Friday, July 27, 2012

Running Green

I'll admit to not being the greenest, eco-friendliest person on the planet. I eat meat. I sometimes buy non-organic food. I've been driving 300 miles a week for the past two months.

But I try. Most of our produce comes from the local farmer's market. I limit my red meat. Use re-usable things rather than disposable. Take public transit or walk rather than drive whenever feasible.

A few months ago I dug into the ethics of some of my favorite brands of running clothes (or started, rather....); then last week I got an email about a petition to make the NYC Marathon waste-less, which included a few key facts:

  • In 2010 the NY Department of Sanitation collected 114.29 tons of litter, 6.34 tons of paper and 2.98 tons of metal, glass and plastic post-race.
  • In 2011, the race gave out 237,200 disposable plastic water bottles & 2,300,000 paper cups.
  • It creates enough trash from free disposables alone to fill seven Olympic swimming pools.

A year or two ago, I heard a report on NPR about the relative green / not-green-ness of of various road races, which included these facts along with many other unpleasant ones, like the amount of CO2 created by buses shuttling runners between the finish & start lines, the number of plastic goody bags given out (and often trashed within a day), etc. So these facts weren't a total shock. But it got me thinking about the potential environmental impact of what I typically think of as a relatively "green" sport, which eventually led me to a Runners World article on the yearly carbon footprint of an average runner.

Out of curiosity, I used their data to approximate the carbon footprint of my running. The result? 2,033 lbs CO2 last year. That's the equivalent of driving 4,236 extra miles. The fact that I didn't fly to any races helped me a lot (a 1,500 mile flight adds 4,000-5,000 lbs of CO2 to your carbon footprint), as did the fact that I drive a very gas-efficient car. What did not help was the purchasing of running clothes I didn't technically need. (Basically the more new stuff you buy, the bigger your carbon footprint.)

The most interesting part of the Waste-less NYCM petition was its mentions of races that are working to make their events less wasteful and more eco-friendly. The ING Hartford Marathon, for example, has been carbon-neutral since 2010. Some of their strategies include:

The UTC Water Bubbler
  • opportunities for sneaker recycling
  • locally sourced post-race food
  • hybrid transportation options
  • corn-based recyclable water cups
  • the UTC Water Bubbler (a 70-foot-long water fountain) which the organizers estimate saves about 10,000 plastic bottles per year

In fact, there is even an organization called The Council for Responsible Sport that certifies events according to their level eco-friendliness. You can find certified events on their site, including several big names:

  • Certified (the lowest level): LA Marathon, Nike Women's Marathon, Chicago Marathon, Bloomsday Run
  • Silver: Austin Marathon, Marine Corps Marathon, Houston Marthon
  • Gold: Big Sur Int Marathon, Big Sur Half, Hartford Marathon, Half Moon Bay Intl Marathon
  • Evergreen (the highest level): Birmingham Half, UCSD Grove Run, Marin County Tritonman

There are many other races that are making an effort to be more environmentally sound that haven't specifically gotten ReSport certified yet:

  • Ojai Full & Half Marathon (CA) - Finisher medals made of recycled materials; special eco-friendly awards for overall finishers; finisher tech shirts made from recycled materials; rideshare program to promote participant carpooling; virtual goodie bag; BOY bag sweat check
  • Whidbey Island Marathon (WA) - Organic pre-race dinner, 100% recycled paper goodie bags, & finisher medals made of recycled glass
  • Manitoba Marathon (Canada) - Compostable food-service items only; diverts 1,723 lbs of solid waste from landfill
  • Malibu Marathon (HI) - On-site recycling of cardboard, glass, plastic, paper, etc.; organic foods at pasta dinner and finish line; leftover food donated to local charities; many biodegrable products; donating runners' throw-away layers to a local non-profit organization (I think CIM does this as well); using fuel efficient vehicles for race business
  • Eugene Marathon (OR) - Volunteer "master recyclers" sort all garbage & divert 70% of solid waste; finish-line stage and vendor area powered by solar generators
  • City of Portland Triathlon (OR) - Local organic food, solar power, trophies made from recycled bike parts, & organizers buy carbon credits to offset participant travel
  • Paris Marathon (France) - partnership with GDF SUEZ to promote eco-friendly behaviors amongst participants & spectators
  • Canmore Rocky Mountain Half-Marathon (Canada) - "Waste-free" start & finish areas where everything used must be reusable or recyclable; all proceeds go to environmental causes

Now, obviously, if you fly or drive a long way to run a race you wouldn't have otherwise just because it's environmentally friendly, you've pretty much cancelled out the benefit. But if you're deciding between two or three races in the same location anyway, knowing something about how they compare eco-wise could be a helpful way to make your decision.

As much as I wish I could tell you I am planning on building my race schedule entirely out of super-green events and doing everything in my power to keep my runner's carbon footprint as small as humanly possible, that would be a total lie. I've never run a single race on the ReSport list, I'll probably continue to drive to the track once or twice a week for the foreseeable future, and if I ever qualify for Boston you can bet your ass I'm flying there at least once.

But there are a few things I try to do as much as I can. They're small things, but small is better than nothing, and I would really like to try to do a better job about doing them more consistently:

  • Keep my eye on ReSport and look for more events in my area as more become certified, & try to choose those when it makes sense
  • Take my own bottle with me & refill it rather than taking disposable bottles of water or sports drink
  • Carpool or take public transit to races
  • Bring a reusable bag for the bag check (or don't check anything if the race insists on using a specific type of disposable bag)
  • Bring a reusable bag to expos & turn down plastic ones (or just skip the goody bag altogether)
  • Lobby race directors & organizers to use compostable(or at worst, recyclable) cups on the course, avoid disposable plastic bottles, cut down on fliers & plastic bags, & use companies like Greenlayer or JL Racing (which makes technical fabrics out of recycled fibers)

Do you think about environmental issues at races? Any other small things you try to do to make a difference?



  1. I recycle and try to reduce and reuse (which are better than recycling), but to be honest, I don't care a ton about what races do. It's nice if they are eco-friendly, but I don't see it affecting my race schedule. Maybe not the best attitude, but I think the participants would be likely to create just as much or more waste if they were at home.

    That said, I'm happy that these organizations are taking the environment into account. I would be happy with plastic and cardboard recycling at races. I also am good with the "virtual goodie bag", especially since the majority of goodie bags lately don't really have anything good in them...

  2. I was just thinking about this! My bf and I volunteered at a race and the number of cups and the amount of waste that was generated was immense. The irony is that I always think of trail races as being more "green" but it really isn't.

    I skip the goodie bag and t-shirt when I can. I'm thinking about getting a reusable, foldable cone-shaped cup that I saw someone use recently. Not sure how much "green races" would affect my race schedule though.

  3. This is a really important post. I was at the Expo yesterday and whilst I LOVED it, I came away thinking how unnecessary and wasteful the whole thing was. The amount of paper that was wasted in leafleting, the amount of miles people drove etc. And yes, the water bottles on the day. I always carry my own water (not for green reasons, admittedly) and I hate seeing the cups and bottles strewn around.

    But as the other ladies have said, would it affect my race schedule (tiny as it is), probably not. And therein lies the problem.