Look at the pictures the day after a big-city race and you will inevitably see an ugly sea of plastic bottles littering the road. On social media, you might find runners bemoaning an ill-fitting, plastic-wrapped race T-shirt, or the amount of junk in the goody bag. Races use an awful lot of plastic: in 2018, the London Marathon got through 920,000 water bottles, while Westminster City Council collected 5,200kg of rubbish and 3,500kg of recycling from the streets.
While all mass-participation events generate huge amounts of waste, there has not been a great deal of research into the environmental impact of running events on a global scale.
But one survey in the United States of 19 marathons found that the average amount of waste sent to landfill was 7.11 tons. Much of this will be plastic. Ten million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean every year, with water bottles symbolic of what Sir David Attenborough describes as the ‘unfolding catastrophe’ of plastic pollution afflicting our planet. It’s a bleak picture, and races must play their part in changing it.
But plastic and other ‘race waste’ isn’t the only problem. ‘One of the primary sources of environmental impact at road races is the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from participants travelling to and from the event venue,’ says Shelley Villalobos, managing director of the Council for Responsible Sport, which evaluates the impact of sporting events around the world. ‘The further away the person comes from, the higher their individual impact.’ Dr Andrea Collins, an environmental impact researcher at Cardiff University, agrees. ‘We look at all mass-participation events and the thing we find has the biggest impact is the way people travel to them.’ Big global races might have more than 40,000 people taking part, many flying in from around the world – when the Climate Neutral Group investigated the Cape Town Marathon it found that 97 per cent of the emissions were coming from participants’ air or road travel to the event. The organisers immediately began investing in local projects to offset these emissions, and it has been ‘climate neutral’ since 2014.
Our travel arrangements are an uncomfortable truth we need to face as we look at the footprints of our race calendars, but we can also choose events that are working to minimise theirs in new and innovative ways. Some are even hoping to be a force for positive change – thanks to closed roads, air pollution during the London Marathon falls by an astonishing 89 per cent, for example. Here are 10 UK events leading the pack in the race to a greener future.
Like many big races, the Bath Half Marathon has committed to eliminating single-use plastic. In 2019, the organisers provided water-refill points in the start village and along the course, so runners could top up their own bottles. The last three aid stations used compostable cups. But, like other races, they have to consider runners’ feelings on the day. While feedback was overwhelmingly positive, some runners did comment that they didn’t like running while carrying a refillable bottle and they didn’t like cupped water, though they did still understand and support the initiative in theory. Overall, 78% who tried the compostable cups said they were ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ – which is an encouraging sign for the future.
This is a small race with a big claim: to be Britain’s greenest. Because it takes place on Ashtead Common, Surrey – an ancient wooded area and Site of Special Scientific Interest, it’s no surprise that the organisers of the event, Trionium, take their environmental responsibility seriously. However, they’ve gone above and beyond to ensure the race leaves the course not simply untouched, but actually cleaner than when they turned up – and, in doing so, provide a model for other races to follow.
Race numbers are printed on recylable paper with vegetable–based inks, wooden medals are made in the UK and double as drinks coasters. Cups are made from biodegradable paper and even prizes are locally sourced: English sparkling wines, home-grown flowers and organic veggies. All waste is sorted and recycled – last year, the sole exception was a couple of bags of uneaten jelly babies.
Trionium also encourage people to arrive by foot, on bike, or by public transport for all their races – or, if they must drive, to car-pool with other runners. ‘Once we’d “greenified” Ashtead, it really influenced our thinking on all our other events,’ says race organiser Robert McCaffrey. ‘But it can be difficult to manage expectations: people even complain about our wooden medals – they want a big, shiny, metal one.’
The London Marathon is nothing if not ambitious: not only is it already the world’s largest fundraising event, it also has plans to become a world leader in delivering sustainable mass participation events. The organisers, who also run the Big Half, the Vitality London 10,000, RideLondon and Swim Serpentine, have committed to zero landfill waste by December 2020 and are looking at every aspect of the setting up, running and dismantling of their events. Last year, they introduced several initiatives. The use of Oohos, the edible-seaweed energy-drink capsules, grabbed headlines but there were also trials of recycled bottle belts, reusable capes for runners and a closed-loop plastic-bottle recycling scheme in four London boroughs. Overall, the 2019 race reduced bottles by 215,000 – but still, of course leaving some 720,000. Meanwhile, Lucozade Sport was served at three aid stations in compostable cups, which were collected and composted by the team. Other initiatives include recycled-plastic goody bags, digital race packs (no printed waste) and the use of eco-efficient tower lights.
