Water, Water (and Trash) Everywhere

The 2011 Chicago Marathon, my first-ever 26.2, was sweaty, painful, taxing to my physical and mental limits – and one of the best days of my life. So much was wonderful; the weather, the energy of the other runners, and the cheers of the crowds lining the course. Yet there is one disturbing image that sticks in my mind about that race:

Blue sponges.

Yep, just like this! Thanks to Marathon Pundit for this photo.
Yep, just like this! Thanks to Marathon Pundit for this photo.

Somewhere in the middle miles, an aid station handed out large blue sponges soaked in cold water. Oh, how fabulous, I thought as I took one and cooled off my steaming head. But then I looked ahead to a curb-to-curb sea of sponges on the road for at least 50 yards. Volunteers were trying to sweep them away, but the runners were too thick. So I gingerly ran through the mess, hoping I wouldn’t slip and get trampled by my fellow sponge-bearers.

At other aid stations it was empty water cups everywhere, although nothing quite like the sponge station. I’ve run enough races now to know this is pretty common, and that most are well-run enough to pick up after themselves. Even so, that’s a lot of cups, sponges, and other detritus that end up in a landfill.

This is from the Berlin Marathon, but quite typical. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
This is from the Berlin Marathon, but quite typical. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Let’s look at just one resource critical to a race: potable water. There needs to be plenty of it, delivered quickly to runners in stride and to exhausted, dehydrated finishers. But it’s heavy and bulky, and needs to be at several locations along the course, along with its packaging and distribution materials. This means a lot of plastic, transportation costs, and manual labor – and a lot of trash.

Here, for example, are some numbers I found from the 2011 New York Marathon, with 47,000 runners and Lord knows how many volunteers, crews, and spectators. Just making water available during the race resulted in the following:

  • 237,200 free disposable plastic water bottles
  • 93,600 eight-ounce bottles of water
  • 2,300,000 paper cups

All of which contributed to the more than 100 tons of trash collected afterward, including six tons of paper and three tons of metal, glass and plastic. (See more interesting numbers from the marathon here.) It led Mother Jones to write an article entitled, “Are Marathons Bad for the Planet?

2012 Dexter-Ann Arbor half marathon: just one of the water stations.
2012 Dexter-Ann Arbor half marathon: just one of at least 7 water stations.

As the 2011 NYC marathon raised $33 million for charities and generated roughly $250 million for the city’s economy, I’d argue that it was a positive event overall. But it came at a substantial cost in setup and cleanup. Is it possible that those costs could have been reduced – substantially reduced, even – while maintaining the quality of the race experience?

The good news is that the answer appears to be yes. From simple “cup-free” races to internationally recognized “sustainability certification” some events are reducing their impact on the environment, and the associated costs, through innovative approaches and better management of existing methods. Here are just a couple of recent examples.

From Running USA:
Sonoma‘s Destination Races Strives For Zero Waste

ONOMA, Calif. – In July the Napa-to-Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon, presented by Newton Running and produced by Destination Races of Sonoma, achieved an impressive 96.98% landfill diversion rate…compostable products [replaced] all the water bottles, coffee cups, paper plates, napkins and plastic utensils that would typically be headed to the landfill.  This plan also resulted in a 62% reduction in greenhouse gases.
Read the full article here.

And this is from the website for the Two-Hearted Trail race in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula this June.
Environmental Measures

  1. Greenlayer, eco-tech shirts made from 100% recycled polyester.
  2. Each runner must carry a functional hydration system or a minimum 20oz water bottle. There are no cups at the aid stations.
  3. Food served after the event are either locally produced, organically grown, or both.
  4. Medallions and glasswork awards are made by Michigan artists.
  5. Food waste is composted and all other materials are recycled.
  6. Course is marked with reusable flags that are removed after the event.

And while this 2009 festival in New Zealand was not a race, it shows what a day-long event with 25,000 attendees can achieve in waste reduction. Highlights include 5,200kg of materials recycled or composted vs. only 550kg to landfill, an 86% reduction in their greenhouse gas emissions, and eliminating the need to landfill contaminated recyclables – a reduction 640kg of waste over the previous year.

Next up: an organization that has created a multi-level certification program for recognizing races that reduce waste, conserve resources, and promote local businesses. It seems to be catching on. Stay tuned!

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