Update 11/2/2012: New York City officials have canceled the marathon in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.


Whenever a large group of people gets together — even for something as healthy as a marathon — lots of garbage shows up too. And for an event as large as the NYC marathon on Nov. 4, which includes 47,500 racers, 12,000 volunteers and millions of spectators, there is an epic amount of waste, fuel use and environmental impact. 


This MNN marathon post sums up the post-race scene: “It’s like I’m floating in a sea of trash: paper cups, plastic water bottles, banana and orange peels, wrappers from energy bars and carbohydrate gels, Tyvek bibs, homemade signs, you name it … the sheer amount of waste that’s generated — and then just dumped to be cleaned up later — during a single event is pretty surreal.” And that trash is added to what the city is already dealing with in the wake of the recent hurricane. 


Sounds like at least some of that waste could be reduced, even if, as the organizers of the NYC Marathon claim, a lot of it is recycled. (Water bottles, maybe, but what about paper cups, energy bar wrappers and other non-recyclables?) After all, reducing garbage at the get-go is always more eco-friendly than recycling.


Ezra Becker, one of the members of the group Waste-less NYC Marathon and a half-marathon race director, says simple steps like adding recycling bins and measuring the waste produced — so quantifiable steps can be taken to reduce it in the future — are the best places to start. Pre-race carbon footprint and trash (setup produces tons of garbage too, “Boxes, bags, trash bags, cardboard stuff,” says Becker) are also "invisible" impacts of the race: “It is not so much the actual race day itself; it is more of the carbon footprint of the runners. Let's say 25 percent are local, which I feel is high; that leaves a huge portion of travelers coming in, ‘spending’ a lot of carbon,” says Becker. This year, especially, runners are going to have a challenge getting to the race; JFK and Newark airports were closed for days due to Hurricane Sandy, and LaGuardia, NYC's other major airport, may not even be open by race day. 


Speaking of carbon, this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration created controversy by canceling a "bag check" system that seemed to have left only the environmentalists pleased. As reported by Gothamist,  "Previously, runners would pack up their belongings in Staten Island, where the race begins, and then, thanks to barcodes, their bags traveled to Manhattan via a caravan of UPS trucks to be dropped off along Central Park West for pick-up." With the elimination of this service, runners complained that they would end the race unable to change out of sweaty clothes, and needing to carry keys, Metrocard, etc. on their person (not so good for race times, or freedom of movement). The New York Road Runners, which oversees the marathon, responded by reinstating the bag option with modifications, including smaller bags to pack shoes, warm clothes and small personal items.


Marathoners may not be super green, but most seem to be somewhat conscious of their impact. “Since marathoning uses your body, you want to feed your body the best, the best is usually environmentally conscious food choices. This food choice usually expands into the overall environmental efforts, but maybe not as much as [not attending the race to lower one’s carbon footprint],” says Becker. The good news is that if organizers want to make the NYC Marathon truly green, the intent is there in the form of the people in the Waste-less group, and others. Other races have already led the way: The ING Hartford Marathon is a carbon-neutral event, and other marathons include tree seedling giveaways in Portland, and even a farmers market at the finish in Austin.


Living in NYC is already a low-impact choice, but New York City could take more concrete, systematic steps to make the marathon reflect that reality.


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