Should Races Be More Environmentally Friendly?

I’ve spent a lot of time with my friend and photographer, Anna, over the past year. She is Zero Waste, and what I once thought of as extreme, is now making a lot more sense. (She has a great informative blog here – but I’m going to get her to do a guest blog on TheRunnerBeans too).

Hanging out with her has made me more aware of the environmental impact of everything

After being incredibly impressed with the lack of rubbish along the Tokyo Marathon course, I started to think about how the races here and in the US could be more eco friendly. And it is possible.

CIM, the California International Marathon recently announced that it had earned a Gold level certificate from the Council for Responsible Sport.

Here’s how they did it;

  • Developed a formal plan to reduce event’s environmental footprint and increase social impact
  • Diverted 45 tons (77 percent) of all event waste from going to landfill by recycling and working to procure biodegradable materials then collect and compost them
  • Promoted sustainable practices through interactive volunteer stations
  • Encouraged active and public transport by offering a free bike valet at the State Capitol for secure bicycle parking, and partnering with Sacramento Regional Transit to handout free one day passes at the CIM Expo & Packet Pick-up at the Sacramento Convention Center
  • Identified and calculated all uses of water and energy, as well as the resulting greenhouse gas emissions related to producing the event
  • Shared intentions, sustainability plans and calls to action on social media, at community outreach events, and in participant newsletters

Other big races that have earned certificates (gold, silver or bronze) are the  LA Marathon, Marine Corps Marathon and Chicago Marathon. You can find a full list here – I’m really disappointed that only four UK races have made it on to the list, and those were from 2009-2012. It just doesn’t seem good enough.

So what else could other races do? Here are a couple of my ideas, I’d love to hear your suggestions too…

-Promote people wearing hydration packs or bringing handheld water bottles to be refilled at aid stations. Of course, I know that this isn’t possible during every race or you might not want to slow down if you’re gunning for a PB, but it could at least be an option!

– Cups or bottles…I actually don’t know which is worse for the environment. ON the one hand, I prefer bottles as I’m more likely to hold on to it for a while and find cups hard to drink out of…but I imagine there is more wastage in bottles… What do you think? Could they have paper cups? Did you know that there are 2 million cups discarded on New York City Marathon day…

-Optional packet send outs. It’s a waste of paper (and money) to post them all out. I think you should be able to have the option of pre-race or race day collection, like a lot of the smaller races do. I’m also not a fan of the goody bag stuffed with flyers and other things you don’t want/need. I love when you can choose the bits to pick up at the end of a race, that way you only take what you actually want. And not the weird protein bar, or the random shake  (on that note, the first year I ran the London Marathon there was a Mars bar in the goody bag…I have never had a chocolate bar in a goody bag again, what happened to them?)

-Opt in finishers t-shirts, and without plastic packaging on them! Personally, I don’t often wear my race t-shirts and would rather save a couple of pounds on my entry. For those that do like the race t-shirts, there should be an opt in button on entry, and have an area for t-shirt collection pre or post race. And they do not all need to be individually wrapped in plastic, it’s crazy! I recently read that the Cherry Blossom 10 miler (totally on my bucket list) has runners who want a medal opt in and pay extra for this…a great idea to reduce waste for those who throw their medals away or let them fester in a drawer somewhere.

-More bins along the way for rubbish, it was great not to trip over the discarded bottles, tread on sticky gel packets or crunch along cups. This should be the case for all races – I think it’s the races responsibility to make sure there isn’t trash left en route by the runners. My friend Char sent me this article about the recent Brighton Half Marathon, suggesting runners should be fined or disqualified for dropping litter…what do you think?

-Promote the eco side of the race! Make it a selling point. Personally, the Vacation Race Series in the USA and the Seychelles Half Marathon both hold appeal partly because they are pitching themselves as eco races. (I guess it does help that they’re in beautiful locations too!)

Here’s what the Vacation Races have to say ‘Having our races so close to the national parks, unnecessary waste and trash is something we are strongly against. We are dedicated to maintaining a clean race and preserving the beauty of the area we run in. There is nothing that will ruin a view more than seeing a piece a trash in plain view from a breathtaking landscape.

That being said, one of the most important things in a half marathon is ensuring that aid stations are plentiful, efficient and that they do not run out of water. Hydration will make or break a race.

