How Zero-Waste Racing Helps Reduce Our Environmental Footprint

A group of people run a race on a street

Have you experienced green guilt about throwing your water cup on the ground in the middle of the race? Certainly, you’re thankful to the volunteer who handed it to you, and you’re excited about being in a race, but you’re also kind of littering at the same time. And we’ve all heard that we’re not supposed to be litterbugs.

Sure, a volunteer will clean it up in the end, but you’re still throwing trash on the ground.

If you have some sad eco feelings about races, we have good news for you: More and more races are aiming to reduce their waste and many are able to claim that they are zero waste, meaning that less than 10 percent of their waste goes to the landfill.

How Zero Waste Racing Works

A woman runs with a group of people during a race

According to the US EPA, landfills produce both carbon dioxide and the more potent methane gas, which are climate change-causing greenhouse gases. Reducing waste, increasing recycling and boosting composting helps saves space in landfills while reducing emissions. Events, homes and businesses can all do their part by really paying attention to creating less waste, what kind of waste they produce and what happens to it when it leaves their hands.

All of this takes some planning on the part of the race director. We caught up with a few directors making it work to share how they pull off Zero Waste races.

Luke Nelson is an ultra runner, race director, Patagonia ambassador and environmental activist. He recently visited the Arctic Circle to learn more about the effects of climate change. Nelson helps direct the Scout Mountain Ultras (among other races in his area) that have very low waste.

In an email to Fleet Feet, Nelson says, “We have worked really hard at Scout Mountain Ultras to lessen our impact and to make the experience at the race an opportunity to learn about activism, as well as engage with local environmental groups.”

A woman celebrates during a race

Nelson’s races are cupless, and they sort all their waste after the race ends. Additionally, they purchase food with little associated trash, and racer giveaways that have recycled content can be recycled again or come in less packaging.

Eva Solomon, CEO and founder of Epic Races, says they have to be careful about the cups of water that are given out at her races. She says in a phone interview there are corn-based alternatives that can be composted, but she’s seen them melt in the heat. Otherwise, their races use cups with no wax coating that can be composted.

Sometimes she says they will have to find a special place to recycle cups when they are donated by a brand.

“We don’t want to ask people to carry in their own water bottles to use during the race,” Solomon says. “Our events are an experience, and we want racers to feel supported.”

When Eva founded Epic Races back in 2008, she says the mission statement of the company said they’d be eco-friendly and would aim for zero-waste races. They took it out of the mission statement after two years because just putting recycling bins out wasn’t enough: Their recycling was so contaminated with trash that it couldn’t be recycled, and zero-waste just was not happening.

She’s learned since then that volunteers must be next to waste stations because people won’t always sort correctly even when they have the best intentions. She also hired a professional to work out all the logistics of different waste collections. They send mylar blankets back to distributors as well as some gel pack wrappers.

Randy Strep and Anna Przybylski of RF Events also work to keep waste to a minimum at their races.

“It starts in the planning, making sure we don’t bring anything to the event that is not compostable or recyclable,” Strep says in an email. “Food trucks and all vendors must also follow this rule. It takes a hefty volunteer crew to man trash stations.”

He agrees with Solomon that waste stations must be manned to pull it off.

“It’s quite a commitment, but one we are proud of,” he says. “With 27 events and around 30,000 participants annually, we used to fill plenty of dumpsters on race days. Now, a typical 1,000 person event has perhaps a kitchen bag of trash or less.”

See RF Events' sustainability stats for 2018 on their website.

The Good You Can Do

Four runners finish a race together

You can search out races that are reducing waste but every runner at each event can do their part too.

Nelson, who works with Scout Mountain Ultras, encourages runners to influence the races they attend. He encourages runners to reach out to the race director and offer help.

“A lot of work goes into being a race director, and sometimes getting a little help, or just some encouragement, can go a really long way,” he says. Nelson also suggests runners can bring their own cups to lessen waste at races.

Some other ways you can reduce your footprint at races, according to Solomon and Strep:

  • Carpool to the race. Grab a few friends from your running club or meet up with other races to ride together to the event
  • Hop on the bus. If you have reliable public transportation, like a bus or light rail, take that to the race
  • Ride your bike. Looking for an extra workout? Peddle to and from the race
  • Look for recycling bins instead of trash cans. Can’t find one? Pack your recyclables and dispose of them at home
  • Don’t just drop your trash on the course. It’s tempting to crumple your cup and toss it aside, assuming a race volunteer will get it later, but picking up someone else’s wet, dirty trash isn’t fun

For Race Directors

Strep says it’s ultimately up to the race director to decide how to deal with waste.

Directors can sort their trash to take control of whether it’s sent to the landfill, recycling or compost pile, Strep says. Most of these races also use mail-in recycling programs such as TerraCycle.

“From the start to the finish, including at aid stations, we have all four places to sort,” Strep says. “We also have a competition with our aid stations to see who can produce the least amount of waste that goes to the landfill.”

Solomon says another proven way to reduce trash is to place recycling bins next to every trash bin.

Waste is a big concern in our modern world, and races with thousands of people can produce a lot of it. But we can all take steps to lessen our impact. Racing is a joy that doesn’t have to harm the environment.

By Maureen Wise. Maureen caught the running bug in high school when she was the only female to run the two-mile race on her high school track team. Not that she was a fast runner then—or now—but she's been at it for 20 years and has run more 5Ks than she cares to count.

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