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Earth Day 2019: 6 Ways Runners Can Help the Environment

Strategies for being more environmental as a runner can range from reducing the trash you produce on race days to using running as transportation—or combining it with cleaning up your neighborhood.

While running requires relatively little gear compared to other sports, it can generate a lot of waste. But runners have many options for bringing sustainability to their running routines, from how we carry fuel to race-day habits to buying new gear. Here are six things to consider as we focus on the environment this Earth Day.

Take Responsibility for Your Trash

When you need to throw away something during the course of your run, have a plan for it. Don’t assume someone will clean up after you, even in a race environment.

“Throwing trash on the trail, sidewalk, or street is my biggest pet peeve,” says Erin Augustine, environmental engineer, lifelong runner, and responsible sourcing director for Merrell and Wolverine Worldwide.

“I think there’s a responsibility for all of us, if we’re taking it with us on a run, we know where to put it when we’re done,” says Dave DeBoer, director of Trail Operations at Ragnar, a running relay events series.  When eating a gel from a single-use packet, for example, DeBoer says, “It’s not that difficult to put it in your pocket versus just throwing it on the ground.”

The concept applies to non-garbage items, too. If you’re thinking of wearing old clothes to the start line, do a little research before race day to see if the race company donates the clothes. Look for or ask about collection areas. Maybe arrange a hand-off to a friend stationed along the route. If you’re using something disposable to stay warm, like a garbage bag or heat sheet, make sure you put it in the trash.

race cups
photo: Shutterstock

Avoid Single-Use Items

Gel packets and plastic water bottles are just two of the many things runners use once and throw away, particularly at races. The 2018 New York City Marathon alone went through 1.6 million paper cups. (It’s worth noting the New York City Marathon uses recyclable cups, and of the 222 tons of waste runners generated in 2018, the race organizers diverted 82 percent of it from landfills.) Before the start line, runners used 61,200 plastic water bottles and 40,800 PowerBars. It’s understandable: The more than 50,000 people running the marathon need to stay hydrated and fueled. Still, that’s a lot of cups, bottles, and wrappers, even if some of the materials end up in the recycling stream.

Consider carrying a handheld water bottle to minimize cup use, making your own fuel to cut down on wrappers, or filling reusable gel flasks from bulk gel containers. And when it comes to layers, hold onto a heat sheet you got at a previous race and use it for the next start line—or opt for clothes you can donate instead of using a trash bag to stay warm. In 2017, the New York City Marathon collected and donated 86,364 pounds of clothes to Goodwill.

“I think the difficult thing for a lot of people is trying to not compromise what their goals are,” says DeBoer. Runners don’t want to carry a sweatshirt for even a few hundred yards so they can hand it off, or slow enough to throw a cup or gel packet in a trash can—because they’re focussed on a PR and it’s going to drag them down. “There’s a balance there,” DeBoer admits. On the other hand, he thinks people should be more thoughtful about behaviors on race day, where they seem to forget common courtesies. “I don’t think there are a lot of runners out on there training and throwing their Gu on the ground—at least I hope not.”

runner with gel packet
photo: Shutterstock

Carpool or Use Alternative Transportation

Our travel habits have a significant, negative impact on the environment. Whether you’re heading to a race, packet pickup, a trailhead, or the track, try to get there in an environmentally friendly way. Arrange to carpool with a friend. Take public transit, if available. Get in a little cross-training by riding your bike instead of driving. Or, most radical of all, use running itself as a method of transportation: Run, don’t drive, to the park, trail, track—even to work or when doing errands.

Donate or Recycle Old Gear

Reducing waste goes well beyond race day. Other than nutrition-related items, runners go through a lot of shoes and apparel, and old gear doesn’t need to end up in a landfill.

“I always donate my gear to a charity organization,” Augustine says. “They are in the best position to decide if gear can still be used and usually have established outlets for gear that is truly worn out. For example, many local Goodwill stores have programs to turn unwearable clothing into rags and other useful things.”

Retailer H&M also accepts clothes for textile recycling, no matter where you bought it. Shoe recycling can be harder to find, but inquire about programs at your local running store, or reach out to the race director at your upcoming event to see if it offers recycling opportunities. The 2019 Houston Marathon race expo, for example, included shoe collection as part of its sustainability initiative.

photo: Adidas

Seek Out Sustainable Products and Events

A growing number athletic retailers and event organizers incorporate sustainable practices into their work. On the running shoe front, examples include Vivobarefoot Primus Trail SG, whose upper is made of recycled plastic, and Adidas’s line of trainers made with Parley Ocean Plastic. You don’t even need a shoe with recycled materials to make a difference: choose  durable products and use them even after they get slightly worn. The less you buy, the less you have to throw away or recycle.

On the events side, try out a cupless race, or at least see if a race you’re considering has any sustainability initiatives. Organizations like Athletes for a Fit Planet and the Council for Responsible Sport list partner and certified events on their websites.

Make Cleanup Part of Your Training

Even the fastest athletes need easy or off days from running. Augustine suggests using that time to volunteer for a trail maintenance day or “plogging”—the Swedish fitness trend of picking up trash while jogging. The word “plogging” is a mashup of jogging and the Swedish term for pick up, “plocka upp.”

“There are lots of plogging groups on Instagram,” Augustine said. “Seeing people all over the world picking up trash on their run and making their communities a better place is really inspiring to me.”