About a year ago, I discussed the environmental impact of running and offered some suggestions about how you can lessen the damage that you personally cause by running. This year, I’d like to revisit the topic by focusing specifically on the impact caused by marathons.

The Problems

Trash in a water stop during a race
Photo by Don Fulano
The vast majority of marathons are not very environmentally conscious. Even race directors that are environmentally aware have an uphill battle getting their hordes of volunteers to cooperate with their initiatives. Trash and recyclables do not get separated at the source, making it an impossible task to separate the trash later and leading to it all being thrown into a dumpster or two (or more.) It can be extremely time consuming to separate the white cups from the gatorade cups from the cardboard from the plastic jugs from the general trash left behind at an aid station.

Aid stations aren’t the only problem. Most runners will think nothing of tossing their trash off of the side of the road as they are running, rather than carrying their empty gel packets or water bottles until they reach an aid station with a trash can.

Each year I drive my truck the entire length of the course at 10mph and stop a million times to pickup those **ing packets and stray cups,” said Erik Boucher, the water stop coordinator for the Maine Marathon.

Doing it right

The Hartford Marathon is making what has to be the best strides in its efforts to go green. They experimented with corn-based compostable cups for the water stops, but they proved to be too slippery and dangerous so they are still looking for a solution to replace the paper cup.

At their finish lines, however, they have replaced plastic water bottles with PVC pipe water fountains, bulk-wrapped medals, recyclable heat sheets, and volunteers at trash cans to help ensure trash is sorted properly.

Runners really see the environment like no one else,” said Joan Benoit Samuelson. “We’re out there every day and are real barometers not only of the weather, but of the environmental conditions.” Joan has switched the lead and media vehicles in her signature race, the Beach to Beacon, from diesel to electric vehicles to lessen the impact, and has also vastly improved the recycling done by her race.

Sports apparel company Atayne has started at an even more basic level, by creating performance clothing for runners out of recycled polyester from water bottles mixed with Cocono to eliminate the need for chemical additives in the clothing. They have also partnered with various races throughout the country as “Team Atayne,” literally trailing the athletes and running for trash to clean up the course after them.

How can you help?

If you are a race director, see if there is a place in your budget for greener options than you are currently using. Here are the efforts that Erik is taking with the Maine Marathon this year that you can try to emulate:

  1. Every water stop will have at least 2 trash barrels where runners can throw their cups
  2. Volunteers at the water stops will be asked to pick up and separate all the cups and place them in trash bags
  3. Volunteers at the water stops will also be asked to crush the empty gallon jugs and cardboard boxes and separate the two — this doesn’t always happen though
  4. I will be placing a cardboard box at every mile marker on the course for runners to throw their trash — we will announce this just before the race starts
  5. At the start/finish line we will have 8 special boxes lined with plastic bags where runners can throw their empty water bottles

If you are a runner or a volunteer, follow the directions from the race directors and make your best efforts to make it easier for them. Use a carry in/carry out policy any time you can’t find a trash can or recycle bin during your race. Volunteer with Team Atayne (or set up your own similar initiative) to help clean up the course following the last runners.

Even if you are a runner, volunteer your time before the race to help set things up or after the race to help clean up. Your local race directors will appreciate any aid that they can get.