For this race series we have implemented Cup Free Racing. We think it is a great thing. What we do is buy a hydrapouch for everyone who wants one and include it in your racer bag. When you register we will ask you to indicate whether you want a hydrapouch or not. You also have the option to bring your own system. It can be anything that works for you, so long as it does not produce trash.

We then have self-serve water stations set up along each course. We keep a sleeve or two of cups at each station in case of emergency, like if your belt falls off, or you lose your bottle. The cups are really there only for emergency, but are available.

The hydrapouch is not a water bottle. You run with it empty and attached to your belt or waistband. It is super lightweight, so you can hardly tell its there when running. When an aid station comes up, you pull it off your belt, fill it up in stride, drink it until you are done, then it goes back on your belt. Easy.

The other real bonus, is that you can sip water way past the aid station, instead of having to drink the entire cup right away in order to get it in the trash can. You can drink as you need, and you don’t get that big hit to your stomach.

Past race experience has shown us that the cup free system is very favorable among our runners. Aid stations were well organized so there was no wait to fill up, the hydrapouch is light and in no way cumbersome, and the course remained clean. 83% of runners found the experience completely satisfactory. When we cleaned up after our inaugural race at Zion, all the trash we found was 6 Goo packets.’ 

-The Singapore based Income Eco Run is trying to encourage a zero waste race sending out e-certificates to finishers post-race. Bike racks area available for runners to cycle to the start line, and biodiesel is used for the generators. They want to encourage 1/10th of their runners to be ‘zero waste runners’. those who will bring their own bottle to aid stations, and opt out of the recycle medal and t-shirt.

I’d love to know what you think? Would you be a ‘zero waste runner’ or would you miss the medal? Any ideas on how more races could be more environmentally friendly? 

14 Comments

  1. March 22, 2018 / 7:36 am

    Completely agree with wearing bladders for longer distance races to cut down on bottles and cups but I suspect it will take ages for runners of shorter distances to get comfortable doing it. This year instead of getting a t-shirt after the Steyning Stinger marathon we were allowed free downloads of our race photos which I personally feel is much more useful. Maybe race organisers could make this an option, t-shirts for those who want one or free photography for those who don’t? Something should be done about gel packaging as well, make them biodegradable with a short shelf life so you only buy what you need instead of stock piling a years supply.

  2. rosietherunner_
    March 22, 2018 / 10:34 am

    I admit I could to better when it comes to being eco-friendly but I was horrified that the Half I am running on Sunday (London Landmarks Half) sent out plastic drawstring bags to each participant and these are the ONLY bags that will be accepted at bag drop! Seems completely unnecessary and I hate to think of how much they cost and what the environmental impact is.

    I do think water stations are a must in a race – dehydration is a serious issue – but would support more races using paper cups instead of plastic so they can be composted. T-shirt opt in would definately be a good idea as well! Pretty much all of mine are in the bottom of a drawer somewhere.

  3. DDtop
    March 22, 2018 / 12:54 pm

    Hi as someone that ran a venue used for cycling and running!
    The running events left the place looking like there had been a multiple colision between a fleet of skip lorries! as race numbers and other bits everywhere and as an eveing event early/late in the year was dark by time the the time started so we had to clear up next day.

    Cups can be a single use paper as if left bio degrades quickly can be designed so longer/shaped!
    Plastics can be made to bio degrade but there hands are tied by .Gov!
    As been into this with my friend that works in renewables and quite an eye opener on regs!

    But your race number could be your drinks pouch! could even be reusable just change straw part etc but unit washed in milton type substance.

    There could be marshals picking up litter as race goes on even a team following race route behind picking as goes along just need a pick up truck to put bags on could even an ELEV(Electric buggy).

    Part or one of the big issues with recycling it needs to be changed from a business to a Service!
    Then could move on.
    In the same way a pulic convienence goes about theres no one asking about how many jobbies in the pan it’s just open for anyone as service funded by us!

    I remember years back had to go to Supermarkets to pick up big bales of plastics that went to a place that reused making plastic items and plastics etc can be made into all sorts of things like road signs etc

    They should be set up like a .gov agency with own transport to collect it so lessens third party costs where all the plastics etc has to go not run as a business/profit maker but an essential service like the refuse collections because in years to come it will have to be addressed as the movement against not doing anything will become too strong to ignore esp if brought into the voting arena!

