We’ve all been there, we’ve all seen it- the sea of plastic bottles left at the end of mass participation running/sporting events. Not only does it look unsightly, it is also a stark reminder of the impact our sporting choices have on the environment. As the interest in running continues and the number of races on offer expands, this has implications for sustainability. Here I explore the issues and possible solutions to plastic bottle usage at races.
It is estimated that around 5million tonnes of plastic is used in the UK each year. Plastic waste often does not decompose and can survive for centuries in landfill, or find its way into the natural environment. This has led to growing concerns about plastic in the oceans, food chains and perseverance in the terrestrial world.
In 2017, approximately 1 million plastic bottles were bought around the world every single minute, with this number expected to rise due to the spread of throwaway and on the go cultures. The UK government under Teresa May committed to ambitions of zero avoidable plastic waste by 2042, as part of the Government’s 25 Year Environmental Plan. However many critics said this lacked the urgency the plastics crisis demands.
Plastic has long been the go to as a means of dispensing essential water at running and sporting events. Races have to balance their duty of care towards participants with the demands of environmental stewardship. Under UK Athletics rules, race organisers are required to provide fluids to participants. For any distance over 10km water shall be available at suitable intervals (recommendation of approximately 5km). So how can races meet the essential regulations around water provision, whilst contributing to more ethical and environmentally friendly aspirations?
The chain of waste encompasses goals around the 3Rs: Reduction, Reuse and Recycling. Many races are trialling different options ranging from moving to more eco-friendly methods to completely eradicating plastic. Here are some of the actions taken by a select number of races. This isn’t to say these are the only races doing this, thankfully we are seeing an expansion in the movement away from plastic (although whether this is rapid enough is open to debate). If you know of more races taking these steps, or even extra methods of reducing plastic waste from races, please do share them below as I’d love to hear more and give the races the credit they deserve.
Switching to recyclable bottles and using bottles made from recycled plastic
Some races have chosen not to eradicate bottles altogether, but instead switch to potentially more eco-friendly options. Amongst these are the movement towards recyclable bottles and bottles made from recycled plastic which embraces the reuse and recycling stages of the 3Rs. This helps mitigate the use and production of virgin plastics, and if done correctly can also divert waste from landfill. For example, all Buxton natural mineral water bottles used during the Vitality Westminster Mile are made from 50% recycled plastic and are fully recyclable (if discarded correctly). The key here is correctly discarding the bottles to ensure all are picked up and can fulfil their recycling/reuse potential.
Drink, drain, drop and designated discard points
For races sticking with bottles, drink, drain, drop is an essential message to participants. Bottles which have water remaining in them cannot be recycled so in order to help minimise waste it is essential that participants empty the bottles, even if this means pouring water away.
Alongside this it is vital bottles are discarded at appropriate and often designated points in the race. You might think you’re helping by putting your bottle in a public bin, but this will potentially means this will go to landfill. In 2018, Westminster City Council collected 5,200kg of rubbish and 3,500kg of recycling during the London Marathon. Now, London Marathon are striving to operate a closed loop recycling project within Tower Hamlets, Southwark and Greenwich Borough Councils to collect bottles along the route and return them directly to a bottle processing plant to be made into new bottles. This is only possible if bottles are in the correct places on the course. Recently, the Conwy Half Marathon drew media attention after it stated that runners risked disqualification of they were seen to be throwing bottles or gel wrappers outside of designated discard points.
Recycling is a strong option, but reducing is even better. Reduction is the first stage of the 3Rs meaning it is the most desirable, immediate option. Arguably, if you cannot reduce waste, perhaps only then you should explore reuse and recycling. Not using bottles in the first place certainly has its advantages. But what are the options for replacing or reducing plastic bottles?
Reducing the number of drinks stations
This can be quite a controversial one as runners do need access to water, especially when it is hot. However, the reduction in the number of drinks stations can promote an overall reduction in the number of bottles used. In 2019, London Marathon reduced plastic bottle usage by 215,000 items compared to 2018 by cutting drinks stations to 19 from 26 previously (amongst other methods detailed below).
