Wednesday, February 14, 2018

How to reduce plastic waste at running races

I have been quite a frequent spectator at running races over the years.  Being a supporter rather than a participant is nice for a change as I have time to observe a lot of things which the runners who are in the ‘zone' don’t necessarily have time to see, mainly the plastic rubbish that is produced at all of these events. Single-use plastics like cups, water bottles and plastic bags are just some of the commonly used items at different races from road to cross country,  by both participants and runners. A small proportion of those items will end up on the running course (adding yet another job for the committed volunteers) littering the beautiful places that are often used as venues. Even if the items are disposed of properly, for most, the faith will be the same - they are only needed for a few seconds or a few minutes before they are discarded with the direction of incinerator or worse, landfill. The question is, do we need to do this or is there a solution so that we can enjoy these great sporting events without contributing to the plastic rubbish problem? Hint- absolutely. 

                       Water bottles and medals waiting to be distributed to all the runners 

If you have seen Blue Planet II, or are following the news, you are probably aware that plastic pollution is now reaching dangerous levels.  Micro plastics are found even in the most pristine environments resulting in fish confusing it with food and so it goes- the plastic pollution enters the food chain and travels up it until it reaches our plates. Plastic is made from oil which we know is not infinite but is still used and it is forecasted to only increase. Every time you use single-use plastics (SUBS), immense resources are needed for their creation and disposal, all for our convenience of using something for often 2 seconds (plastic coffee stirrer for example). The majority of SUBS are not recyclable (or recycled in specialized recycling centers but because it is not very cost effective, it rarely happens) and so they end up in landfills, where they sit patiently and wait to be broken up into tiny particles. I said patiently as this process can take hundreds of years.  All for the few seconds that it took to stir our coffee. Currently, out of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic trash that have been generated as off 2015, 79% percent of that is stored in landfills or natural environments. This is forecasted to grow and the estimation is that staggering 12 bn tonnes of plastic waste will be in landfill or natural environments by 2050. 

Lunch for officials and volunteers at one of the races that I have been to recently- drinks in styrofoam cups and sandwitches in plastic bags

A lot of people in the UK recycle plastic which can often give a sense of false achievement. Although recycling is a good thing, in itself is not the solution. The problem with plastic is that if you recycle it, it downgrades to a lower quality plastic and virgin materials have to be added to it in order to create new materials. So plastic is a beast that always needs feeding- you can use recycled materials but have to add new materials and thus add more to the already wide spread of plastic use.  The other issue with recycling is that we just produce too much of it. China is now overloaded with its own internally produced recycling and has now refused to take more of what they call ''foreign garbage''. As they used to recycle a huge proportion of materials collected in the EU, this is a big issue. 

I find that runners are quite a happy bunch- all they need is a pair of running shoes and they are pretty content 

We can all live without plastic, especially the single-use kind. It does not add anything to our quality of life. Take runners as an example. I find a majority are easy going people who don’t need that much for happiness other than a pair of running shoes. When you go to big running events like the National Cross Country Championships, the atmosphere is palpable. I am not really that much into racing but when I go to watch I always say that I will run it next year just so that I can be part of it. Thousands of runners are all excited, running through a muddy field in rain, snow or the occasional sunshine. And that is the problem. Thousands of runners  and spectators who between them will use up a lot of disposable cups, bottles and other plastics. And it is so easily done as plastic convenience is so strongly woven into our lives that we no longer think that it is out of the ordinary. Take the usual scenario at one of many running races in the UK. You want to buy a hot drink so you get one from one of the food stalls. This will be most likely served in a styrofoam cup.  You use a plastic stirrer for the sugar which came from a sachet. The milk is conveniently served in little plastic packs so you use a couple of those. You have your brew, throw the non-recycled rubbish into the black bin and you think no more of it. If you are a runner, you often get a free water bottle post race and a medal for participation. And in the winter time, you make sure that you bring lots of plastic bin liners to protect your car from your muddy kit. During an even like the Nationals Cross Country, that is a lot of unnecessary plastic. With hundreds of running races all around the UK every year, we can start to see the scale of the issue. 

