Improving Race Sustainability
Making races more sustainable is on more and more race directors’ radar these days - which is awesome. But when it comes to moving from theory to practice, working to affect actual change in your race that has a meaningful impact on your event’s environmental footprint, things sometimes get a little bit confusing.
Where do you even start? How do you benchmark where you’re currently at with your event, so you can measure your progress going forward? What things should you focus on? And what does making progress even look like, when it comes to making your race greener
These questions and more is what we’ll be discussing today with the help of my guest, Bruce Rayner. Bruce is the Chief Green Officer at Athletes for a Fit Planet and has been working at the forefront of event sustainability for years, having helped countless races, major road races and triathlons as well as local events, become more sustainable by reducing their environmental footprint.
So if you’re ready to work on making your event more sustainable today, you’ll get a great head start out of the next hour or so.
In this episode:
- a look at the progress the endurance events industry has made towards greater sustainability
- the reasons still holding back race directors from committing more strongly to the sustainability effort
- how to start benchmarking your waste and carbon footprint
- primary vs secondary waste: what counts as your race’s waste and carbon footprint?
- who should cover the offsetting cost for participant travel, the event or the participant?
- what is carbon offsetting and how can it help events get to carbon neutrality?
- asking participants to cover their carbon footprint through their registration fee
- are participants willing to pay a “green” surcharge to cover the offsetting cost of their travel?
- why it’s important for races to be transparent with participants on what their carbon footprint is
- the marketing benefit of promoting your race’s environmental credentials
- how to avoid recyclable waste contamination by getting your volunteers to sort it
- recovering and recycling discarded water cups and bottles at aid stations
- the advantage of using compostable cups vs recyclable paper cups
- is cupless racing possible for road races?
- the role of businesses and local government as sustainability sponsors for races
Thanks to GiveSignup|RunSignup for supporting quality content for race directors by sponsoring this episode. More than 22,000 in-person, virtual, and hybrid events use GiveSignup|RunSignup's free and integrated solution to save time, grow their events, and raise more. If you'd like to learn more about GiveSignup|RunSignup's all-in-one technology solution for endurance and fundraising events visit runsignup.com.
Bruce, welcome to the podcast!
It's great to be here, Panos. Great to see you.
Looking forward to our conversation today about sustainability.
So am I. Thanks a lot for coming on. So we were talking the other day, and I noticed - not I'm like Sherlock Holmes or anything - from your accent that you're actually British. So you're originally from Britain, but have been living in the US for a while. So how long have you been living in the US for?
A few decades. Back in my younger years, I also spent some time in Australia as an exchange student, long time ago, back in the day, and also teaching economics at Adelaide University for a few years.
That's nice. And now you're based in Maine, right?
Based in Maine, which is, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the location of Maine, we are on the upper right hand corner of the United States, right on the Canadian border. And it's a beautiful state - lots of nature, lots of great beaches, good swimming, good surfing, good cycling, good running - it's a great place to be.
About Athletes for a Fit Planet
Perfect. So you've made it your mission over the last several years to help events improve their environmental footprint, just making events a little bit greener for everyone, which I think is great and we need a lot more of. And you're doing this through a company you set up called Athletes for a Fit Planet. So why don't you tell our listeners a little bit more about Athletes for a Fit Planet? What you do? What races you've worked with and your history with that so far?
