Could New York Be a Less Wasteful Marathon?

Every year on the first Sunday in November, more than 45,000 people line up in front of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on Staten Island in New York City. Anxious and excited, they are gathered to participate in one of the preeminent road races in the United States: The New York City Marathon.

First run in 1970, the original marathon consisted of several laps of Central Park and attracted only 127 competitors and about 100 spectators. Today, the race course passes through all five boroughs and, in addition to the steadily growing number of participants, regularly draws more than two million spectators.

That's a lot of people, and the event generates a lot of trash.

Though it's not surprising that an event of this size creates a lot of waste, the numbers are staggering. In 2011, race officials handed out 237,200 free disposable plastic water bottles, and 2,300,000 paper cups. This contributes to the more than 100 tons of litter and debris, six tons of paper, and nearly three tons of metal, glass and plastic collected by the New York City Department of Sanitation after the race each year.

Now, a group of runners is trying to clean up the marathon by reducing some of this waste.

A Less Wasteful Marathon?

Sponsored by TrashPatch and the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Waste-less NYC Marathon is a campaign to decrease the amount of trash—specifically plastic trash—generated by the event. The group is petitioning both the race sponsor, ING, and the race organizer, the New York Road Runners to reduce the marathon’s waste in coming years.

The primary strategy for doing this points to ResSport Certification offered by the Council for Responsible Sport. For a fee, the council offers race organizers a ladder of certifications ranging from simply "Certified," through "Silver" and "Gold," and ultimately "Evergreen." To attain the certifications, the event must attain a certain number of credits—earned through various efforts like diverting at least 60% of waste, organizing mass transportation for the event, using recycled and recyclable materials for race documents, offering booth space to non-profit organizations, and others.

Through the certification, the organization provides a useful framework for events looking to reduce environmental impact and work with communities. Indeed, several events have already worked to attain certification, including the Marine Corps Marathon (which has 30,000 or more participants) and the Men's and Women's U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon. To date, 36 different events in the United States and United Kingdom have achieved ReSport certifications.

Is New York Different?

The New York City Marathon, however, is not one of these events—according to Council for Responsible Sport data they have not yet attempted to win certification—but that raises an important question: Is it possible to minimize waste during an event of the marathon's scale? Even the Chicago Marathon—one of the country's largest—which has achieved ReSport Certifications, has, consistently, 10,000 fewer participants and more than one million fewer spectators. Though the Chicago Marathon is, without a doubt, a huge event these differences are not insignificant.

Just to recap: In 2011, the New York City Marathon was capped at 46,795 official participants and drew more than 2.5 million spectators. This year, these numbers are expected to increase even more. To put it another way: We are not talking about a local fun run here. We're not even talking Chicago Marathon scale. New York is an event unlike any other.

Still, let's imagine that ING and the New York Road Runners elected to pursue ReSport Certification. The council allows for up to nine credits to be earned by waste-management efforts alone (New York would need a minimum of 30 credits to attain the lowest level of certification). To earn one of these credits, 60 percent of the waste generated by the event would have to be diverted from landfills through composting, recycling, or other means. Diverting 90 percent of waste earns three credits. Elimination of all "non-essential" race materials earns a credit. Donating or reusing at least 50 percent of one "non-food" item (examples include signage, fencing, barriers, pallets, etc.) earns one credit. A "robust" food donation program earns another credit. The list goes on.

These are not small changes by any means. Though the language is at times ambiguous, implementing the ReSport recommendations has the potential to significantly reduce waste. There are, of course, a great number of options for scoring credits under the scheme—and few of them have anything to do with reducing actual waste. Emphasizing online registration, measuring the economic impact on the local community, and teaching healthy living to those new to the sport are all worth credits and are all things the New York City Marathon already does.

Perhaps this is cynical, but it would be much easier for the race organizers, if pressed, to emphasize these elements of the certification over the nearly insurmountable mounds of trash the crowd of participants and spectators will, inevitably, generate.

Cleaner, Even a Little Cleaner, is Better

That said, even a small difference on this scale can have a huge impact. Fluids, for example, are distributed to racers in cups along the course. By the end of the day, more than two million of these cups are used and discarded. The cups that are discarded, however, are all recyclable—and organizers emphasize that the majority of these cups are indeed recycled.

Then there are the tradeoffs demanded by logistics that are hard to quantify. A recent, controversial, decision to eliminate bag drops for racers will save fuel and emissions usually spent transporting truckloads of gear from the start to the finish. Instead of this service, however, the race is providing water-repellent, fleece-lined ponchos at the finish. These ponchos are, presumably, reusable but if not they represent a huge increase in race-specific waste.

So, there is always room for improvement. Waste-less NYC Marathon points to the more than 200,000 free disposable plastic water bottles handed out on race day. There is the potential to reduce waste—and plastic waste in particular—here, too.

If you want to push for these improvements—changes that might lead to a more sustainable New York City Marathon—than signing the petition organized by Waste-less NYC Marathon would be a fine place to start.

Ultimately, however, the greatest changes will come from increased transparency by an event that—on close inspection—is doing a commendable job managing a massive number of participants and spectators. Indeed, making efforts to keep the race clean and efficient is really what makes it possible year after year.

Sustainability, after all, has never been a feature of the New York City Marathon but it's a love of and respect for the city that has sustained it for nearly 50 years.

Could New York Be a Less Wasteful Marathon?
The New York City Marathon is one of the world's largest races. Now, one group is working to place it among the most sustainable, too.

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