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The international sport sector, including Canadian sport, needs to work urgently towards the elimination of plastics. At present, sport facilities are significant producers of plastic waste, particularly from food and beverage services.

Action on the part of the sport sector is necessary because these plastic products are entering our waterways. Plastic waste gets into waterways by being dumped or blown by the wind into our sewage systems, streams, rivers, lakes, eventually migrating into our oceans (Shuyler et coll., 2018). The United Nations has been calling for the mitigation of plastics in our waterways over the past few decades (Brundtland Report, 1987). Action is needed.

Sport organizations have the capacity to put necessary pressure on our sport facilities to eliminate the use of plastics, as well as our community organizations and companies. Sport has influence that reaches deep within communities and has the communication capability to reach a multitude of individuals and groups.

In some cases, sport is already working to eliminate plastics, but sporadically. We need a consistent approach that pushes for bioplastic alternatives at every turn, as well as the cleaning of our waterways from plastics and the re-utilization of such plastic through recycling.

In this blog I will give a sense of the status of plastic-reduction in the Canadian sport sector and overview the harm that plastic pollution causes to the environment.

Where our plastic goes

Imagine you’re at a summer baseball game at a large sport complex. You’re not allowed to bring a reusable bottle into the facility for security reasons, so you purchase an expensive bottle of water at the concession stand. At the end of the game, you toss the empty bottle into a recycling container and think nothing more of it.

However, that bottle (or food wrapper, or other piece of single use plastic), even if you disposed of it responsibly, may end up being blown or dumped elsewhere and end up in our waterways. Once it’s there, the sun heats the plastic and breaks it down into microparticles. Marine life eats the plastic because nutrients collect on the surface of the plastic microparticles, so they smell and look like food (Carbery et coll., 2018). This leads to bioaccumulation, or a build-up of plastics in the digestive system of marine life.

Additionally, the plastic absorbs the heat from the sun, and this amplifies the warming of the waterways and the air (Royer et coll., 2018). Warmer waterways can lead to bacterial issues. Extreme temperature events intensify the situation.

As the plastics breakdown, gases and toxins are released into the water (such as flame retardants) (Teuten et coll., 2007). These toxins are, thus, in our water resources. The very waterways that we rely on for our drinking water. Currently, municipal water management systems have not found to be able to effectively filter the full complement of micro-particulates out of the water (Gaied et coll., 2017; Mason et coll., 2016). The result is that, along with marine life, we are ingesting the microparticles of the plastics we use in our daily life.

How facility managers perceive plastic waste reduction efforts

In a recent study my colleague and I conducted, sport facility managers within the Canadian Hockey League indicated that they are not currently working towards ensuring plastics-free concessions due to lack of pressure from the patrons (Watkin and Mallen, 2021). Further, it was noted that many facility managers have contracts with suppliers and do not want to (or cannot, due to the contractual arrangements) work with other suppliers that offer plastic alternatives. Some facility managers noted that the bottling companies are working to reduce the use of virgin plastic in their production and to introduce partially compostable bottles. Some managers indicated that the mitigation and management of plastics is simply not their role at a sport facility.

Currently, these managers are guided by their local municipal mandates. Many of these mandates require recycling but do not require the elimination of plastics used at the sport facilities. Every participant in the study responded that they were aware of plastic alternatives. Further, the sport facility managers stated that they had permission to switch to biodegradable alternatives should they chose to do so. They did not need further permissions to make such purchases, but contractual and budget constraints were noted as barriers.

There is limited research to guide sport facility managers to successfully move forward in sport and water management. There is research regarding an Australian sport and water management program along with a suggested research agenda (Kellett et Turner, 2011) and a case study concerning the Australian case of water and sport for students to consider (Phillips et Turner, 2014). There is also research outlining the water and plastic issue on the shoreline and in open water in the local Great Lakes (Driedger, Durr, Mitchell, et Van Cappellen, 2015), but sport has largely ignored the issue.

Plastics alternatives

We have alternatives to plastics. Examples include bioplastic wrap and bags made from renewable biological products, compostable cups along with cutlery made of corn starch resin. Another example includes water pods that consist of algae wrapped edible water pods that have been used at marathon races to eliminate the use of bottles and cups. Athletes at the 2018 Harrow half-marathon and 2019 London Marathon were given the pods at the start of the race and at the hydration stations along the route. There are still issues to be worked out concerning some of the alternatives, such as distributing water pods and keeping them clean until use, but human ingenuity can make it work.

Final thoughts

Sport is not exempt from doing their part to mitigate the critical issue of plastics in our waterways. No matter your role in the sport sector, be it athlete, parent, coach, administrator or other, you can help by putting pressure on your local sporting facilities to consider plastic alternatives.