Yeah. So, actually, it's been more than a few years, back in 2007. Just to back up a little bit, I'm a runner, a triathlete, a cyclist. I've ridden my bicycle long time ago across three continents - Australia, US, and Europe, to Israel. I've competed in a number of Ironman events, and many marathons. My typical routine these days is trail running. That's my go to. I find a lot of peace and tranquility with running trails. Yeah. As far as launching Athletes for Fit Planet, I was a race back in 2007 - a Half Ironman race. It wasn't an Ironman race. It was just a Half Ironman distance race. And I got to the finish line, they handed me that obligatory plastic water bottle. I drank it and I looked around to see where I could throw it away, and all I saw was this big barrel of overflowing trash, and that was it. And, so, I put my water bottle into my bag. I took it home and I recycled it. And then I started to think, "Races, all kinds of races, they need some help in becoming aware of the importance of sustainability, being a sustainable race." Now, 2007, this is on the year after Al Gore came out with that book and video about an unconventional truth. And, so, it was just at the dawn of that new era of environmentalism in the early 2000s. So I've made a lot of phone calls around to race directors, to organizations, to people I knew in the industry, to find out what they were doing to be sustainable. And I found very little emphasis that they were placing on being more sustainable, more green. And, so, I thought this is an opportunity. One of the organizations I did connect with was the Council of Responsible Sport. It was just launching in 2007. And the Council for Responsible Sport is a certification organization for races to become more sustainable. And, so, I thought, "Okay. This is a great opportunity to, for me, creating athletes for a paid plan, to provide the services and consulting to events, to help them to become aware, to start to implement a program, and also as a stepping stone, for them to one day achieve certification from the council. The council has done a phenomenal job over the years, certifying many events. And I'm very lucky to have been participating with some of those events to actually achieve certification. So over the years, we've worked with a number of major marathons, road races, triathlons, across the US up in Canada. We also worked with a colleague of mine on Athletes for a Planet at a time. In the UK, we actually certify the EDF Birmingham Half Marathon back in 2010. But, primarily, the races we support are in the US where I have access to team members that we can bring to event. The objective of Athletes for Fit Planet is to make ourselves redundant, to basically give the toolset to the race director, have them elevate sustainability to be a core value, a core objective of the event and, then, off you go. Take it from there. My typical engagement period is two or three years. We have worked with some races for longer. But the idea is to embed a structure for becoming sustainable, for managing sustainability. And, then, as I said, just get out of the way and let them take it from there.
Adopting sustainable practices in races
Okay, right. You've been around since 2007. You've been working with events. You've seen how the industry has progressed. So, in your opinion, have we come far, in terms of your experience with that triathlon bottle in 2007?
Oh, absolutely. The awareness by the race director community has been elevated significantly. And it's largely because a lot of the race director conferences incorporates some set of presentations, keynotes about sustainability. Over the years, it's dramatically increased. So there's no question, the awareness is there. And the willingness of race directors to do the right thing is definitely front and center. So that has been a big change.
So in terms of your experience, then, what is stopping more race directors doing more in this kind of area? Is it cost, you think? Is it people not having the tools or the education or not knowing how to proceed? What do you think is the biggest impediment to this movement gaining momentum?
Yeah. So it's both of those things, and a few other things as well. I think the race director has so many things that they have to manage - a multitude of challenges ahead of them - from when they start planning, it could be a year before the event, at least four or five, six months. And, so, they're flat out. The challenge that they have is to really structure how they address sustainability. In the first year of having a true sustainability plan would be to limit it to just a very small number of initiatives, and focus on those, and make sure you're doing the right thing. That would be the first thing. Once they've established those few things, then - and they're in year two - they can start to expand. And I think that's the key. It's don't try and boil the ocean, first year. Don't try and do everything that's possible in the first year. Pick a few key elements. And those elements primarily would be recycling and compost. On the waste front, you can make significant gains in one or two years by, at least, integrating recycling and composting into your event. We can get into the details of how that works later. But that is first one. The other thing I would recommend for year one is to, at least, measure your carbon footprint, and measure your water footprint. That way you have a baseline in which to actually implement change, and make progress. Reducing your carbon footprint is probably the biggest challenge - any race or phases.
How can I measure my event's environmental footprint?
Let's talk about that baseline which, as you say, is really important, because it's the place where you'd begin and benchmark against, which you would know whether you're making any progress. Right? So let's say I'm in day one, I'm looking forward to many years of working on making my race greener, how can I measure where I currently stand? How can I measure my race's current footprint and impact on the environment?
Well, as I said, the two primary things I would suggest would be to, at least, measure your waste, whether it's recycling, landfill, or compost, whatever those elements are - measure it. There's also, what you're producing at the end of the race is determined by what you're purchasing and the things you're doing at the very early stages of planning for the race. So what are you providing in terms of water to the athletes? What are you providing, in terms of swag, in terms of medals, and T-shirts, and that kind of thing? What are you planning in terms of where you're purchasing these things? Is it local? The more local, the lower the footprint. So, you want to consider those things upfront. So that's the first step in getting a handle on it. In terms of measuring, it is a question of calculating all those invoices and costs of landfill, disposing landfill waste. They'll provide you with the tonnage. So you have that data.