Removing Plastic Bottles Altogether
Removing plastic bottles altogether is the option many races are now trialling and many are leaning towards. It not only helps reduce plastics, but also visually acknowledges the race’s commitment to sustainability by avoiding the sea of plastic bottles littering the streets, providing this is not replaced by items that are as unsightly (oh hello plastic cups!). For example, in 2019 Royal Parks Half Marathon went plastic bottle free. 165,232 plastic bottles will be removed from the course and festival sites and 5 water points will be installed across the festival site to refill personal bottles.
These are edible water pods made from Not PLA an edible/biodegrable alternative to plastic made from a combination of seaweed and plants. These contain water or sports drink, and are widely being used at large races including Royal Parks Half Marathon (16,000 used) and London Marathon where the 2019 race was the biggest ever trial of Ooho pods, with 30,000 Oohos containing Lucozade Sport handed to runners at Mile 23. You can even use them at festivals for cocktails! The idea is you bite into the pod, drink the liquid and then either swallow the casing (which is safe to do so) or throw it on the floor where it degrades in six weeks as opposed to 450 years for plastic (although this raises issues about what is/isn’t deemed to be littering). Having used these before, it is a similar sensation to a cherry tomato popping in your mouth and swallowing the casing is fine. It’s a little hard getting the capsule in your mouth whole if you’re breathing heavily but you can bite it then drink- this gets sticky if they’re using Lucozade in them! I found it offers a good level of water, I only like a few sips at a time anyway. However, at present, may not be a viable alternative for smaller races as a minimum of 5,000 unites is required per order.
Biodegradable alternatives to plastic
Biodegradable alternatives include bioplastics such as responsibly sourced PLA and other non-petroleum based plastics made from biomass and sustainable sources. These can also have a wider environmental impact with less CO2 and water used in the production process. An example of these are Vegware, which is made from plants using renewable, lower carbon, recycled or reclaimed materials. However, for Vegware to fulfil their eco-credentials they need to be composted correctly, ideally with food waste and for other substitutes clear instructions need to be given to consumers.
This may not be your favourite, but love them or hate them, cups can offer a sustainable alternative to plastic bottles if managed correctly (obviously this does not apply to plastic cups!). Cups not only reduce plastic, but help eliminate excess water wastage with many runners only taking a few sips from a plastic bottle and then discarding the rest. The key to using cups during race conditions is to pinch the top of the cup effectively creating a spout to sip the water from. Trying to gulp from a cup whilst running is not the easiest, trust me.
In 2017, Chicago Marathon trialled wax-lined compostable cups at four aid stations to see if these could be an alternative to non-recyclable, non-biodegradable ones previously used. The trial was a success and in 2018 75% percent of the aid stations used compostable cups. Then, for the first time in 2019, all the aid stations served water in cups made from bamboo that could breakdown in a commercial compost operation and be turned back into soil. This soil was then donated to the Chicago Parks District and community gardens.
Similarly other races are making the switch to compostable/biodegradable/recyclable cups. Royal Parks Half Marathon used compostable cups which are disposed to a digesting plant to create energy. Brighton Marathon also began using paper cups in 2018 and aim to reduce unnecessary plastic waste in the coming years as part of their wider sustainability plan.
In 2019, ASICS London 10K partnered with Just Water to remove 19,000 single use plastic bottles from their course. Just Water cartons are made primarily from Rainforest Alliance Certified paper, are fully recyclable and contain local, responsibly sourced spring water. Similarly, Shrewsbury Half Marathon switched to offering One Water cartons at the finish line. One Water aim to fight water poverty in a sustainable way, through funding water projects across the world. As well as producing 100% recyclable bottles of water (which also feature 51% minimum recycled plastic) they offer FSC approved paperboard water cartons. These can be recycled into paper and construction materials.
