The effects of plastic on our environment and our health is getting more attention than ever before. Governments across the world and organizations of every size are introducing plastic awareness and reduction policies, and individual consumers are becoming conscious of their household plastic use and wastage. Large sporting events, like marathons, are no different.
Some of the world's largest marathons have an entry list of around 50,000 runners and attract a vast number of spectators. Yet, while running is a great sport its events aren't always the greenest. From water bottles, disposable cups and clothing to paper, mylar blankets, food remains and gel wrappers, the amount of waste that floods the streets during marathons and other running races is astonishing.
Fortunately, more and more organizers are committed to delivering greener, more sustainable sporting events. New initiatives are trying to reduce plastic use and taking steps to redirect waste from landfills to compost centers and recycling facilities. For example:
- The Boston Athletic Association (BAA) is reducing paper waste by eliminating paper registration, printing smaller brochures, and disseminating race information virtually.
- Lately, more clothing companies, including many of the popular brands that supply apparel to races, are turning to recycled materials as a way to reduce their environmental impact. For the 2019 event, the emblematic Boston Marathon jacket was crafted from recycled plastic waste collected from beaches and coastal communities. Similarly, the Chicago Marathon participant shirt was made from 100% recycled polyester, a material produced from plastic bottles, which uses less energy, water and oil than virgin polyester.
- Before runners take off at the start of the race they often discard old clothes used to keep them warm while waiting for the race to begin. Many races partner with local charities to collect the discarded clothing and save the textiles from local landfills. At the 2018 NYC Marathon a total of 91,000 lbs of clothing were collected.
- At the Chicago marathon, discarded heatsheets are collected by volunteers for recycling. The gathered blankets will be turned into benches for installation in a local community garden. Additionally, energy gel wrappers were collected at the aid stations and sent to a facility where the packets were shredded and melted into hard plastic to make new recycled products.
Alongside the above schemes are ones specifically aimed at reducing, or eliminating altogether, single-use plastics.
Ensuring that tens of thousands of runners are hydrated is not only a logistical headache, it is also an obligation. Most organizers are compelled to provide a bare minimum of access to water for the many people that participate in, organize and show up to their events. While many runners provide their own reusable bottles, sport waist packs and hydration vests, the events themselves still have to have the water on hand. Each race organizer has their own way of doing this.
The London Marathon, for example, mostly provides plastic bottles at hydration stations and the finish line. In 2018, around 920,000 plastic bottles were used to provide hydration to the 40,000+ runners that participated in the event. That is almost a million plastic bottles! But why bottles? According to organizers, providing plastic bottles is the best solution for the distribution of water and sport drinks in hot conditions. They say that delivering water in cups would represent a much larger logistical challenge in terms of clean-up operations given the very short window of road closures and access in one of the world’s busiest capital cities.
Other race organizers have a different view on this. In fact, the London Marathon is the only Abbott World Marathon Major to provide plastic bottles instead of cups. Recyclable or compostable cups are used in the three Marathon majors that take place in the US (Chicago, New York and Boston). However, single-use paper cups still represent a dramatic use of resources and event organizers are continuously pursuing alternatives to ensure that materials are efficiently recycled or delivered to compost facilities. The Chicago Marathon, for example, recently provided compostable cups during the race. These cups, along with other compostable materials like banana peels and apple cores, are then delivered to a composting farm.
The good news is that more events, both big and small, are following these examples. The organizers of the London Marathon have set themselves a target of zero waste to landfill by 2020. In order to achieve this ambitious target they've had to radically change how hydration is provided during the event. In the 2019 London Marathon they:
- ... reduced the number of drink stations from 26 to 19 and cut the number of plastic water bottles by 215,000.
- ... trialed 90,000 compostable cups at three drink stations.
- ... implemented a closed-loop recycling system, collecting used plastic bottles and recycling them in the same borough they were discarded in.
- ... recruited around 700 volunteer runners and provided them with bottle belts made of 90% recycled materials in order to monitor water usage. Data collected will help organizers understand fluid consumption patterns and potentially encourage runners to use water belts and provide their own fluid.
- ... generated an avalanche of headlines because of seaweed capsules. On mile 23 runners were handed Ooho edible pods, manufactured by a London start-up and made of seaweed, that were filled with a sports drink. The pods are edible, tasteless and biodegrade naturally in four to six weeks. All the runners had to do was bite or rip the pod open and drink the liquid, or consume the entire pod itself.
The London Marathon is one of the most prestigious running events in the world, but smaller events are making an effort to go green, too:
- Many trail races have banned single-use cups entirely and they hold runners responsible for carrying their own fluids via the use of water belts, hydration packs and collapsible, reusable bottles.
- The Hartford marathon in Connecticut supplies a 40-foot-long, multi-person drinking fountain at the finish chute. It is estimated to have replaced around 85,000 plastic bottles and cups since 2007.
- In Chicago, water filling stations located at the finish line in Grant Park provided 763 gallons of water to participants and spectators during the 2018 event, the equivalent of 5,779 plastic water bottles.
On top of this there is the "Greenest Marathon on the Planet", the Banff Marathon. In June 2019 it received the "Environmental Innovators of the Year Award" from the Green Sport Alliance. The event itself takes place in Banff National Park in Alberta and hosts 10,000 participants across a range of activities spanning three days. Some of their initiatives include:
- 100% waste diversion from landfill.
- Achieving carbon neutrality by offsetting greenhouse gas generation for the event.
- The use of green energy from certified renewable sources.
- Virtual event bags which eliminate the need for a physical race bag for participants.
- The use of bio-digestible water cups, which are made from corn and compost in a matter of days.
THE GREEN INDIVIDUAL
At sports events the above methods (and many more) are being trialed in order to control and reduce plastic waste. But individuals and local clubs outside of these national and international organizing groups can also play a part.
During training, runs opt for reusable bottles instead of disposable ones, experiment with alternatives to single-use containers like biodegradable wrappers and reusable pouches, and perhaps pick up some litter while you run, especially if you run trails or areas close to shorelines. And at events? Do your best to pack only essential food and drink (a lot gets thrown away unused), sort your waste or recyclables and deposit them in the appropriate area or bin, don't litter in bushes, gardens, bridges or shorelines, no matter how inconvenient getting to a waste point is, and persuade any supporting friends and family to do the same.
Sustainability is something we can all learn more about and commit to, and one of the simplest ways to go about it is to reduce the amount of single-use plastic in our lives. Doing this and decreasing plastic consumption is not about increasing our sense of guilt. It's about taking smaller steps towards meaningful goals, and creating a healthier planet in the process.