So basically, I just go by the total weight of all the waste I produce, all the rubbish bags and stuff that I produce.
The swag that I give out that isn't really part of my waste going to that calculation. Like, how do I know about other sources of waste that I cannot measure directly from my event? Or is that not part of it, maybe?
The other sources of waste would be the waste from vendors who are on site, who you don't have any responsibility for. Or you should-- I mean, the whole key for sustainability is every element of the event, whether it's an independent vendor, the food service provider, if you have a meal, or if you have post race food available, you want to make sure that they're doing the right thing when you're contracted with them upfront early in the process. So where are they purchasing their food from - say, the food service provider? Are they bringing it from local sources? How is it being packaged? Because that packaging will be part of your waste stream at the event on race day. In terms of the participants, what does their waste stream look like? It's primarily in terms of the element that is outside of the race itself. It's inconsequential, I would imagine. I mean, we don't really go into that, we just-- whatever gets disposed off into the bins at the event is what we measure. That's all we can measure.
Primary vs secondary waste
So I don't add on to the stuffs that are in my race bins. I won't add-- like, I won't try and calculate what my vendors waste would have been - as part of my events or my participants waste - and add that to my race.
So I understand what you're saying about the waste footprint that isn't a part of the event.
Sort of like a secondary waste or something.
So upstream. So there's the vendors that are providing you a T-shirt, with medals, with swag, with all sorts of things. Say, for example, T-shirt. T-shirt manufacturing in Central America - they're using a lot of water. They're using chemicals. They're packaging it up into boxes. Maybe all the T-shirts are pre-packaged in plastic and, then, they ship them to the race director. So that transportation, there's a carbon footprint. There's a carbon footprint of the manufacturing process electricity. There's a chemical and water component. And, then, there's also the wastage, the excess wastage that they produce. It's very difficult to capture that data. You have to have a willing provider who will actually calculate that for you, for your specific event. There's some challenges in making that happen. But if you are committed to that vendor, then it's worthwhile sitting down with them and saying, "Look." And, especially, if you have a large race and it's a very high profile event, it's a good idea to sit down with them and say, "Look. We want to communicate our entire carbon waste and water footprint that includes all of our providers - you being you, mister provider, being a major contributor. So work with us to help us measure what our wastewater and carbon footprint would be from your manufacturing process and from the transportation of that product to our event and the race that we do.
But, normally, you'd say that those kinds of secondary sources of carbon contributions and waste and water as well won't go on your races environmental balance sheet, let's say. It's not something that usually would be part of that calculation.
That's correct. I think going forward, in the future, as companies become more cognizant of the footprint that they are producing, they'd want to work with their partners to minimize the entire waste stream - make it as circular as possible - and also their carbon footprint, then I think there will be opportunities for that. But it's very difficult to get that today.
Sure. But I think it's a bit of a missed opportunity. I mean, obviously, I am completely new to this field. But with many things, it's all about incentives and measuring things. And I guess the problem with not including those numbers as part of the event footprint, which absolutely should be included by the way, because if there were no race, those T-shirts wouldn't be produced for that race. So I think it's fair to include them. And I think the problem in not including them is that - I don't know whether you had a chance to listen to this episode we did with a UK-based company called, "Trees Not Tees".
Right? So those guys are doing an excellent job, right? Basically, they're saying, "Let's make your race more environmentally friendly. We'll give participants the option to forfeit the T-shirt in favor of a tree in this more simplistic calculation of waste and carbon that doesn't include those second resources." You wouldn't see a benefit in having someone on board like Trees Not Tees, right? Because the carbon associated with a T-shirt and everything, technically, doesn't go into the calculation, you're saying.
Calculating you event's carbon footprint
That's correct. Yes. I mean, a carbon footprint is, typically, measured in terms of operational vehicles, and generators, and things like that. There's travel to and from the event. Those are the two primary elements of the carbon footprint. It's travel. And it's the actual operations of the event.