But race directors have to balance these environmental concerns with the importance of safety and runners’ experience. For every runner who complains about plastic waste, there will be another complaining about water bottles running out. To be truly sustainable, you might argue that T-shirts and medals are unnecessary. But the reality is that most runners want these mementos. ‘We must balance providing proper runner welfare with reducing our environmental impact,’ says race director Hugh Brasher. ‘We can’t achieve everything in one event, in one year, but the changes and the trials we’re introducing for this year have the potential to change how mass-participation events are delivered in future.’ Here’s to that.
Manchester Half Marathon
How many of us have unthinkingly grabbed a T-shirt in the finish chute, only to discover it doesn’t fit, so it then joins the 300,000 tons of used clothing that goes to landfill in the UK each year? Some races have started offering the option to ‘opt out’ of a T-shirt in the sign-up process (refusing one at the end is rather pointless, as the organisers will have had to assume all finishers will want one).
After a survey by the Manchester Half organisers found that only half of participating runners would be happy to pay more for sustainably sourced T-shirts, and uncomfortable with the wastage of over 100kg of leftover T-shirts at their 2018 event, in 2019 they decided to do away with race T-shirts completely.
‘The response has certainly been strong on both sides of the fence,’ says Chris Atkinson of event organisers Human Race. ‘It’s been really interesting understanding how important this issue is to people. For 2020, we will continue not to offer T-shirts for all; however, we will be offering those who want one the chance to pre–purchase a finisher top made from recycled material, at a low cost. This will allow us to order the correct quantities, reduce wastage and keep the entry price reasonable for others who are less concerned about receiving one.
Oxford Half Marathon
Alongside Virgin Sport’s other races – the Hackney Half and the London 10K – the Oxford Half was proudly plastic-free in 2019. ‘We are proud to be the largest race in the UK to move away from plastic and develop a more sustainable strategy for keeping our runners hydrated,’ says Jessica Frey, CEO of Virgin Sport.
Every day, around eight million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans, so to be able to completely remove plastic waste is clearly a great step for any major event – these three Virgin Sport races would have amassed 500,000 bottles, 65,000 of them at the Oxford Half alone.
Water is now served in 100 per cent recyclable cups, and the 25,000 plastic kit bags replaced by reusable cotton totes. Runners are also encouraged to collect their race packs rather than have them posted out, and attend by public transport or by cycling.
Royal Parks Half Marathon
With miles of its route winding through the greenest spaces in London, the Royal Parks Half (which takes in four of the city’s eight royal parks) has long taken its environmental responsibilities seriously. It was one of the first major half marathons to go plastic bottle-free, its T-shirts are made from recycled materials and its medals from FSC-certified wood. Why wood? Because metal medals are almost exclusively made in China –
at best, shipped in; at worst, air freighted and made in conditions that might well be harmful both to the environment and the humans who made them.
Like the Virgin Money London Marathon last year, the Royal Parks uses Ooho pouches – the edible water and energy-drink capsules – alongside compostable cups. There are no isotonic drinks on course, which is sensible, given that many runners take just a rejuvenating sip or two before throwing them aside.
The race organisers have also been working with the event’s food and fitness festival, encouraging suppliers and catering partners to also avoid single-use plastics. All cutlery is biodegradable, food waste gets composted and they’ve also banned balloons to protect wildlife.
Royal Parks Half also encourage staff to take public transport or use electric or hybrid vehicles. Their generators are designed to be as efficient as possible. Another aspect they’ve considered is the branding and signing that all big races – particularly those on closed roads – are bedecked with. Royal Parks try to produce reusable signage (ie with no date attached) and are working towards all products being recyclable.
