Welcome to my first of hopefully many sustainability in running/sports focused blogs. I’m publishing this as part of Earth Day 2020 to raise awareness around issues of sustainability and inspire the small actions that lead to bigger impacts in this field.
The environment is my passion, and sustainability and climate change are the areas I’ve worked in for a number of years now. From enjoying Geography during my GCSEs right up to my PhD in Environmental Science, a love and fascination of the environment has empowered me on a daily basis. As well as being a researcher working out in Iceland, I’ve been a consultant at a recycling centre, worked with local councils on their sustainable refuse/ recycling plans, worked for a scientific charity and I now work in a science support role at one of the UK’s top Universities (a job I absolutely love).
Even though I work in this area, I’ve always been shy to talk about sustainability or environmental issues online. Firstly, I’ve always struggled with imposter syndrome (especially linked to being a young woman in science) and despite working in the environment sector I certainly don’t have all the answers and if you spot anything in here that isn’t correct make sure you call me out (kindly)! And secondly I’m not perfect, I’m not sure anyone is and we often hold each other to impossible standards which has the power to be detrimental. In all honesty I’m a little scared by some of the trolling and abuse I’ve seen directed at people who talk about sustainability online. I am constantly striving to be better, and I hope to inspire you along the way through sharing my experiences and sharing some of the science behind it all. One thing I’ve learned is that thinking you can’t be more sustainable because you’re not perfect, means you bypass all the opportunities to make a difference. The smallest of changes, when implemented by many people, add up to big changes. So you are never too small and your action is never too small, so please keep moving forward and striving to be more sustainable. Instead of perfection I want to show how we can be focusing on doing more, being more aware and acting more consciously.
And with those thoughts in mind, my Running the Road to Sustainability Series is born! And through this I hope to show you how you can help in the pursuit of sustainability, even if you aren’t perfect.
So let’s start with running fuel and energy gels
We’ve all seen them, and we all hate them: the sea of discarded gel wrappers at the end of a race, on the trails or in hedgerows of popular running routes. It is unpleasant for the environment and poses dangers to animals that may try to eat them, as well as being an unwelcome eyesore. It doesn’t have to be this way, many gel wrappers are recyclable, or you can stray away from gels altogether.
Reducing your waste
So the first point of call is reducing your waste altogether and an ideal solution for this is making your own energy products or snacks. The internet is filled with recipes for energy balls, cubes and bars many made from nuts or dates. If you’re looking to stray away from internet based recipes and treat yourself to a cookbook, I highly recommend Charlie Watson’s (aka TheRunnerBeans) newest cookbook Cook, Eat, Run which features a section dedicated to DIY running fuel from fruit smoothie gels to salted caramel bites. There is even a section on making your own electrolyte drinks.
If like me you’re not the most gifted in the kitchen, or you simply don’t have the time and inclination to whizz up your own products, all is not lost. There are also some really simple ways to reduce your waste when it comes to running/sports fuel. You can produce your own trail mix by purchasing nuts, seeds, dried fruit (and of course some chocolate) in bulk and making mini trail mixes. These are a staple for me when I am trail running. On top of this something as simple as a jam sandwich or a peanut butter bagel can also help keep hunger and waste at bay (although don’t quote me on the nutritional value of these!). If I’m cycling I often shove a pre-made bagel into my jersey pocket and jam sandwiches saved me during my ultra marathon last year when I struggled to eat in the heat.
But, this being said, I still use gels. Why? Because they work for me, I know they’re nutritionally balanced for my energy needs and they’re often an easier solution (especially when considering road marathons or Olympic distance triathlons). However as I said earlier, it isn’t about being perfect, it is about being the best you can be and being as environmentally conscious as you can be. With that in mind I implement a combination of homemade, reduced waste nutrition solutions and conscious gel usage, primarily focused on buying in bulk and being acutely aware of recycling.
Knowing your recycling symbols
Knowing your recycling symbols is a great way to quickly learn what can and can’t be recycled, as well as helping you make informed choices about the products you buy and consume. If you’re making the choice to use packed gels, opt for gels in recyclable packaging over ones in non-recyclable packaging, then follow the steps below to help ensure these meet their recyclable potential. Not only is this better for the environment in terms of diverting waste away from landfill, but it puts pressure on companies to switch to more environmentally friendly packaging methods. In essence you’re voting with your wallets and it is a great way to feel empowered on a small scale.
When looking for recycling information a basic place to start is scanning the packaging for a Mobius Loop. This is the unfamiliar name for a very familiar symbol. The Mobius loop is the triangle consisting of three arrows which indicates that the product is capable of being recycled. The three arrows each represent a stage in the closed recycling loop. The first being collection of recycling waste in bins and other stores and transfer to recycling centres; the second is manufacturing this recyclable waste into new products; and the third is the purchase and use of products made from this recycled material.
If you see a Mobius loop with a percentage in the centre this means that as well as being recyclable, the product is also made from a percentage of recycled material, denoted by the number before the % sign.
If you see a Mobius loop with a number between 1 and 7 this indicates that the product is made from plastic and indicates the type of plastic.
What the Mobius loop does not indicate is any further instruction on how to recycle this (although my recommendation would be wash and dry thoroughly then place in a general recycling bin). However, it does not guarantee that this will be recycled at your local recycling centre, which is why starting with reducing your waste is key.
With those final points in mind, it is also useful to keep an eye out for additional symbols, especially those that offer instructions as to whether things are widely recycled, widely recycled but must be washed, not yet recycled etc. These usually appear as a circle with one arrow and a written instruction.