  4. Eve
    March 22, 2018 / 3:33 pm

    I just found out that you CANNOT wear hydration packs for NYCM or Boston. While I guess I understand from a safety perspective, I am very reliant on my packs for marathons and will really struggle without them if/when I run those races. Yes, if NYCM allowed hydration packs then they could likely reduce some of those 2 million cups discarded you cited above!

  5. Chiswickmum
    March 22, 2018 / 4:55 pm

    excellent post. Thank you both to Anna and you! I know, one step at at time, but I would love to know how designers build in recycling of materials when they design and make sports gear, especially shoes.

  6. March 22, 2018 / 10:57 pm

    Very good article! I think here in the UK race organisers could make a big difference by taking the following simple steps: not posting out race numbers but arranging on the day collection; not sending out leaflets but communicating via email; providing water bottles and not cups on the route; making race T-shirts optional; doings swipes post race to collect rubbish and/or providing more bins on the route. We’re already seeing some of these changes but still a long time to go!

  7. March 23, 2018 / 12:02 pm

    As a race director (Richmond RUNFEST) I have been very interested in this blog and comments. Sustainability is a key thing we are addressing for this years race. I’ll make a small point for a reason why very few UK events are not on that list and it’s because no one has heard of it. Royal Park Half doing some pretty good sustainable things at their events and would easily make it on that list. There will be many others but like me had not heard of it before.

    Since starting my research, it is clear to me that there is not a one sized fits all model as each race comes with its own restrictions. We tried them ‘balls of water’ you might have seen advertised on facebook but they cannot do the numbers we are talking about.

    For our event, I’ll be honest and say I’m not sure what level we can get to but we can certainly improve in all areas. Below are some examples of what we are currently introducing…

    – This year we are reintroducing cups and water bowsers on parts of the course to reduce wastage. The last time we did this the feedback was horrible with some runners describing us as “being cheap”.

    – Collection of race numbers on the day is a big problem for us. 6,000 people turning up 15mins before the race is not a possibility for us (in our start in Kew Gardens) but we have introduced a cheaper option to collect a race number during the week previous in the town centre. 25% have selected this option so it’s a start.

    – We are also going to look at reducing paper in our final instructions this year.

    In the bigger scheme of things these are all small things but one step at a time! I’m watching like a hawk how other events introduce certain things so maybe we can be an example to other smaller events. If everyone does their bit then the pressure mounts on other events right?
    Please keep coming up with good examples of events so I can copy (I mean educate myself further!).

    • DDtop
      March 23, 2018 / 6:41 pm

      Here is one simple move! The item you post out is there race number address on outside fold open even with number on other side as so many options.
      They hand number back for a deposit or treat many will have to accept a change as we all do and you could put info up about why as many will know about it.

      But here is a new one we have Surfers Against Sewage well how about Runners Against Rubbish/Waste/plastic etc just pick which one you like! mind Plastic sounds a good one.

  8. March 26, 2018 / 2:36 am

    Cherry Blossom has the opt in medal (and medal upgrade) as well as tech shirt upgrade.What’s even better IMO is the base price is lower too and they don’t use the opt in as reasons to charge more.

    NYRR has banned hydration vests for a number of years now (maybe even before Boston bombing), so I don’t think you’ll get that wish in NYC, Boston or any other major US city

  9. razey
    March 27, 2018 / 1:21 pm

    We are proud to be associated, for the third time in a row, with the Ajmera Thump Celebration Run. As the medical partners, we’ll have an army of doctors and nurses looking after the health of the runners. We also have a number of our own family taking part. So show up and get running!
    You can follow the event on our Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/sbshospital

  10. March 27, 2018 / 1:53 pm

    YES to only taking the bits you want from a goody bag (if any); YES to minimalist drink stations like the hydrapouch system; YES to not getting a medal unless you really want it. I love running but the amount of rubbish at races, even if it’s picked up, really bothers me. I’d be much more likely to enter a race if they advertise these kinds of policies!

  11. Katie
    April 1, 2018 / 9:01 pm

    The water station I am on this year at the London marathon is trialling compostable cups instead of bottles. I love the idea as I try not to buy single use plastic but not too sure how well it will go when the masses come past! But it’s a good start………

    • charlotte
      April 1, 2018 / 9:22 pm

      Ooh that’s so interesting, will look out for them (and you!) what mile aid station are you at?

      • Katie
        April 5, 2018 / 9:18 pm

        It’s approx mile 10 – think it needs a lot more room than the usual station! Will see how it goes!

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