: Send waste to landfill

Step 2: Understand your impact

It is essential to build an understanding of the club’s current waste streams: what sort of waste is being produced, in what quantities, and at what locations? This information will give an insight into what changes will lead to the most significant improvements.

Looking upstream, which purchases and behaviours are leading to the most significant quantities of waste? And downstream, what is happening to waste once it is thrown away?

Alongside this, take a look at what is being sold to fans and consider how products and packaging may ultimately become waste.

Step 3: Plan circular changes

Eliminate single use plastics

The UK Plastics Pact identifies plastic items which should be eliminated or reviewed. These items include:

  • Disposable plastic cutlery, straws and stirrers
  • Polystyrene packaging
  • Disposable plastic plates and bowls
  • Plastic bags, including carrier bags
  • PVC cling film
  • Single-use drinks bottles
  • Disposable plastic cups
  • Plastic cup lids for hot beverages
  • Sachets or single-serving pots (such as milk, sauces and dressings)

Football clubs should plan to replace these plastics with reusable, recyclable or biodegradable alternatives wherever possible.

Think circular

It may be helpful to scope circular changes by asking the following circular questions:

  • Ownership: Do you need to own it?

Transition towards options such as leasing, sharing or buying a service rather than a product, particularly when access is needed only on a temporary or occasional basis. 

  • Sourcing: Does it need to be new?

Prioritise options to buy refurbished, repaired or second-hand products, or even inherit them from another club or organisation, in preference to buying brand new.

  • Lifespan: Is it designed to last?

Phase-out short lived and disposable resources in favour of products that are lasting, reusable, repairable and upgradable.

  • End of life: What happens at the end of its life?

If a product has a lifespan, make sure there is a plan for that. How can it be reused, resold or donated once you are finished with it? Ensure it is recyclable or biodegradable if it will be thrown away.

  • Materials: What is it made with?

Seek out and ask for products which are made using sustainable, recycled or waste materials, and those designed to use minimal amounts of material.

  • Packaging: How will you deal with packaging?

Where possible, opt-out of unnecessary packaging, or make use of packaging collection and return schemes.

Sell circular

The circular strategies above should be applied to products and services sold by the club too, including merchandise and matchday sales. Digitisation, leasing, reusability, recyclability and longevity all contribute to a more circular offering for fans and customers.

Recycling

Ensure recycling facilities are provided at the ground and across other sites. This should include clearly marked bins for waste segregation and simple communication materials to inform both colleagues and fans.

Work with your waste contractor to understand how recycling rates can be maximised and to confirm that material is actually being recycled once off-site.

For any remaining general waste, ensure your contractor is providing a service which meets the goal of zero waste to landfill.

Circular examples in football

Part 3: Why become a circular football club?

What is the problem with plastics and waste?

We consume our planet’s resources at a faster rate than nature is able to regenerate, equivalent to the capacity of 1.6 Earths.

In the UK, we produce 200 million tonnes of waste each year and landfill is still the second most used waste treatment.

Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans continues to rise and, without action, is expected to triple by 2040. Ocean plastic is known to damage ecosystems and affects hundreds of animal species, including aquatic mammals, sea turtles and marine birds.

We must reimagine how we consume, use and manage natural resources, so that we can thrive within the limits of our planet.

How does football contribute to the waste problem?

Stadiums are responsible for generating large amounts of varied waste, especially during and following matches.

Arsenal reported that their reusable cup scheme had prevented approximately 20,000 single-use plastic cups per game from being landfilled or incinerated.

As an indication, the average NFL game is thought to produce around 36,000 kg of waste, which is equivalent to 6 elephants.

What are the benefits of becoming circular?

For a football club, embracing the transition to a circular economy represents a clear demonstration of leadership in addressing the social and environmental challenges we face.

The opportunities available to a football club making the commitment to become circular include cost efficiencies and new profit streams, more resilient supply chains and improved customer engagement and loyalty.

Thom Rawson is a sustainability leader and football fan.

He founded Sustainable Football in 2020, on a mission to help make football more sustainable.