The Tidyman- this isn’t actually anything to do with recycling but is part of the Keep Britain Tidy campaign and is a reminder to dispose of waste properly- something many runners need to learn when taking gels.
Recycling your gels responsibly
This example is based on the gels I commonly use from Science in Sport (I used to be an SiS ambassador, but continue to use their products) and these gels are marked up with the Mobius loop meaning they can potentially be recycled, they’re also vegan. There is also a plethora of energy gels and products on the market so please do explore your options. But it is important to follow some basic principles:
Bring your gels home with you. Whilst many races offer recycling points for gels, bottles, etc. more often than not gel wrappers need to be clean and empty to be recycled. Putting a semi used gel (I can guarantee you won’t have got that final 5% out the bottom, and if you have you’re some sort of ninja pro!) into a recycling bin doesn’t mean it will actually get recycled. I suspect this is why races encourage you to drink, drain, drop when using plastic bottles- because it is often difficult to recycle products with food/drink still within them.
Based on that point above, bring them home, wash them and let them dry. Yes this can be a nightmare during races, but is there really an excuse when you’re out on a training run or cycle? And yes I have brought minging, sticky gels packs home! It takes next to no time to do but does help the environment. General recycling bins do not accept food waste, therefore any gel remains could also contaminate recycling products in the bin and divert them back to landfill, that’s why washing them is an important step.
Another option is looking for gels that do not need to be taken with water which can help reduce your use of plastic bottles during race conditions when plastic bottles are often the only option (unless you carry a hydration pack), yes you should still drink, but a gel that doesn’t need to be consumed with water could potentially reduce your additional waste.
Making the most of a gel hopefully means you’ll need fewer
There is a technique to making getting as much as possible out of your gel wrapper and avoiding getting gel everywhere. Crush the gel into your mouth then roll it up tightly from the bottom so it creates a tightly curled parcel. Then pop into your race belt, you can wash this when you get home. I also keep a folded tissue in my race belt and stuff the empty wrappers in around this, or you can purchase a belt with multiple pockets. Other locations you can store your gel include tucked into shorts, in jersey pockets, in pouches on your bike or potentially in your sports bra (but ouch think of the chafing). We’re often super creative with where we store our pre-used gels, so it’s time to get creative with how we store our used gels. This is definitely easier in distance running when you potentially have a hydration pack. I designate one front pocket of my pack as a ‘gel bin.’
And what about that pesky tab. I think the tabs are worse than the packets themselves as at least the packets have a chance of being picked up! When you rip the tab off, only make a partial rip rather than take it off completely that way it stays intact with the gel and can all be recycled together.
Small actions can equal a bigger impact
So as an example I’ll use my marathon training as an example, this is only VERY rough calculations (gosh I hope it is correct), but I want to show you what people power can do.
During a long marathon training run I would typically use a gel every 4 -5 miles. So over 10 miles I would use 1 gel, over a HM I would use 2, over a 15 mile run I would use 3 and over an 18 or 20 mile run I would use 4. As a minimum estimate I would typically train for around 12 weeks and I would do three 18+ mile runs (3 x 4 gels = 12); three 15(ish) mile runs (3 x 3 gels=9) and three 10+ mile runs (as a minimum 3 x 1 gel= 3) so in total that is 24 gels. If I bring all my training gels home and recycle them that is 24 gel wrappers hopefully diverted from landfill. Plus, any I can recycle from my race.
Last year 40,000 people ran the London Marathon. Let’s say half of them used 24 gels during their training cycle (I know some will use more, some will use less and some will be happy using other products). Now I know we can’t be perfect all the time, so perhaps only 12 of these gels from our longest runs were brought home and recycled (although I flipping hope the rest weren’t thrown on the ground). That is a potential 20,000 x 12 = 240,000 gel wrappers recycled during training. I’m sure you can agree that is a lot, so the next time you think that bringing a few gel wrappers home or switching a few gels for lower waste products won’t make a difference, even what seems like the smallest change when done on a larger scale can have huge impacts.
And what about gels and waste on race day?
The aftermath of a race heavily features waste products and there is pressure on race organisers to take action. Last year runners at Conwy Half Marathon were warned they faced disqualification if they didn’t drop their plastic bottles at designated sites. Similarly, large events like London Marathon, who used 47,000 plastic bottles the year I ran in 2018, have begun trying more sustainable ways of managing their environmental impact through the trialling of edible seaweed pods known as Ooho! capsules. Races and waste opens up a whole plethora of horror stories and trial and error solutions and one I will cover at a later date. But my best advice for now is if you can reduce your waste that is fantastic but, if you can’t and you’re able to carry your waste with you then do so. Whether this is gels to take home or a bottle of water given to you on the course (don’t discard this straight away, if you can carry it for a bit longer you can eliminate your use of another bottle further on in the course). If you can’t carry it then you should discard this at designated points. When you read up on your race route check the recycling points and check what the organisers want you to do with waste. If there aren’t any instructions then the chances are they haven’t thought about it and it is time to vote with your feet or apply some pressure.
So in conclusion?
If you can reduce your waste then do it! Any reduction in waste is the best possible scenario even if it feels like a very small reduction on a personal level. If you can’t reduce it then recycle it. Own your waste, make sure it is in recyclable condition, get to know your symbols and even better still vote with your money and choose products and companies that offer recyclable packaging and are mindful to sustainability. Never feel like your action is too small, that you’re not perfect enough to try. Every step is a step in the right direction.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this whistle stop tour and I look forward to sharing more insights with you in future posts. If you have any tips to add please comment below.