Balls in sport: their impact on the planet and the search for sustainable solutions

Illustration of a cow turning into a soccer ball

Balls are a fundamental part of many sports and millions are produced every year around the world.

Many are made of leather—it takes 35,000 cowhides to make the 700,000 balls used in a regulated NFL season—while the use of rubber and plastic is also widespread.

Due to the materials used, the production processes and the fact that many end up in landfills or the sea, balls can have a negative impact on the environment.

So what are the problems and can something be done about it?

A dependence on animal products and non-renewable resources

A single cowhide can make about 20 NFL balls, according to Wilson Sporting Goods, the official NFL ball maker since 1941. The Super Bowl alone reportedly requires 216 balls, with each team given 54 for practice and the same number for play.

In the NBA, basketballs, also supplied by Wilson, are mainly made of leather and rubber. The leather used for official NBA basketball has been sourced from The Horween Leather Co in Chicago for the past 20 years and approximately 10 official size balls per skin can be produced.

The balls for bat-and-ball sports such as Test cricket and Major League Baseball are also made of leather and rubber, along with cork and string or yarn.

So why is the use of animal products a problem?

Most countries have joined the Paris Agreement, outlining the ambition to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

The impact of livestock on emissions varies from country to country. Globally, the UN estimates that it is more than 14% of all man-made greenhouse gases, including methane.external link

When we talk about emissions, we usually think of carbon dioxide (CO2). But livestock emissions also include methane, which is up to 34 times more harmful to the environment than CO2 in 100 years. according to the UN.external link

However, Wilson has said that the animals from which the skins for his sports balls come are not only kept for this purpose, but have instead been used for meat production. The company adds that it has clear guidelines and policies based on internationally recognized standards.

The Duke game ball during a game between the New England Patriots and the Tennessee Titans
‘The Duke’ ball – one of 20 that can be made from one cowhide for NFL games

Many sports balls also involve extraction, production, transportation of raw materials, transportation of the final product and energy factors, all of which have an impact on the planet.

For example, the rubber of a football can come from one part of Asia, while the production takes place in another part.

In football, it is estimated that more than 40 million balls are produced around the world every year. Modern premium balls are mainly made of butyl rubber, but also polyurethane or synthetic leather that comes from plastic derived from crude oil, making it a non-renewable resource – although some adhesives and textiles can come from natural sources.

This year’s World Cup ball from Adidas, including the addition of a microchip in the middlewill also add more materials and production time to those at the top of the game.

The official match ball for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar
The official match ball for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar

Where do balls end up?

In 2018, as part of a photography project, PENALTY, Mandy Barker posted a request on social media for people around the world to send her soccer balls that had washed up on the beach. In four months, 992 sea debris balls were recovered from 41 different islands and countries, and from 144 different beaches, by 89 members of the public.

While many end up in the sea, many others find their way to the landfill.

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

In the Premier League, footballs are recycled where possible. Clubs use the same set during every part of the season and reuse them during training and matches.

Balls can be recycled or reused in a number of ways, including by handing them over to academy age groups, using them during injury rehabilitation sessions, and donating them to charities including club community programs.

Tottenham Hotspur, which ended joint summit with Liverpool in the 2021 Green League table measuring the durability of all 20 top teams said all their unusable footballs are given to police dogs and sniffer dogs operating at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

The Boston Red Sox order about 56,000 baseballs during a season, and once used, they become practice balls for batting or are sometimes sent to their minor league affiliates.

The England and Wales Cricket Board said that when top level balls are no longer used they will be donated to schools.

It also confirmed that it is looking for a more durable ball, although development could take some time given the traditional nature of most handmade balls for the elite game.

Wilson said there are a handful of initiatives underway that will hit the market next year. They will be part of their ‘Gen Green’ product collection.

The company, whose tennis elbow features a Naked Series of rackets produced with a focus on sustainability, has also hired a sustainability director to lead initiatives in its portfolio.

“We are always evaluating sustainable materials and production methods that meet the high expectations of professional players and our global consumers,” a spokesperson told BBC Sport.

“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?

There are companies that claim to produce eco-friendly sports balls and equipment.

For example, a Canadian companyexternal link produces water-soluble and biodegradable golf balls and is looking to expand into biodegradable golf tees.

Another is based in the US eco sports,external link which produces “high-quality sports equipment” using “environmentally friendly, biodegradable TPU”.

Founder Troy Akin started the company after looking for vegan sporting goods and discovering that he was using toxic plastics.

“I found a material that is biodegradable, sustainable and vegan and that works well for most sporting equipment – and I made Eco Sports out of it,” he told BBC Sport.

Due to the properties of TPU, it can be used for a wide range of products and as part of their range they sell basketballs, footballs and American footballs.

“It’s technically still a cross between a rubber and a plastic, it’s just been made much more durable and it will degrade in three to five years,” he added.

“So while it’s the best option out there, I still think we can do better in sports equipment and that’s where we’re headed.”

There are challenges with any changes to the ball at a professional level.

Athletes can be creatures of habit and because the ball is often their main tool, even the smallest change can be problematic.

In the summer of 2006, the NBA introduced a new synthetic basketball produced by Spalding, the official NBA ball supplier before Wilson. At the time, it was reportedly the first NBA ball change in more than 35 years and only the second in 60 seasons.

The ball was made of a synthetic material that players were quick to complain about was not as resilient as the old one, too slippery and even scratched their hands. As a result, the old leather ball was soon brought back.

Likewise, some goalkeepers complained about the movement of the 2010 World Cup eight-piece ball – featuring England’s David James calls the Jabulani “terrible”.external link Adjustments have been made to avoid similar issues in future editions.

In the field of broader sports equipment, Eco Sport plans to expand its range as it aims to do more for the planet.

“Baseball gloves are our biggest next target and we’re working on that, along with baseballs,” explains Akin.

“There are several sports that use animal products or can make a more environmentally friendly product.”

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