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Balls in Sport: Impact on the Planet and Finding Sustainable Solutions

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Illustration of a cow transforming into a soccer ball

Balls are a fundamental part of many sports and millions are produced worldwide each year.

Mostly made of leather, it takes 35,000 cowhide to make the 700,000 balls used in the NFL regulation season. Also, the use of rubber and plastic is widespread.

The materials used, the manufacturing process, and the fact that many balls end up in landfills and oceans mean that they can have a negative impact on the environment.

So what is the problem and what can be done about it?

Dependence on animal products and non-renewable resources

According to Wilson Sporting Goods, the NFL’s official ball maker since 1941, one cowhide can make about 20 NFL balls. He reportedly needs 216 balls for the Super Bowl alone, and each team gets him 54 for practice and the same number for games.

In the NBA, basketballs, also supplied by Wilson, are primarily made of leather and rubber. The leather used for his official NBA basketballs has been sourced from his The Horween Leather Co in Chicago for the last 20 years, and one piece of leather can make about 10 official-sized balls.

Balls for bat-and-ball sports such as Test cricket and Major League Baseball are also made from leather, rubber, cork, twine and thread.

So why is the use of animal products a problem?

most countries have signed the Paris Agreement, It has the goal of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

The impact of livestock on emissions varies from country to country.Globally, the United Nations believes that 14% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases, including methane.External link

When we talk about emissions, we usually think of carbon dioxide (CO2). But livestock emissions also contain methane, which in 100 years he causes up to 34 times more environmental damage than CO2. According to the United Nations.External link

However, Wilson says the animals from which sports ball skins are derived were not kept solely for this purpose, but have been used for meat production. It adds that it has clear guidelines and policies based on

Duke's game ball during a game between the New England Patriots and the Tennessee Titans
“The Duke” Ball – One of 20 balls that can be crafted from a single cowhide for NFL games

Many sports balls also have an energy factor that impacts the extraction of raw materials, production, transportation, transportation of the final product, and the planet.

For example, football rubber may be produced in one region of Asia and produced in another region.

It is estimated that over 40 million soccer balls are produced worldwide each year. Modern high-end balls are mainly composed of butyl rubber and polyurethane or synthetic leather derived from crude oil-based plastics, making them non-renewable resources, while some of the adhesives and fibers are natural resources. It may come from

This year’s World Cup ball by Adidas includes: add a microchipwhich adds more materials and crafting time to those used at the top of the game.

Official match ball for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar
Official match ball for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar

where does the ball end up?

2018, as part of the photo project, PENALTY, Mandy Barker I put out a social media request to people all over the world to send me her ball that was found washed up on the beach. In four months, 992 of her marine debris balls were recovered by 89 members of the public from 41 different islands and countries and 144 different beaches.

Many end up in the ocean, but many end up in landfills.

Some sports already have ways to extend the life of the balls they use.

In the Premier League, football is recycled wherever possible. Clubs use the same set for each part of the season and reuse it for training sessions and matches.

The balls can be recycled or reused in a number of ways, such as giving them to academy age groups, using them during injury rehabilitation sessions, or giving them to charitable causes such as club community programs.

Finished Tottenham Hotspur Joint top with Liverpool in the 2021 Green League According to a table measuring the sustainability of all 20 teams in the top flight, all unusable balls are given to police and sniffer dogs operating at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Over the course of a season, the Boston Red Sox order approximately 56,000 baseballs that are used for batting practice and sometimes sent to minor league affiliates.

The England and Wales Cricket Board said it would donate the ball to the school once it was no longer used at the highest level.

We have also confirmed that we are looking at more sustainable balls, but given the traditional nature of most handcrafted balls for elite games, development may take time.

Wilson said there are several initiatives underway that will hit the market next year. They will be part of the “Gen Green” product collection.

The company, whose tennis division boasts a Naked Series of racquets built with a focus on sustainability, has also hired a Sustainability Director to spearhead initiatives across its portfolio.

A spokesperson told BBC Sport: “We always value sustainable materials and manufacturing methods that meet the high expectations of professional athletes and consumers around the world.

“We pride ourselves on the quality and longevity of our products. That said, we are always looking for more ways to reuse and recycle all of our products.”

Is there a better way?

Some companies claim to produce eco-friendly sports balls and equipment.

for example, Canadian companyExternal link We manufacture water-soluble and biodegradable golf balls and aim to expand into biodegradable golf tees.

the other is based in the US eco sports,External link We manufacture “high-quality sporting goods” using “environmentally friendly and biodegradable TPU”.

Founder Troy Akin started the company when he was looking for vegan sporting goods and realized they were using toxic plastics.

“We found a material that is biodegradable, sustainable and vegan.

The properties of TPU allow it to be used in a wide range of products and we sell basketballs, footballs and American footballs as part of that range.

“It’s technically still a cross between rubber and plastic, only made more sustainably, and will degrade in three to five years,” he added.

“So that’s the best option, but I still think you can do better with sporting goods and that’s what we’re aiming for.”

There are challenges with the changes made to the ball at the pro level.

Athletes can be creatures of habit, and since the ball is often their primary tool, even slight changes can be problematic.

In the summer of 2006, the NBA introduced a new synthetic basketball manufactured by Spalding, the NBA’s official ball supplier before Wilson. At the time, this was reportedly the first change made to the NBA ball in over 35 years, and only the second in his 60 seasons.

Because the ball was made of a synthetic material, players quickly complained that it wasn’t as bouncy, slippery, and even hurt their hands as their previous balls. As a result, the old leather ball was quickly brought home.

Similarly, some goalkeepers complained about the movement of the 2010 World Cup ball on the 8 panel. David James calls Jabulani “terrifying”.External link Adjustments have been made to prevent similar issues in future editions.

When it comes to wider sporting goods, we plan to expand our range as EcoSports aims to do more for the planet.

“Baseball gloves are our next biggest target, and we’re tackling them similarly to baseball,” Akin explains.

“There are many different sports where you can use animal products or make more environmentally friendly products.”

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