There has been an increasing focus recently on the level of waste generated by running events, across all distances and terrain types, writes James Elson. With the huge focus today on the generation of plastic waste and what we can be doing as a society on every level to reduce plastic usage, we are right to focus on our sport and bring our impact down to the lowest level possible.
There are two major issues that are worth looking in to with regards to plastic waste generated by events. Firstly, how much of that waste is cleared away or remains to litter the environment. Secondly, how much of that waste can simply be reduced or removed altogether, and what impact that has upon the organisation, the runner, the environment and surrounding community of landowners and residents.
The proliferation of waste from gel and bar wrappers, plastic cups and plastic water bottles can be frankly staggering at major road running events. Running anywhere north of 3 hour 30 pace at the London Marathon inevitably means wading through literally piles of plastic bottles that litter the road from kerb to kerb. Rubbish is discarded the length of the course with abandon, as it is assumed that it will all simply be collected at the end by the organisation.
Of course, in a road running event, access with a refuse vehicle and an appropriate team is generally pretty easy and it may well be the case that the majority of waste will be cleared, but some will of course make its way into the local environment.
This problem is much more difficult to control, more harmful to the environment and much more visually impactful in trail events. Generally speaking, if events provide feed stations, the shorter the distance and the more competitive it is, the more likely there is to be plastic waste. In a shorter race a runner is likely to come through, grab a cup of water and then try to throw the cup away instantly, hopefully in the bin but often on the ground. There is also the relatively high number of unfortunate incidents of runners taking a cup and then discarding it down the trail. Sometimes a runner thinks that hanging it on a branch, or on top of an existing pile of accumulating cups, is a better way of disposal. Of course, much of that ends up getting blown by the wind into the surrounding environment. Waste generally has to be collected by hand, and requires a lot of man hours at great cost to clear up.
The reduction or removal of plastic at events altogether has to be considered for races of all types and across all terrains. This responsibility falls to the organiser, but also the runners themselves and this an area I have personal experience with on both counts.
As an event organiser of ultra distance trail races, at Centurion Running we started providing paper or plastic cups at checkpoints seven years ago. One thing you might notice with experienced runners is that they come to a checkpoint, pick up a cup, drink and then ask a volunteer to top the cup back up. A new runner, or with a multi-sport/road running background will take cup after cup, stacking three or four cups worth of waste typically in under a minute. For an average checkpoint we would generate around one cup of waste per runner; some taking none, others taking three or four. For a race with 15 checkpoints, the amount of waste was simply staggering.
For many ultra-distance events, including our 50 or 100 milers, we have a mandatory kit list that every runner must have on them at all times. This is primarily for safety, but at the end of 2016 we elected to add a drinking cup to that gear list and stop providing cups out on the course. I should add that we didn’t pioneer the idea; the LDWA (Long Distance Walking Association) and other leading UK organisers like NAV4 Events have long mandated that runners and walkers carry their own cup. More recently, the UTMB events (widely considered the most high-profile ultras) also mandated the carrying of a cup and did away with disposable cups at most of their checkpoints.
What we have seen over the past year is universally positive feedback, at all ends of the spectrum, though we have learned some valuable lessons on how to set checkpoints and brief volunteers to cope better with runner requirements and the realities of doing away with cups. We’ve found:
- Zero runner complaints at having to purchase or carry a cup, across 2000 runners.
- Close to zero additional runner time spent at checkpoints: runners are coming in with their cup ready and taking what they need from a jug poured by a volunteer before moving on, rather than queueing at a table for a cup.
- Reduction in waste volume per event from 1800 litres to 800 litres. So previously we were generating 1000 litres of waste just from plastic and paper cups.
- Reduction in costs in the man hours spent handling waste, the number of refuse sacks purchased, fuel costs in transporting waste, commercial waste fees and most of all the cost of actually purchasing the cups and bottles in the first place.
In terms of what we advise runners to carry, we suggest either a soft flexible cup such as the Hydrapak SpeedCup for cold drinks, which can be stuffed into a pocket, belt or race vest, or a Light My Fire Pack-Up Cup which folds into itself with a plastic rim, allowing a hot drink to be taken safely. They also stand rigid, so a volunteer can stand the cup and use a spoon to make the drink.
For us as an organiser, providing more jugs and flasks so that drinks can be pre-made and poured quickly from runner to runner has also proved an important change.
In summary, from an organisational standpoint, moving to a cupless system has been nothing short of revolutionary. Most importantly, the negative environmental impact and carbon footprint of the events has been drastically reduced. We can do more, but this has been an important step in the right direction. Runners have reported zero negative impact on their race experience, and have universally seemed to be engaged and pleased to contribute to a reduced event impact.
I cannot recommend highly enough to any organiser to look at the benefits of running a cupless or bottle-less event. And for runners, even if running races that provide cups or bottles, to purchase and bring their own with them to reduce their own individual impact.