CanOWater describe themselves as ‘an infinitely recyclable alternative to plastic bottles’. With the accompanying claim that recycled cans will be back on the shelf in as little as 6 weeks. As with many of the options above these need to be disposed of in appropriate locations to ensure they reach their potential. These were used by Winchester 10K in 2019 as a plastic alternative
Asking Athletes to Carry Their Own Water
Whilst UKA rules state that water must be available on the course, athletes can also choose to carry water and refreshments “by hand or attached to their body provided it was carried from the start or collected at an official station.” In 2019, 700 runners at the London Marathon trialled new bottle belts that were designed specifically by London Marathon Events and made from 90% recycled materials. These were then collected for cleaning and reuse. If you choose to carry your own water it can most comfortably be carried in hydration packs or bottle belts, and races promoting this should strive to ensure that plastic bottles are water are not used to refill hydration packs if needed.
Go Cupless/Bottle free
Similar to asking participants to carry their water, many events, especially in the trail community, are asking athletes to carry their own cups. Water can then be bought in bulk and wastage can be minimised. For example, in 2017 Centurion Running made a cup part of the mandatory kit for all their events, removing plastic cups at aid stations. This reduced waste from around 1800 litres to 800 litres, of which 400 litres is recycled cardboard and plastic. The Threshold race series also implement this and having a nice cool cup of water at an aid station is a welcome alternative to the lukewarm water sloshing around your hydration pack! It is unclear in a post COVID19 world how personal cup usage will be impacted, as at present many cafes have banned personal coffee cups.
So what can I do?
It is important to remember that small actions do make a difference, so here are some of your options to help contribute to a reduction in plastic waste from races:
Check the race guide before you race- familiarise yourself with what is on offer, where the aid stations are, and how water will be dispensed. Based on this you can plan your strategy. Will you use a hydration pack or belt? Where will you will take water? and if it is in bottles can you carry it for a suitable length of time to be able to avoid any additional trips to the water station? Have you practiced with a cup? Is there any extra kit (eg personal cup) that you need. Once you’ve figured all this out familiarise yourself with how the organisers want you to dispose of any bottles/cups used. Have they specified certain discard points and where are these? If there isn’t anything in the race guide then don’t be afraid to email the race and once you’ve found out share this with other runners.
Practice good recycling etiquette. As above, familiarise yourself with the discard points and follow the principles of drink, drain, drop to ensure bottles are recyclable.
Bring your own water for the end of the race. Many races hand out plastic bottles at the end in the finish funnel. Instead, bring your own water in an eco-friendly bottle, ideally in an insulated one to keep it cold, and use this to drink post race and mix any supplements.
If using gels, look for ones that don’t need to be taken with water, you can also check my blog on gels here.
Check out the sustainability promises made by races, give praise where it is due and feedback to races who aren’t making this a priority. As highlighted by Runner’s World– make a fuss! Hold races to account and praise races who are embracing new methods and stepping away from plastic bottles, as this could make other races wake up and listen. Many races send out feedback forms post event, you can drop them an email, tweet them (twitter is a very public platform for giving feedback), share that photo of bottles all over the road or vote with your wallet and prioritise races that focus on sustainability, choose virtual options or race less!
Don’t beat yourself up if you do use a bottle. Whilst we should all aim to be more environmentally aware, the health implications of running and not taking on enough fluid, especially in hot weather offer potential dangers, so be mindful but don’t risk your wellbeing. If you do take a bottle, keep hold of it so you can potentially cut out other water stations and discard of it appropriately.
I would love to hear any of your tips or experiences, please add these to the comments section.
As far as I am aware, all information is correct, but feel free to correct me if you spot any mistakes. For disclosure, I did a race giveaway with Royal Parks Half Marathon earlier this year via instagram, this wasn’t paid and isn’t connected to this blog, I did this as a way for me to shout about races who promote sustainability. I’ve ran some of the races mentioned (eg ASICS 10k) but some I hadn’t heard of until I started reading more widely about sustainability of races- proof that races sustainable actions can reach a wider audience.