Does travel just for the event team or does travel include all the participants flying in from all over the world - from like a New York Marathon, something like that - for a big race. Would that include that bit?
Yes, yes. It includes all travel, all travel of all participants, of volunteers, staff, contractors who are on site. Well, all of those people, basically, measuring the distance they travel from the place of where they live or where they work to the event, and calculating that footprint, it's a big footprint for large events. It's a very big footprint. It's in the tens of thousands metric tons of CO2. And the most significant, typically, the largest segment of the travel carbon footprint is from people traveling to the event by plane.
So that's interesting because, in a way, in terms of accountability, I guess, I would think that it would be equally valid to put the burden of the flight travel for someone who travels to the New York Marathon on the participant rather than the race. Right? I think it's also fair to try and, basically, not make the race accountable for the fact that people traveled to it. It would probably be sending out the right signals in terms of incentives for participants to shift the burden of that onto the participant themselves. Right?
Yes, it would be. I mean, it should be the individual's objective to reduce their carbon footprint. Right? Whatever you do at home, you try and minimize your footprint. Whatever you do, when you're driving the type of vehicle you're using, you want to minimize your footprint. That should be part of your MO, your modus operandi, for just life. As far as the willingness of races to, basically, say, "You can't compete in my race unless you offset your carbon footprint from travel. And we want to see documentation from you that you have actually done that." Now, typically, it's only a few dollars, maybe $10, $20 in the US - it's typical amount of euros, I'm sure - for offsetting your carbon footprint. But, in this country, most people are not taking advantage of offsets to reduce their carbon footprint. And race directors - I can't speak for all of them, but race directors - are hesitant to make such a demand because they might miss out on registrations. But there is a lot of discussion happening right now about how do you deal with the carbon footprint of your participants, because it is by far the largest component of the footprint. And there are ways to address that. Some races would include the average carbon footprint per athlete into the registration fee. That's one option. And, so, the races taking it upon themselves to address their participant footprint. The other option is to make it a more of a, "If you would like, please offset your carbon footprint and you can do that by Trees Not Tees or some other program." An offset is not a direct removal of that CO2. It's not carbon neutrality, immediately. For trees, it takes a period of years to-- especially, when the tree is growing to when it's absorbing the carbon footprint. They cut CO2 from the atmosphere. That's when it's most productive. But, it takes a while before before trees get to that level. There are other offset options. But I think just in general, offsets are the only option today for reducing your events carbon footprint. That's the only option. But it is something that a lot of races have started to engage with and experiment with. I haven't seen a model that has been widely adopted by all events. I think probably, in Europe, you probably are maybe a little bit more vast than we are here in the states in terms of understanding carbon footprint and actually paying for it. But we do have a long way to go.
How does carbon offsetting work?
Let's try and help people understand because I agree, lots of people are not a 100% clear on how offsets can help mitigate the impact of carbon production, or like greenhouse equivalent production. Right? Basically, the way this works, I'm taking this up myself to explain, as a European, as you say, because we're a little bit more sort of like--
We're less confused about this point. So the way this works is that, basically, carbon, this is, I suppose, the bit that should even appeal to US listeners from a market point of view, but basically, carbon has a price. Right? And that price is the price you would need to pay, essentially. I mean, you can think of it as a tax, or you can think of it as just the cost for producing carbon. And, if you pay that money to someone, it's almost as if you're cleaning up your carbon production. I mean, you cannot eliminate carbon, right? I mean, you cannot stop flying. But what you can do is pay the market price of carbon so that, then, someone somewhere has a project that offsets that carbon by planting trees, or making some improvements, putting some process together that basically takes that carbon off the atmosphere, same amount of carbon as you produce. And the earth being a global eco system, it doesn't really matter whether you produce carbon in Manchester and the carbon is taken out in the Honduras or something. So that's the price of carbon. And that's how offsetting works. And I agree that at the moment, it's the best tool we have in our arsenal in fighting this because, essentially, what it does is it says, "Okay. We cannot avoid putting on races which have an impact, which produce carbon. We cannot avoid people flying or moving or whatever. I mean, we can reduce it, but we cannot eliminate it. So then for the bits that we cannot eliminate, let's put some money aside that