The small Scottish seaside town of St Andrews is replete with a rich history which includes a castle and Scotland’s oldest university, founded in 1413.

In 1754, the town witnessed another first when The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews was established. Today, St Andrews is also the home of The R&A which governs the sport worldwide (apart from the United States and Mexico) and organizes The Open, golf’s oldest major championship.

Since 17 October 1860, when eight professional golfers assembled at Prestwick—the venue of the inaugural championship—to determine who would be the champion golfer, the event’s attendance has grown tremendously.

In recent years, and as with most major events, The Open relied on single-use plastic bottles to provide drinking water for fans, players, staff and officials.

This summer, some 237,750 people attended The 148th Open at  Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland—a figure only surpassed by the 239,000 who attended the championship at St Andrews in 2000.

However, this year’s tournament was also remarkable for another reason. For the first time in the last few decades there were no single-use plastic water bottles.

“In previous years we utilized over 100,000 single-use plastic bottles to supply water to fans, players, staff and officials. In 2019, we sought a radically different and innovative solution and consequently, developed The Open Water Initiative,  through support from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Clean Seas Campaign,” says Philip Russell, Assistant Director of Sustainability at The R&A.

The Open is hosted on a group of ‘links’ golf courses which are directly adjacent to the ocean on the United Kingdom’s coastline. The issue of marine pollution caused by single-use plastics is therefore a particularly resonant theme.

During the most recent edition, the organizers installed 19 water stations to provide free chilled, purified local water. Fans were encouraged to bring their own refillable water bottles to the event and The R&A handed out over 5,000 free stainless steel refillable bottles as a project promotion. The special edition bottles were also available to buy on site for US$5.50.

The initiative saw the successful removal of all single-use plastic water bottles—a feat achieved after six months of planning, design and development. To add further visibility to the project, all golfers playing in  the championship were given a personalized Players’ Edition stainless steel water bottle with their name laser-engraved on it. 

“We have an important leadership role to play in major sporting events—we reach a potential 600 million households around the world on TV. The championship is a powerful platform to raise awareness about environmental issues and we are also working with national golf associations to inspire change. We had to invest heavily in this project to bring it to fruition but we wanted to do our part to help restore the health of our oceans and raise awareness of the issue of marine plastic pollution,” says Russell. While this year’s focus was on tackling single-use plastic water bottles, golf’s governing body is also evaluating alternative solutions for other drinks currently consumed in single-use plastic to drive further change moving forward. 

In February 2017, the UNEP launched the Clean Seas campaign at the Economist World Ocean Summit in Bali, Indonesia. The campaign engages governments, the general public and the private sector in the fight against marine plastic pollution. It calls on governments to reduce the use of unnecessary single-use plastic and non-recoverable microplastic; targets industry to minimize plastic packaging and redesign products; and calls on consumers to change their throwaway habits before irreversible damage is done to our seas.

“Many UN Member States are taking action through the Clean Seas campaign to reduce single-use plastics through various approaches including product bans, taxes or levies and individuals are examining their relationship with plastic. UNEP will continue to act as a catalyst for change to drastically reduce the harm posed by marine litter,” says UNEP’s marine litter expert Heidi Savelli.

Plastic pollution is killing our oceans. An average of 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enters our oceans annually and the ubiquity of plastic traces poses a serious threat to ocean and human health. Fifty per cent of the oxygen we breathe comes from the oceans, and behaviour change is necessary, especially when up to 80 per cent of all pollution in the oceans flows in from the land.