Want to turn the tide on plastic in sport? The Volvo Ocean Race shows how

It’s already billed as one of the world’s most challenging competitions, but this year the organizers of the Volvo Ocean Race added an extra dimension to the gruelling 45,000-nautical mile journey—they pledged to host the most sustainable race ever, drastically reduce their use of plastics and change mindsets around the world.

 It was a daunting task that demanded ferocious attention to detail and a vision that encompassed the entirety of the plastic problem, from the disposable bottle in a spectator’s hand to the tiny microplastics threatening wildlife far out to sea.

The organizers tackled plastic use in their race villages in 12 cities across six continents, devised compelling educational programmes, and organized groundbreaking research in some of the world’s remotest waters. Working in partnership with UN Environment, the aim was to amplify the Clean Seas campaign to turn the toxic tide of marine plastic pollution.

The effort paid off. The race’s plastic footprint was estimated at 21.3 tonnes, with 17.7 tonnes recovered, including 2.6 tonnes of soft plastics. Water refill points meant around 388,000 single-use plastic bottles were not used. Some 20,000 people signed UN Environment’s Clean Seas pledge.

For Meegan Jones, the race’s sustainability programme manager, success depended on individual commitment from the event’s workforce, their contractors, vendors and the public. For change to happen, the race had to lay down rules but also offer solutions—a model that holds true for all those seeking to run sustainable events, she says.

“We have to work on engagement. We’ve put rules in place but how we get people to willingly comply is where the magic happens,” she says.

Jones singled out local authorities and race delivery partners in Cardiff in Wales, Itajaí in Brazil and Guangzhou in China for their efforts.

“Cardiff was a standout … They hadn’t approached events in this way before. They were very eager to do it and had the support of their local environment officer from the harbour authority, so they had good oversight,” she said.

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In the port city of Itajaí on Brazil’s eastern coast, a can-do mayor and a city council environment secretary, who found his lone voice was amplified by the race, were instrumental in pushing the agenda, backed by enthusiastic local organizers.

To prepare for their event, a delegation from Itajaí travelled to the race’s stopover in Auckland and when New Zealand signed up to the Clean Seas campaign, Itajaí Mayor Volnei Morastoni vowed to do the same. He kept his promise, and after the race’s visit to Brazil, he persuaded cities upriver to sign up as well. “That’s a huge legacy,” said Jones.

Race organizers relied on a team of critical partners and sponsors including 11th Hour Racing, a founding partner of the sustainability programme; Mirpuri Foundation; AkzoNobel; Ocean Family Foundation; Stena Recycling; and Swedish firm Bluewater.

The race adopted the UN’s Clean Seas campaign as its foundation call to action. Competing yachts carried the Clean Seas message while the Turn the Tide on Plastic team, backed by Mirpuri, the Ocean Family Foundation and Sky Ocean Rescue, ensured the need to act now against throwaway plastic was always front-and-centre.

Bluewater, which uses reverse osmosis technology to turn polluted and waste water into drinking water, set up three hydration stations with mineralized, chilled and carbonated water at each stopover. Each station could provide 8,000 litres a day.

For Jones, water refill points should be a given at major events but for that to happen, organizers will have to decouple profit-making from water sales. “Organizers will come under increasing pressure to stop irresponsible single-use plastic provision, use and reliance at their events,” she said. “Event organizers should ask themselves, ‘what is my responsibility as a corporate citizen?’”

The race estimates that one million plastic disposable items were replaced with compostable or reusable serviceware. Instead of around 180,000 single-use cable ties, the race bought 30,000 reusable bungee cords to attach banners and flags.

Branding materials were recycled or repurposed. In Lisbon, for example, repurposing groups were invited to collect the material, some of which was made into bags and boat shoes. In Cardiff, around 280 kg of plastic waste was collected and repurposed by RPC bpi Recycling to make heavy-duty Plaswood benches.

One significant challenge was dealing with soft plastics, like cling film and bubble wrap, which are sometimes not accepted at recycling plants. Race organizers collected 2.6 tonnes that would otherwise have gone to landfill and found partners who would take it.

During the race, governments, city authorities and businesses made specific pledges to act on plastic pollution: Spain signed up to the Clean Seas campaign as did race sponsors GAC Pindar and Musto, while Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront complex pledged to eliminate single-use plastic bags and bottles.

Meanwhile, the race’s scientific legacy will pay dividends for years. Samples of water collected by the competing yachts revealed the levels of microplastics in global waters, while 30 drifter buoys were also released to provide key data.

To help others, the organizers published a comprehensive guide to running a sustainable sporting event, covering everything from single-use plastic bottles to ensuring that corporate sponsors do not use plastic.

For the next race in 2021, Jones said they will try to attract new partners who want to showcase their sustainability programmes in alignment with the race. Race organizers will also put more specific requirements in contracts and agreements, hopefully inspiring others to come up with creative and innovative ideas.

“We, as a global community, have to be willing for things to be a bit inconvenient, a bit uncomfortable, a lot smarter and maybe even a bit more expensive as we transition to a more sustainable way of living within the earth’s resource capacity,” Jones said. “We can’t fall back on inconvenience and cost as our first reasons why we don’t do something.”