would, then, go to a project that would create an offset into the carbon that we're releasing through those processes." And I think it's extremely valid. But as you were saying in our last discussion, it really depends on the kinds of projects that that money goes towards, right? So all of these offsetting projects, they need to be valid, they need to be reliable, and they need to actually be making an impact - taking out the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Yeah, that's true. And the quality of the carbon offset companies and organizations has increased. And the reliability and believability of these organizations has increased dramatically since the early days back in when we launched Fit Planet in 2008. Nobody had a clue what a carbon offset was. And there were some organizations that were doing a good job and were playing by the rules. And others were maybe not playing by the rules in terms of carbon. But you're right. There is a price for carbon. And if you are truly committed to being an environmentally sustainable human being, it's a cost that you should incur. So the price per tonne today is, of a price for a tonne of CO2, of reducing carbon footprint by about a tonne in our offset project is about, in the US, it's about $15, plus or minus, somewhere in that range. And, so, for somebody who's driving to the race, their carbon footprint would be a fraction of that. So it might be a few dollars. And, so, they could be in for the race. You actually would incorporate that into the registration fee or as an option in a registration fee. And we've worked with carbon offset companies for many of the races. One of the ones I like is called Native Energy based in Burlington, Vermont. That has a number of projects. And when we're working with an offset company, we're always trying to look for projects as local as possible to the event. So it could be a carbon sequestration project. And in Maine, that's the work that is providing offsets for race in Maine, that type of thing. And you can find those. That's probably the one opportunity for launching an offset program.
I hope you're so far enjoying our chat on race sustainability and getting some good pointers out of it. One really crucial thing to remember with any new initiative you undertake is to make sure to communicate information to participants about what you're doing and also about what you want them to do in the run-up to your race. And that's where the importance of a good email communication system comes in.
Now, we've talked before about GiveSignup|RunSignup’s built-in tools, and how they integrate with your registration data, which is actually really important, and how they are also free to use. And their email marketing platform is no exception. So you can use the GiveSignup|RunSignup native emailing tool to send out all the emails you need to send to your participants for free, however large your participant list. And you can even schedule those emails months in advance, so you can build your entire email communication flow on day 1 and then just forget about it.
And, yes, you get some really nice email templates you can use that are personalized with your participant data, or you can build your own, if that's what you want to do. And you can segment your emailing lists to, say, just your past participants or participants in a specific event, say, the 5K.
Really, you can do pretty much most things you're already doing on your Mailchimp or Constant Contact account. The difference, when you choose to do it on GiveSignup|RunSignup, is you keep all your data in one place and it costs you absolutely nothing. So you can take the money you save by not paying for a separate emailing service and put it somewhere else in your marketing to grow your event.
So, if you're already a GiveSignup|RunSignup customer, do your email marketing from your race dashboard and be done with it. And if you're not, well, that's just one more thing GiveSignup|RunSignup can take care of for you.
Ok, let's get back to talking race sustainability with Bruce Rayner with an interesting question: who should be paying for carbon offsets? Is it you, the race director, or the participant taking part in your race?
Who should pay for carbon offsetting?
So what usually happens is that, I think it's interesting to stick to carbon, because you mentioned it is the biggest contributor to an overall--
It's the most challenging,
Yes, and the most challenging as well. So, at the moment, when I realize running a race that I have a few dollars, per participant, of liability in terms of my carbon footprint. Right? So, basically, I do the math, and it's coming out that, basically, I need to offset a bunch of carbon. What do races do from there? Do you try to put it back to the participant? Do you try to absorb it yourself in making the race greener, but not changing the cost of the race? What are the options from them?
Well, those are the options. I mean, either do it yourself, for the race to do it itself, to engage with the participants, and the vendors, and whoever else is coming to the event to offset their carbon footprint. And the easiest way to do that would be to provide-- you have to estimate-- once you've measured your carbon footprint, you can estimate what the total, per participants, footprint is average and, then, just add that to your race registration. That would be the simplest way to do it. Then, you take it out of the realm of your participants and your vendors, trying to figure out what they should be paying for this year two, individually.