           My stainless steel reusable lunch tool kit- all of the items will last for many years 

So if recycling is not the solution, what is? The answer is simple- using reusable and durable items which you can substitute for the pesky SUBS.  Items made from stainless steel or glass are a really good place to start. Yes, you are still using up resources for their creation but these durable items can last a lifetime. Recycling of these items is a lot better as well as they don't lose quality in the process.  Over the years I have come up with my own solutions to the most common single-use plastics that I have seen at running races which I have listed below. When I got to watch any of the races, I bring them with me and they help me to generate Zero Waste on the day. All of the swaps are really easy to adopt and they have been tested many times over the years!  Chances are that you have these items at home already so it might just be the case of being a little bit more prepared next time you are racing or supporting a runner. There are places where it is difficult to make changes of this kind- hospitals, industries etc. But sporting events  are not and should not be in that category as running is something that we do for enjoyment and a hobby. And we can all enjoy these great events knowing that our small changes will amount to a big collective impact as a running community. 

1. Tea and Coffee 

                      Hot flask - I would not go anywhere without mine 

No cross country race would be complete without having a hot drink to warm you up - whether you are a spectator or a runner. I see flask everywhere, small, large, and some of which store enough tea for the whole running club. (I am included in that). There is something so soothing about having a hot drink on a winters day and if you are a spectator I would even go as far as to say that it is essential! So if you don't already do this, make a brew or a coffee at home and bring your flask. If you don't have one, you can easily pick one up inexpensively, even second hand. 

            A reusable mug is also a good option, just ask for it to be filled with tea or coffee

If you are not as organized in the mornings or you run out of time to make a flask, there are always food stalls which serve hot drinks. Small stalls like this don't really have the infrastructure to serve food and drinks in reusables but that shouldn't stop you bringing your own! I always carry a mug which is made of titanium (I use it on camping trips) but I have been known to use 'real' mugs before. I have been doing this for years now and I very rarely get refused. And if they don't want to do that for whatever reason, I in return refuse to spend my money there. Because to me, no cup of tea is worth the consequences. If you make this easy swap and bring your reusable mug when you are walking the course, you will get a massive kudos from everyone, I promise! 

 2. Water

     Get your support crew (mum/dad/girlfriend/boyfriend) to bring you what you need

You know the feeling. You have just run a tough few laps of the course and you are thirsty as hell. The volunteer hands you a plastic bottle as you cross the finish line. You down the bottle and dispose of it straight away.  Is there an alternative? Absolutely. Having a durable and reusable water bottle is the key. I have a few different sized ones made from stainless steel or titanium which I use daily so I never have to buy another plastic bottle. 

Durable stainless steel water bottle is a good investment as it will last you for years and you can fill it with tap water in most places 

The start and finish are often in one place so your bag is not really that far away. There you can have your reusable water bottle ready on hand, which is filled with glorious tap water. The few minutes in between the finish and getting to your bag is marginal but will eradicate a lot of plastic bottle usage. There is even a better solution- get your support crew to be ready with what you need. This is where your parents, friends, boyfriends/girlfriends can help- and be ready with a drink just as you cross the finish line. I think that is a really nice way of supporting your runner, don’t you?

3. Lunch 

Healthy lunch is easily carried using in a reusable container- it also looks a lot more appetising that a sandwich made days ago which is wrapped in plastic! 

Whatever your post races favourite meal is- make it a plastic-free one this year. Instead of using things like cling film or foil for your sandwiches or getting a quick meal deal from the supermarket, leave it at home and bring your food in reusables. I have had this handy 3 tier tiffin for years and I love it as I can bring 3 different foods with me. Pasta, salad and some cake? Sounds like a runner's post-race dream meal. If you bring everything in your own containers, you will not need to worry about what you do with the rubbish when you finish with it either. 

