Plastic use at running events

Bottles of water

Single-use plastics are big news. Over the last few years, the voice of those who believe we should be striving to recycle more, re-use more and throw less plastic away has become ever louder. In 2017, the BBC’s breathtaking Blue Planet II programme highlighted the shocking effect plastic rubbish is having on the world’s oceans. The EU is considering a ban on single-use plastics such as straws, having already banned plastic ‘microbeads’ from cosmetics. More and more people are sitting up and taking notice of the issue, and trying to reduce their own plastic consumption. Now, even running is getting in on the act.

Finding the balance

Runners need water – that’s a fact. And during a long-distance race, such as a half-marathon or a marathon, the number of water bottles needed to fulfil runners’ hydration needs can be staggering. The London Marathon gets through an estimated 750,000 plastic bottles of water each year. While plastic bottles can be and are recycled after races, there have been growing concerns about the amount of plastic waste left behind, as well as the amount of energy it takes to recycle plastics.

With single-use plastic now an important issue for many people, 2018 has seen a real upturn in the number of races trialling new ways to reduce plastic waste, with even the London Marathon itself getting involved.

Race organisers have a tricky balance to strike. Their main focus has to be on the duty of care they have for their participants, ensuring that everyone taking part has access to enough water and that the water they do provide is easy to drink. There has long been a debate in the running community over the relative merits of bottles versus cups, and concern that many runners find it difficult to take on water efficiently from a cup. Many runners also like to pick up a small water bottle at a water station, take a sip and carry the bottle for a while in case they want to take on more liquid (or, depending on the weather, pour the remainder over their heads). But this in itself creates more work for the race crew, with bottles ending up strewn all over the course.

In February 2018, Brighton residents complained after plastic bottles discarded by runners in the city’s half-marathon ended up being blown into the sea. Given the fact that most race licences are dependent on the organisers returning the roads to normal as soon as possible after the event – and given complaints from local communities about plastic bottle waste after running events, such as in Brighton – organisers are naturally looking for solutions that will improve the race experience for everyone. If a solution can be found that also benefits the planet, so much the better.

Events leading the way

To that end, several events this year have trialled the use of paper cups, compostable cups and recyclable cartons at water stations, including big names such as the London Marathon, Brighton Marathon and Threshold (whose events include Race to the Stones).

At the 2018 London Marathon, two water stations and one Lucozade Sport station offered drinks in compostable cups instead of bottles – some 90,000 cups in addition to the usual number of plastic bottles available to runners on the course. The results of the London Marathon organisers’ review of this trial are not yet known, and some runners expressed concern that discarded cups near water stations created a slippery mulch that caused a few trips and falls. The Brighton Marathon used paper cups in 2018, having seen ‘a huge wastage of liquid when using 500ml bottles of energy drinks and 330ml bottles of water, where runners would take a few sips and then discard the bottle’. This is also an interesting point – most runners don’t want or need to drink a whole bottle of water at each drinks station, leaving thousands of almost-full bottles discarded by the roadside.

As the Brighton organisers point out, even if runners aren’t so keen on drinking from cups, they do allow ‘better distribution of fluid across the course’. They also point out that over-hydration is as dangerous as being dehydrated, and believe that offering water in cups helps runners adhere to the ‘little and often’ advice rather than being tempted to take on too much water in one go. It has also been suggested that discarded paper cups are easier for runners to run over than discarded plastic bottles, though it’s worth pointing out that as the London Marathon trial may have proved, this seems not to be the case for all kinds of cup.

One Less BottleMeanwhile, in June, the Shrewsbury Half Marathon partnered with One Water to provide water to race finishers in their ‘One Less Bottle’ pouches – Tetra Pak cartons made from sustainable paperboard from FSC-approved forests, which are fully recyclable as well as refillable and reusable. In addition, One Water channels profits into sustainable water projects in vulnerable communities around the world. UK Run Events, organisers of the Shrewsbury Half, also provided One Less Bottle water cartons at the finish line of the Goodwood Running Festival in October 2018.

Prominent race organiser Threshold has gone one step further, removing all single-use plastic cups and cutlery from its events from 2018 onwards. As the company’s website says, the basis of Threshold events is ‘breathless sightseeing’, with races taking place in some of the most beautiful parts of the world – a philosophy totally at odds with the idea of plastic bottles littering a race route. By removing plastic cups and cutlery from their events, Threshold will save over 70,000 cups compared to previous years, only using bottled water in emergencies.

Complex issues

Plastic reuse and recycling is a complicated issue, with some ‘recyclable’ or ‘compostable’ alternatives to plastic being difficult to recycle, or actually using more energy to recycle than plastic. One important issue for race organisers to consider is that whatever alternative they choose, the cups or cartons must be collected and processed properly to ensure that they actually do reduce the environmental impact of the race. It’s no good committing to using paper cups if these just end up becoming part of the waste left behind at the end of the day. Paper cups also often include some element of plastic, like takeaway coffee cups, which makes them impossible to recycle, so options must be carefully thought out.

However, most people would agree that we all need to reduce our consumption of single-use plastics, and as runners, we tend to reach for a throwaway plastic bottle more often than the average person. It may seem as if choosing a paper cup won’t make much difference, but if every race reduced or eliminated plastic drinks bottles, imagine the impact that would have on the number of bottles we use and throw away each year. Why not have a go at drinking from a paper cup next time you see one on offer at a race (apparently the key is to squeeze the top of the cup to create a spout that’s easier
to drink from) – it’s likely to be something we’ll all be encouraged to embrace before long, and it might just help to reduce the impact of our sport on the environment.

Take a look at these re-usable cups, available from White Star Clothing

White Star Running re-usable cup