Q: It’s high marathon season so I figured it’s the ideal time to bring up something that’s been on my mind for the past couple of years. I’m a distance runner — I stick to half marathons and 5Ks but I’m building up the endurance to tackle 26.2 miles — who’s relatively new to the scene.


Here’s the thing: When the “high” runs off after I finish a race, I come to and look around and 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. What’s the word on marathons that are making efforts to lighten their eco-impacts, particularly in the trash department? Any specific ones that I should be aware of?


The Mother Nature-minding marathon man,

Josh — Queens, NY.

A: Hey Josh,

Awesome question and I totally see what you mean about the sobering, trash-tastic post-race scene. Everyone at a marathon, both the runners and spectators, are in such trances — immersed in the drama, the excitement, the nonstop cheering, and the, ummm, actual running — that when everything is said and done and the crowd’s enthusiastic roar has faded away, look around and you’ll see that a plastic water bottle factory has exploded. Simply put, marathons are a mess.

Here’s some statistics to put things into perspective: According to a November 2008 Runner’s World article, at the end of the 2007 ING New York City Marathon, 75,890 plastic water and Gatorade bottles were collected along with 22,080 pounds of plastic and cardboard. Apparently, all of this waste was recycled, which is great, but you have to wonder about what happens to similar amounts of waste at lower profile events. And in terms of eco-initiatives, it doesn’t appear that the ING New York City Marathon, the granddaddy of all marathons (okay, maybe that title belongs to Boston), really has any at all after taking a look around the event website. Last year, however, actor/activist/erstwhile Courtney Love-r Edward Norton — also the ING New York City Marathon’s de facto poster boy for charitable giving — made headlines by running with a small team of Maasi “Eco-Warriors” in an effort to raise funds for Kenya’s Maasi Wilderness Conservation Trust in Kenya.

OK, so even though the NYC Marathon doesn’t have much going on on the green front, that’s not the case with a few other major runs. Most notable is the ING Hartford Marathon. A model for the Council for Responsible Sport’s 2008 ReSport certification pilot program, the ING Hartford Marathon is a carbon neutral event starting in 2010 and boasts a comprehensive Run Green program that includes sneaker recycling, locally sourced post-race food, hybrid transportation options, corn-based recyclable water cups and most famously, the UTC Water Bubbler, a massive, 70-foot-long water fountain that’s saved about 10,000 plastic bottles from entering landfills each year since its 2007 introduction.

Other major races have followed in the ING Hartford Marathon’s super sustainable footsteps and achieved ReSport certification, including the Big Sur International Marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon, the LA Marathon and the Austin Marathon, which even features a finish-line farmers market. Lovely. And then there’s the ReSport Silver certified Freshwater Trust Portland Triathlon whose organizers have instituted various sustainable bells and whistles including body marking with nontoxic markers by the Portland Society for Calligraphy, bamboo race shirts, a “living” finish line and trophies made with reclaimed materials by Portland-area artists.

Although not ReSport certified, other events are going green in their own unique ways. With its solar-powered start and finish lines, the Portland Marathon has been distributing tree seedlings to all finishers since 1993, while the Madison Marathon bestows participants with virtual goodie bags and clothing made from sustainable and/or recyclable materials in lieu of the synthetic fabrics traditionally found in tech apparel. Finishers in this year’s 35th Annual Omaha Marathon received medals made from recycled glass by local artists.

That’s just a taste of a few marathons with serious green leanings, Josh, and I’m sure there’s many more out there. There are things you can do, too, of course. While you don’t have to follow Eco-Runner’s lead and collect litter while running, be sure to properly dispose of whatever waste you generate whether you’re marathon-ing or running a couple of miles around your ’hood … just because you’re huffing and puffing for miles on end doesn’t give you the excuse to not recycle. I’d also suggest joining a local running club with a dedicated eco-purpose or you can initiate your own that raises money for an environmental cause that you’re keen on. And if you decide to travel away from home for a race, consider offsetting the CO2 emissions that you’ve generated getting from point A to point B and then across the finish line.

Happy racing, sir.

— Matt

Related on MNN: 10 green fund-raising races 

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Do any marathons stress eco-friendliness?
Matt Hickman has good news for runners concerned by all that post-race trash.