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How green is your beer cup?

Klaus Esterluss
July 18, 2017

Can football clubs be role models for environmental protection? A German eco group rifled through post-match trash to uncover mountains of discarded beer cups — and a whole new Bundesliga.

Beer cups at a Football game
Image: Deutsche Umwelthilfe

What if Germany's soccer league was suddenly flipped on its head, putting a tiny club at the top of the table and relegating a giant to bottom? A David versus Goliath story in the fight for glory and gold that sounds too good to be true.

But it happened. The nongovernmental organization Environmental Action Germany (DUH) recently crowned second league Union Berlin the German champion, while putting first division Borussia Dortmund (BVB) in the relegation zone.

It might sound strange — but then again, we're not, in strict terms, talking about football; but rather about which team scores biggest for the environment.

"The mountains of trash after a soccer match are vast," Thomas Fischer of the DUH told DW.

Citing a report based on a survey that clubs answered voluntarily, he said fans use around 4 million cups. Many of which end up not in bins, but scattered about the countryside.

Joy and suffering

But what do David and Goliath make of the DUH's study? Well, it was relatively easy to get David on the phone.

Christian Arbeit is the mouthpiece for Union Berlin - a traditional working-class club based in the southeastern district of Köpenickc — both on the field and when the press calls.

Stands at a soccer stadium with lots of garbage on the ground
The dirty aftermath of a session in the standsImage: ballkuesstrasen.wordpress.com/S. Paulsen

The victory, says Arbeit, is something of a surprise. The club wasn't working toward it. "We were amazed that we could win a prize just for doing things that are self-evident to us," he said.

And cups are just one part of the story. Because as Arbeit went on to explain, the club also sells snacks that need neither cutlery nor paper plates. "You get your sausage in a bread roll. You eat it, and there is nothing leftover."

Goliath's reaction was somewhat less enthusiastic. Daniel Stolpe is the mouthpiece for Borussia Dortmund — and it quickly became clear that he is skeptical of the DUH's conclusion, which he says doesn't take into account the club's efforts to protect the climate. It's about much more than cups.

"BVB covers all its energy needs with green power," Stolpe told DW. BVB produces energy from a photovoltaic system of 8,800 solar panels on the roof of the stadium, and all their print products are on FSC-certified paper, he added. In other words: Borussia Dortmund has a green conscience.

Shades of green

It is true that DUH's green ranking focuses solely on rubbish produced during games.

According to the report, some clubs have switched from reusable to disposable cups — which, though made of bioplastic, aren't as biodegradable as claimed. BVB uses them too.

Bioplastics need constant high temperature and moisture to break down. Contrary to popular belief, the process is not akin to composting, as it doesn't release any nutrients.

But the biggest thorn in the side of the environmentalists is the material's questionable eco-footprint.

Corn from the United States used to manufacture the product is heavily dependent on pesticides and herbicides. Raw materials, and the cups themselves, are shipped halfway around the world to ultimately quench the thirst of fans in the German city of Dortmund.

A disaster for the environment, says the DUH.

Union Berlin fans in stands
Union Berlin may only play in the second league, but when it comes to avoiding trash, the club is the reigning championImage: Eisern Union

Crowd size matters

But how do you measure an eco-disaster? The size of the crowd is the key point, say both David and Goliath. Around 22,000 people fit into the Alte Försterei (old forest warden's office) where the Berliners play at home.

Dortmund's ground, Signal Iduna Park, is Germany's largest football stadium, with a capacity of 81,000. Collectively, they drink a whole lot more. If Union were to increase its stadium capacity to 37,000, as was recently announced, it would still be small by comparison.

To encourage people to bring back their bottles and cups, bars and event organizers charge a deposit of about a euro, which consumers get back upon return. But that's not easy for large crowds, says Daniel Stolpe. He cites security, hygiene and service reasons.

"If you have 80,000 people in a stadium and everyone buys a drink, then everyone has to queue up again to get their deposit or give their cup back," explains Stolpe.

Dortmund has installed 200 special tubes into which fans can chuck their cups instead of simply throwing them on the floor. At Union, the crowd has to queue up again to do this, to get their deposit back. Many do — others forsake the deposit and take the cup home as a keepsake.

The soccer stadium of Borussia Dortmund
At the soccer stadium where Borussia Dortmund plays, a dedicated system of 200 tubes is used to collect used cupsImage: CC BY-SA 3.0/Dmitrij Rodionov

Need not football clubs be green heros too?

Nonetheless, it's clear that every club could be doing more. And that's exactly what the DUH report aims to highlight. The clubs should be environmental role models for all who make the weekly pilgrimage to the stadium.

Though Stolpe says BVB is glad to raise awareness on the reasons for putting cups in the tubes rather than tossing them on the ground, he also questions whether clubs need to take on that role explicitly.

For his part, Union Berlin's Christian Arbeit warns against overloading clubs with too many issues. "They're already role models for fairness and integration. And now also for cutting down on trash?" He thinks your football club needn't be a role model for that, too.

So both sides agree that everyone should do their bit for the environment. If, in the future, the DUH looks at the use of solar energy, Goliath could end up beating David.

In the meantime, attention is on the game itself — played, let us not forget, on a brilliant green pitch. Perhaps that is a sign.