If you would rather have a quick burger from one of the food stalls, why not take a reusable container? I have a plate which I use for this purpose (or my tin). I just ask for the food to be put on my plate instead of using a disposable paper plate. Using paper is a lot better than plastic but used paper trays are not recyclable as they have food residue on them and so that ends up in the landfill too a lot of the times. The best solution is the one which doesn’t produce any rubbish at all and in this instance it is bringing your own. My personal lunch kit also has a stainless steel spork and a napkin so I am pretty much self-sufficient anywhere I go and I don't need to produce any trash at all! 

4. Medals 

                                   Medals- some are more valuable to us than other 

I want to clarify straight away that I support personal achievement. What I don't agree with is mindless consumption and using up resources for the sake of it. Take medals for example. With the boom of grass-roots sports and the encouragement of participation rather than winning, medals are a regular thing at the end of a lot of running races. But no two medals are alike. I have known people to throw away their medals in the bin, 5 minutes after they go it. A lot of runners run for a club and do this kind of races every few weeks and so getting a medal for participation is not important to them. If you place in top 3 or, this is the European gold medal, or you just run your first 10km which you built up to for months, it is very different. Chances are that you will cherish that as it will remind you of the achievement. 

    For me it is the feeling of satisfaction after a run which is the most important thing. No physical object could match that 

So next time, if you get a medal that you don't really want, refuse it. Your choice is really powerful as with every action that we do, we are sending a powerful message. If you accept that medal which you throw into the bin straight away, what you are really saying is - please make more of these things so that I can just dispose of them. If you refuse however, the organizers might realize that they don't need to order that many as not everyone is interested in receiving one. This will not only save money but resources as well. And if you get one which you cherish, don't just keep it in your draw. Display it somewhere so that it can remind you of your great achievement. On the other hand, it is not the physical thing which gets runners to strive to work harder and leave their last bit of gas in the tank on the course- it is the satisfaction that they get afterwards. So perhaps ask yourself, whether you actually need one at all? 

5. Muddy spikes and the rest 

                                         Typical sight after a Cross Country event 

The joys of cross country- the glorious mud. Whether you strive at this sort of terrain or not, chances are that you will look like you
have swam through the mud by the time that you have finished the course. Most people drive to these sort of races and will bring plastic bags or bin liners to protect the car from all the muddy kit. Instead of using those, any dry bag or old reusable bag will be just as effective.  You are going to have to wash your spikes anyway so you can just give the bag a wash too and it will be ready for the next lot of your muddy boots. To protect a large surface, use old sheets, curtains or towels which will do the job but you will not need to throw them away like it is done with bin liners. 

         Simple solution for muddy kit is to bring reusable and washable items like this dry bag 

There are some great initiatives coming up to lower plastic trash at running races. Haweswater Half Marathon will be using biodegradable cups from cornstarch this year at their race stations. These cups are easily compostable or will biodegrade after 12 weeks which is a great start. It should be the responsibility of the race organizers to put measures in place like banning styrofoam altogether, encouraging bringing your own containers and providing recycling bins. But until that happens, we can all do one thing- make sure that we produce as little rubbish as possible and that we dispose of the little that is left properly.  

The atmosphere at running races like the Nationals is so great and welcoming to everyone, that it is a real joy to watch 

One thing that I love about going to running races is the atmosphere. In the summer, you often see people having a picnic.  The camping chairs are out, blankets are on the grass and the portable fridge is stacked to the brim with cold drinks. In the winter, wellies and dogs are everywhere and you experience the British winter the way that it should be- with a cup of tea in your hand desperately trying to warm your fingers. So bringing a few reusables will only add to the atmosphere of these races which are really welcoming to all- from families to partners and dogs. We really don't need plastic cups in order to enjoy the day anymore, whether as runners or spectators. 



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