How football is getting greener

Apart from the characteristically pristine pitches, there isn’t much to associate the Premier League with being green.

With giant stadiums hosting hundreds of thousands of people each month, football clubs have a tough task to combine satisfying fans with managing their impact on the planet.

But from banishing plastic drinking straws, to sourcing local beer, small changes to the way we enjoy the beautiful game are having huge positive implications for the local and global environment.

Take the floodlights at Wembley Stadium. To power them for one match, it uses the same amount of electricity as watching the game on 20,936 household televisions.

LED floodlights at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium

The FA, permanent owners of Wembley, is currently looking to join Arsenal, Chelsea and rugby union outfit Harlequins in switching its floodlights from halogen to LED.

It’s a “brilliant” move according to the Gunners’ deputy stadium manager at the Emirates, Michael Lloyd.

“You get about a 30 per cent energy reduction,” Lloyd tells me proudly as we survey the giant bulbs from the equally dazzling directors’ box.

“They’re a lot colder, bluer light than the traditional floodlights, so they don’t have that flickering you used to get with super slo-mo on tele. And you can do really cool light shows, which look brilliant.”

Vegan burgers

Perhaps clubs the size of Arsenal (whose stadium is 100% powered by renewable energy) are more reliant on their good publicity coming from what happens on the pitch.

But Forest Green Rovers has become well known for its environmentalism and is a good example of how activities off the pitch can generate more attention than performances on it would normally allow.

“When we broke into League Two, as much of the PR was around the fact that we were green as it was about the promotion,” says Rovers’ CEO Helen Taylor. “We’re doing what we can to prove you can be green and actually enjoy that within the fun environment of football.”

Forest Green Rovers are planning a new wooden-built carbon-neutral stadium

Last year the club announced plans to build a new green technology business park, including a world first, a wooden, low-carbon impact stadium.

Architectural firm Zaha Hadid was commissioned to draw up plans for the £100 million site, with permission expected to be granted by the local council in the coming months.

After winning promotion to the English Football League (EFL) for the first time last year, the Gloucester-based club, owned by green energy company Ecotricity, has struggled with the step-up in quality, facing a real threat of being the first team in history to be relegated from the EFL the season after entering it.

So is EFL survival a prerequisite for the new stadium development? “Not at all,” Taylor tells me earnestly. “We started the plans for it back in the National League. Obviously it would attract more fans, certainly away fans (if we’re in the EFL).

“It goes hand in hand with our vision to get into the Championship, and to be greenest football club there will have even more resonance than it has in this particular league.”

The club garnered national and international attention (and plaudits) when they took red meat off the menu a few years ago. They have since become the only football club to provide exclusively vegan food on-site, with no exceptions for players, visitors and fans.

“The away fans will come and take the mickey out of what we’re doing,” Taylor explains. “They’ll chant ‘where’s your burger van?’ and stuff like that, but it’s all in good jest, to be honest.”

The club has also pioneered the use of a robotic lawn-mower, known to fans as ‘mow-bot’. Powered by electricity (as opposed to petrol) it uses GPS to navigate the pitch and sends the groundsman a text if something is wrong.

Keeping quiet

2016 was the best year yet for football clubs improving their environmental outlook. Manchester City and Arsenal both announced partnerships with renewable energy suppliers, offering fans that switch to these greener suppliers  rewards, from club-branded household appliances to signed merchandise and VIP stadium tours.

Man City’s device allows consumers to store renewable energy at home

If you haven’t been aware of your team giving due diligence to environmental concerns, you shouldn’t be surprised. It’s not something they like to shout about.

This may seem strange in an industry where good publicity is valued almost as much as keeping clean sheets.

“We don’t actually talk an awful lot about what we do in terms of the environment,” Lloyd says frankly in Arsenal’s plush Emirates offices.

“That’s a conscious decision because we use so much energy and we fly to quite a lot of places, so we don’t want to open ourselves up to criticism.”

There was the story of the north Londoners famously flying to an away game at Norwich in 2015 which received huge criticism from fans and environmentalists.

“It was outrageous, there’s no getting away from it,” Lloyd concedes, “but there were genuine operational reasons why they did it and that is the case with all these things.”

“The Daily Mail for example would love it if we said ‘look at our floodlights they save x amount’ because they’d say ‘well you make so many million pounds from this and that’, so we’ve been really reserved in telling anybody what we do.”

Gunners’ food for homeless

Such is the hunger for negative headlines, it’s not uncommon for clubs to keep quiet about a range of charitable donations, in Arsenal’s case giving left-over food to those living on the breadline.

“Normally it’s raw foods like sacks of potatoes, punnets of fruit and milk,” explains Lloyd. “We work with a food charity called Plan Zheros. They’ll come in the day after a match day and they’ll collect it to distribute. It goes to homeless shelters and families in sheltered accommodation.

“I think we’ve done around about 2,000 meals in a year so its not massive quantities, but it’s better than nothing, isn’t it?”

Lloyd, who’s worked for the club for 16 years and oversaw the move from Highbury, registers the surprise on my face at this significant statistic. I had never heard of this hugely commendable local charity drive, despite living locally myself.

“Some people would say that’s excellent, we should all be doing that. Others will say ‘well why have you got so much waste, what’s happening with all the rest of it?’ Well, we don’t really need to be having that argument, we’re doing the absolute best we can under the conditions we can work in.”

Good business sense

Back in north London, I get a look at the stadium’s very own Waste Management Centre, located in the underground car park. It feels a long way from the glitz and glamour of the Premier League.

The site the Emirates Stadium is built on, known as Ashburton Grove, used to be home to a recycling centre that dealt with all of Islington’s waste. Part of the deal when Arsenal moved here from Highbury across the road was the club had to build a new waste facility in the borough to replace the one they knocked down.

Moro de Mineira favela in Brazil where the pitch is lit by the players’ kinetic energy

It’s not just altruism that has made football greener and Lloyd is pragmatic about the issues at play.

“This isn’t just about saving the world,” he tells me. “This is about operational efficiency. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s a good business case for being sustainable.

“That’s the way you sell it to senior management. You can talk about saving the planet as much as you like, but in the cold world of business it’s how much money you save and doing things properly and sustainably actually saves money.”

Clubs’ carbon footprints vary depending on their size and the amount of spectators they attract. Regardless of size, we should commend the efforts being made to minimise the impact sport has on the environment, and not just at elite levels.

One quirky example can be found in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Pavegen, a UK-based company has constructed a 3G football pitch with a difference.

Under the surface are 200 special tiles that when stepped on by players, create kinetic energy to power the six surrounding LED floodlights.

At £600 per square metre, the tiles are expensive, but that money can be clawed back in a matter of years depending on usage. The technology has since been rolled out at Heathrow Airport and Harrods department store.

The universal popularity of football means it’s always going to impact on the natural environment. It is how we manage that impact that is important if we are to sustain our game for future generations.

The power of sport is often used to the betterment of the people who adore it, so it can also be used to the benefit of our planet, too.