Original Mountain Marathon
When your races takes place in some of the most beautiful wild spaces in the UK, your responsibility to leave them as you found them is vital. The OMM is no scenic picnic for runners – taking place across two days, the seven courses range from the elite 80km down to the ‘short score’ – a mere five and four hours, successively. But with runners carrying their own camping gear and food, it’s important to ensure the impact on the landscape is minimised. ‘This is a critical issue as the event moves to a different national park every year,’ says OMM’s Alistaire MacGregor. ‘But the results of our work have meant we are seen as the gold standard for other organisers to follow. We’re now also advisers to the national parks, governing bodies, BMC [British Milers Club] and Fell Runners Association, helping them with the sustainability work.’
The environmental policies that OMM follow are impressive, from having their very own ecologist to conducting detailed impact- assessment reports. The food, beer and supplies are sourced from local suppliers, they use compostable disposables and they are even trying to go 100 per cent disposable-free. Even the pint pots are reusable. They also encourage all competitors to use public transport, and, to aid this, provide coach travel from rail links to the course start. Their ecologist, David Broom, also offers advice on making good route choices, such as not cutting corners, which can trample vegetation.
Cardiff Half Marathon
With some 27,000 people taking part in the biggest mass–participation event in Wales, organisers Run 4 Wales were understandably concerned when the results of a survey revealed 70 per cent of their participants were arriving by car. With their partners at Cardiff University, they have been working on greener initiatives such as reducing plastic use and – most importantly – encouraging more- sustainable travel choices.
No race should force runners to ditch their own wheels, but by improving their messaging on the website and information packs, encouraging sustainable travel, reducing fees for those travelling in groups to reduce vehicles on the road, and partnering with Cardiff’s NextBike cycle rental scheme to offer free and discounted bike hire, they’ve already made significant improvements: for the 2018 race there was a 49 per cent decrease in travel-related C02 emissions and a recycle rate of 96 per cent.
Meanwhile, the 2019 race used 100 per cent recyclable plastic bottles, recycled paper for all advertising and even sourced medals made from recycled zinc. More initiatives are planned, although much depends on balancing the positive impact – investment for the local economy – with the negative. ‘The increased footfall in the city has brought with it an unavoidable increase in carbon emissions and other harmful environmental factors,’ says Run 4 Wales Chief Executive Matt Newman. ‘However, thanks to the cutting-edge research from Cardiff University, we are now battling back to ensure a greener future for the event.’
North Downs Way 100
Sometimes, the things a race can do to go greener are simple. If a race does offer T-shirts and medals, why do they need a date on them? Make them timeless, and they can be reused next time, eliminating that particular source of waste. Ultra- event organisers Centurion Running have been doing this for some years – in 2016, they removed dates from their finisher’s buckles and in 2019 from finisher’s T-shirts, while in 2020 they are offering runners a choice on sign-up as to whether they wanted to take them at all.
They also removed all single-use plastic, having added reusable cups to their mandatory kit list in 2017. This reduced waste from an average of 1,800 litres to 800, of which 400
is recycled cardboard and plastic.
Given that Centurion events are all either 50 or 100 miles, it’s understandable that runners will want to commemorate such an epic achievement. So to help make greener decisions, Centurion have also clearly labelled products made from recycled materials or sustainable resources in their online store.
What could be more beautiful – or, indeed, greener – than 20 miles of glorious Peak District countryside? The Hathersage Hurtle is a relatively new event – 2020 will be its fourth year – and while small races might seem easier to control, they also lack the economies of scale that make it less challenging to source green alternatives, forcing organisers to go to greater lengths. The Hurtle did this and more: using biodegradable tape to mark the course, sourcing environmentally friendly loo roll, making reusable wooden signs, separating and recycling all waste and banning flyers that would end up in the bin. Aid stations offered only water – no cups, having told runners in advance to bring their own (and selling reusable silicone ones on the day for those who forgot). They even borrowed glasses from a local supermarket for the postrace beer rather than using plastic.
One of their most enterprising initiatives was to sign up to the car-sharing website racelifts.org. Alas, while they did their bit, runners didn’t take it up as much as had been hoped, with just a handful of runners joining up to share lifts. This fact illustrates one of the most important points about ‘greening’ races – they only work if we, as runners, play our part, too. It may require a change of habit but that is surely possible.
Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox.
You Might Also Like