Even before the Netherlands and Spain face off in the finals on Sunday to determine the world's greatest soccer team, the World Cup has produced a winner: landfills in Taiwan and Japan.
The "Orangemen" from the Netherlands will wear Nike jerseys made entirely from plastic bottles that had been destined for Asian trash heaps. Nike also outfitted eight other teams in uniforms made of recycled plastics: the United States, Brazil, Portugal, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Serbia and Slovenia.
Fans who want to dress like the United States' Landon Donovan, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, Brazil's Kaká or others from Nike-sponsored World Cup teams can purchase "plastic bottle" jerseys. Nike says the campaign will divert nearly 13 million plastic bottles, or about 560,000 pounds of waste, from the landfills.
The jerseys are made by melting plastic bottles into polyethylene (PET) yarn, which saves raw materials produced from petroleum, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and slashes energy consumption by as much as 30 percent from manufacturing virgin polyester, Nike said. It takes about eight plastic bottles to make one jersey.
The spotlight on PET recycled products at one of the world's largest sporting events is a "big positive" for the industry, said Dennis Sabourin, executive director of the National Association for PET Container Resources.
"It underscores what we in the PET industry have been saying for a long time: 'Look, instead of throwing this thing away, put it in your recycling bin, because it has an afterlife that saves raw energy, saves raw materials and is significant savings in greenhouse gas emissions,'" Sabourin said.
Going "green" did not sacrifice performance, Nike said. "The most environmentally friendly and technologically advanced kit in football's history" is 15 percent lighter and has wider ventilation zones and other performance-enhancing features, the company said.
"We are equipping athletes with newly designed uniforms that not only look great and deliver performance benefits, but are also made with recycled materials, creating less impact on our environment," Charlie Denson, president of the Nike brand, said in a statement.
But why plastic bottles from landfills in Japan and Taiwan? That is where PET yarn factories are. Most of the PET yarn is manufactured in China and other low-cost Asian countries that are home to clothing manufacturers, Sabourin said.
A Nike spokesman said he could not disclose if the 100 percent recycled PET would be featured in any of the company's other sponsored team uniforms, but the product is used to some extent in current apparel and outdoor gear. Nike also has a "considered" index in which it rates the environmental impact of the waste, chemical solvent, materials and post-assembly garment treatments of its products.
Nike is far from the first to use PET in clothing.
The outdoor-clothing company Patagonia Inc. began using the product in 1993, and Coca-Cola Co. has also created recycled-bottle T-shirts. Under Armour Inc. has started to make lightweight sports clothing from the recycled material in its "green" line of products, and Reebok -- a subsidiary of Adidas Group -- plans to collect plastic bottles at National Football League and National Hockey League games and recycle them into shirts to sell back to fans later this year.
Recycled PET is also used in carpets, plastic containers and bottles, automotive parts and packaging materials.
Sabourin said producing materials with PET costs about the same as using virgin material, although it can go up if the supply of plastic bottles is limited.
"Over the long term, I would say, if one looks at cost parity, you still have the added benefit, the environmental benefit of the conservation of raw materials," Sabourin said.
The fact that the material requires a supply of plastic bottles worries some environmentalists. They say it encourages the consumption of plastic bottles and that products made from recycled material will end up in landfills again, anyway, especially if it is made into another plastic bottle.
But Sabourin said the bottles can be continuously recycled, and other materials last for a significant time.
"The major end use for recycled PET, just looking at U.S., is used in carpeting business," he said. "The life of the carpeting is pegged at about 10 years. It really is a durable material."
Company buys offsets for tournament emissions
The Nike jersey's environmental win is a small plus for the World Cup in South Africa.
The event is projected to produce more than eight times the greenhouse gas emissions of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, or about 2.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, including fans' international air travel, according to a sustainability study by South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism and the government of Norway.
The U.N. Environment Programme and the South African environmental affairs department invested about $350 million in efforts to improve public transportation in nine World Cup host cities and to install "greener" street and billboard lighting. South Africa's electricity utility, Eskom, will also use some renewable energy from nearby wind farms and biogas facilities for electricity.
But these measures only affect emission sources that contributed 9 percent of the event's total carbon emissions, according to the study.
Half the teams participating in the World Cup plan to buy carbon offsets for their trips to and stays at the tournament, including seven teams sponsored by PUMA AG, which will pay for the offsets of Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Italy, Ivory Coast, Switzerland and Uruguay. PUMA pledged in April to become a carbon-neutral company in 2010 and will offset the carbon emissions from all of its sponsored teams.
World Cup officials are also handing out information on carbon offset programs to the thousands of fans flocking to the games, hoping they will buy carbon offsets for their travel. The soccer supporters' travel contributed about two-thirds of the event's total estimated greenhouse gas emissions.