So race directors, what do they usually choose to do? Do they choose to put it back to the participant or absorb the cost themselves?
It will be a combination of the two. Very few race directors are willing to offset the carbon footprint of their participants because it's just adding cost. There's no practical reason for them to do it. They have to include-- I mean, the only way to do it is to include the the participants in their cost - at least, share the cost. But race directors, they have their margins. Depending on the size of the race, especially the smaller races, they don't have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to revenue, what they're taking in. So the way to do it is to add the carbon footprint cost per unit to the registration fee. That would be the most practical thing to do. Then, you're solving it. You're not leaving it up to the participants to say, "Yeah. Maybe I'll do it. Maybe, I won't. I know I don't have to, so I'm not going to." You got a lot of people in that category.
Would participants more for a greener race?
Yeah, I think there's a couple of issues, that I mean, definitely. That's exactly why I'm asking because I know people operate on very thin margins. And more to that point, I think morally, as I was saying earlier, it's really something that you need to put back to the participant because they're traveling, they're doing the polluting. I mean, they're coming to your event but they're doing the polluting. It must really be down to them to do the mitigation as well. So I totally understand that. Two points, I guess is, one, you shouldn't really be doing averages, I suppose. You need to be charging people to the extent that you can and have the information. You should be charging them from wherever they come. Right? I mean, if I live next to the race and another guy comes in from 2000 miles away, it shouldn't really be for me to be paying for them. It should be a little bit fairer, I guess. And the other point is, which is really important, if I decide to put surcharge on my race for this and make it obligatory for everyone to pay that on top of the entry fee, would participants understand, once you make it clear to them that you know there's an extra $6 or something to mitigate the carbon impact of their travel? Would they be willing to pay those $6? Because I was having another episode with another Brit, actually, a couple of episodes back on making races safer, which has in similar conundrums to making them greener, because it's fine for you to go out and pay the money for it. But, then, would participants be willing to, then, get the cost passed on to them? And would they appreciate it at the end of the day - what you're doing for them?
That's a complex question. So yes, they would appreciate it. I think, in 2021, the vast majority of athletes are definitely supportive of environmentally responsible events, and making their lives more environmentally responsible, doing what's required to become more environmentally responsible. I think that should be a given at this point. But there are people who have been doing race, participating in races over the years, they've never had to pay this additional fee before. And, so, it'll be a little bit of an affront to them to actually shell out an extra five or ten bucks. Or if you're flying from Rome to New York, it's going to be a little bit more than that per seat, per plane trip. I would say there's no model today that has sorted out how to do it. I think, as the threat of serious climate change intensifies, the importance of mitigating climate change becomes a accepted aspect of your life, and you have to manage it, and pay for it. Then, I think, there will be a growing willingness to pay an offset for attending race now. Having said that, I'm a big fan of racing locally, staying as close to home as you possibly can. I'm in favor of riding my bicycle to a road race. In fact, we work with a world class 10K called the Beach to Beacon 10K. It's here in the town that I live in Maine. It was launched by-- it was initiated by, first launched by Joan Benoit Samuelson who was the winner of the first women's marathon of the Olympics back in the day. We have a bike valet service at that race for locals to park their bikes and race. And that has helped the race to reduce its carbon footprint for no additional cost. You're just the participants who are agreeing to do something that is carbon free, or relatively carbon free. That's one of the advantages of racing locally. You provide that option. The other option is mass transit. For example, in Washington, DC, the Marine Corps marathon, everybody takes the metro to the start of the race. It's tens of thousands of people packed like sardines in the metro, the local rail service. So those are those are things that will help. But you're right. We're not going to eliminate people traveling to their goal race, to the New York City Marathon, or Boston marathon or wherever, to run the race. It's on their bucket list. So they're going to do it, regardless.
