Sports and sustainability: an odd couple?

As sport’s environmental costs become clearer, we ask: how can schools use the latest tech and building practices to reduce their carbon footprint?

Sports and sustainability are not natural bedfellows. The excitement of sport lies in its immediacy. Whether it’s a friendly prep-school knockabout or the outsized theatrics of the Super Bowl, these events are fuelled by moment-to-moment drama and instant action. 

Sustainability, in contrast, is a slower-burning concern; its impacts are not measured in minutes ticking down, but in decades, lifetimes, of use and renewal. And that is before you consider the often startling wastefulness of major sporting events. The recent football World Cup, for instance, released an estimated 2.17 million metric tons of carbon, according to research by NU3, a food retailer. It would take 1,934 hectares of Amazon rainforest a full year to soak up that much emissions. And while that figure is less than the 2.72 million tons pumped out by the 2014 Brazilian World Cup, it is still enormous and far from being truly sustainable.  

Event organisers and manufacturers, however, are catching up: the footwear giant Nike now recycles worn-out shoes and turns them into surfaces for running tracks and tennis courts. It is also a partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an NGO seeking to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. Several local sports events, such as the Croyde Ocean Triathlon, have banned plastic bottles, and encouraged competitors to fuel up on homemade flapjacks and protein balls rather than burn through mounds of disposable – and non-compostable – energy gel sachets. But with events like the London Marathon comfortably generating up to ten tons of litter and an estimated 750,000 bottles of water, there is still some way to go. 

But what part can schools play in this transition to greener sports? One answer is to ensure that new facilities are built with sustainability in mind, such as at the recent renovations of Channing School’s sports hall and performing arts centre. The north London school undertook the £5.5m project – the largest in its 130-year history – because they realised the existing facilities were becoming dilapidated, and no longer fitted the greater flexibility of use the busy school demanded. From the outset, though, sustainability was embedded in the project. 


“Normally when you step into a building site and see how much gets thrown away, it’s quite a shock,” noted Paul White, lead architect at BuckleyGrayYeoman, the contractor in charge of the project. “Instead, we like to try and think ahead. When we demolished the old hall, we ground down all the hard surface and used it as hardcore for the new build. We were also acutely conscious about trying to minimise site traffic, which was understandably a big worry for locals. These concerns force you to think differently.” 

Thinking differently, especially about their carbon footprint, is a matter of pride for BuckleyGrayYeoman. Sustainability is not a constraint, but an opportunity, Paul stressed: “We look very closely at where we source materials from. We’re always striving to look at environmental potential in a site, whether that’s in ground-source heating or ventilation. It’s not always possible, but we try as hard as possible to map where our materials come from, how they are transported, and how much goes to waste.” 

Framed this way, sustainability seems less a frustrating dictate and more sound business practice. Roy Hill, Bursar of Channing School, concurred: “Channing School is very pleased with the new sixth form centre and sports hall. The buildings have provided facilities which our entire community are justifiably proud of – the Sports Hall is truly inspiring.” 

Roy identifies an important point: sustainability, like sport, is more than the sum of its parts. Approached holistically, it can be used to make tangible notoriously fuzzy concepts like a school’s ethos, its community and its legacy. “Sports halls are traditionally problematic spaces: you’ve got very large volumes and the challenge is to successfully integrate it into the site,” said Paul. “We wanted to elevate that space above a purely functional box. It’s about trying to see how things can cross over. We try to see the potential in something; to give the school plenty of options.” 

For Channing School those options include a viewing gallery built into the upper floor of the sports hall, so pupils can watch their fellows compete in Saturday matches, fostering a sense of community; and integrating the performing arts centre into a sports hall so that it can be used as a green room or backstage for performances. 

But fusing sustainability in school sport need not involve costly renovations; occasionally, it is a simple as changing equipment provider. Take SportsArt. This medical equipment manufacturer “embed sustainability at the beginning,” as Roger Eldergill, UK Manager, told it. The company have a full range of medical gym equipment – treadmill, recumbent bike and an upper-body ergometer – but are unique in offering an eco-powered treadmill where “74% of the power produced is fed back into the grid.” Roger is justifiably proud of this innovation which means schools and gym owners receive a net gain in terms of their energy bills: “We are the first and only manufacturer to do this.”  

Encouragingly, both BuckleyGrayYeoman and SportsArt are starting to see customers seek them out for their environmental credentials. Roger admitted that when SportsArt first launched their eco-range in 2014, “We were probably premature. There was only moderate penetration.” And, as Paul noted, the independent school sector can often afford to be the most forward-thinking when it comes to their environmental impacts. “[Bursars] are typically more empowered and you can reduce the red-tape sign-off on projects. You build up a reputation and schools admire that.” 

Good sports provision is a non-negotiable aspect of a 21st-century independent school. Sports and physical exercise are an unalloyed good: fostering healthy lifestyles, improving cohesion, and expanding a school’s activity portfolio. But sustainability is an often neglected aspect of the equation. No longer. Whether by hiring innovative architects to undertake renovations, or switching to more eco-conscious equipment providers, schools can ensure sports and sustainability are fundamentally wedded. Strange bedfellows? Hardly, try match made in heaven.  

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