Yeah. But I think the difference with bucket list races is that, first of all, they're sold out. So they have price elasticity. They can bump up the fee by $5 and no one is going to-- it's not like they're gonna lose significant numbers of athletes. The problem is what happens with smaller races when they tried to tackle that where they don't have pricing power. They don't have the pricing power of like New York who has like a ballot, and one in five people gets in or whatever. Right? The problem is what happens with a local half marathon to pick a race that would also have a little bit of an impact and maybe attract people across states or whatever, but would struggle at their entry fee to add another five, six, seven, ten dollars to the entry fee. That's where the challenge comes in, I guess.
It's supply and demand. Right? So if you have that local half marathon, well, there might be another local half marathon 15 miles away that happens the following weekend. So, if I'm going to have to pay an extra $15 to offset my carbon footprint at this race, well, I can just wait till the next race and they're not going to charge that price. So, again, the smaller races, their challenge is managing their finances. They have, as we've talked about, the challenge. So I think the key there is, make it optional. Make the contribution from the athletes optional but tell them exactly what the footprint is of the race. You can calculate it in year one. Year two, you say, "Hey. Our carbon footprint is 750 tonnes of CO2. That's a big number. It's not a big number, but it's a big number for a local race. 700 tons. Okay, well, we want you to help us to offset this because the vast majority of our footprint--" just make the argument, "The vast majority of footprint comes from you, Mr. or Mrs. Participant. And it should be your responsibility to do this. I think we are coming to a point though, where there will be a model that will emerge where the carbon footprint is managed consistently across a lot of events. Maybe, not all of them, but a lot of the events. There'll be a model. The Trees Not Tees model is one of the great option because you're doing more than just reducing CO2, you're also eliminating that product which is, typically, 100% polyester which means it's pumped out of the ground by the oil companies. The entire whole product is made from oil.
Publicising/marketing your green race
Right. So another way to manage this situation, or maybe another component to this model that might emerge, as you were saying, could be promoting your race as greener and more environmentally responsible, could appeal to more participants. So, basically, is there a marketing benefit to being able to say that my race is more sustainable? And although it's more expensive, if I communicated well, I may just attract the right crowd on the back of that.
Yes. I think you're seeing that, and you're seeing it in the trail running community, in terms of their commitment, because they're using pristine nature. And, so, they have this-- I think they're more in tune with sustainable lifestyles than the typical marathoner, road race marathoner. So it's happening. I think it's happening there. You're going to attract more participants if you have a commitment, and you're working hard, and they can see that you're working hard to become more sustainable. I think that commitment is an important metric for participants to respond to, and I think they are responding to that.
So long as you communicate, obviously, I mean, so long as people know what it is you're doing.
Absolutely. Communication. You're absolutely right, Panos. The communication of the efforts, and sharing the data that you're collecting, providing that total tonnage of waste, total tonnage of CO2, total volume of plastic water bottles that you're sending to the recycling, those are important components metrics that resonate with the typical athlete, I think, these days. It's just the cost. The cost of the footprint is the key issue.
Trail running leading the way in race sustainability
Yeah. And I have to say that, as you pointed out earlier, trail running has been an amazing source of ideas and initiatives. And it's really the spearhead in all this because of the nature of that sport, and the way that community operates. All of the major approaches that might be taken on to road races, even the cupless philosophy, like not carrying their own water container. Trees Not Tees came out of that. A lot of these initiatives first come out of trail running which is a much smaller sport, but a much more environmentally attuned to the situation. And, then, the people who run it, I could definitely see, for instance, a trail race advertising, it's green credentials resonating a lot with that kind of audience. Right? People would choose to go to a greener race, because it's greener. I'm not sure that's necessarily where road races-- maybe, some of the local road races are - right now, I don't think - necessarily saying that, "In a 10K, we've done all this work and our event is carbon neutral. It would have the same impact." But it definitely would in trail running, I think.
Yeah. I completely agree with you. Trail running's leading the way in many ways, actually. But the vast majority of events are not trail races.
From that perspective, yes. Unfortunately, yes. It's not the biggest polluter - trail run.
Yeah. So I think the challenge is, yes, follow the lead of the trail running community and do what you can. Measure and communicate. The clients we work with, we provide a report for them at the end of the day that quantifies everything we can possibly quantify. And it's up to them to communicate what they want to communicate. And some basically publish the report for all to see. Others will cherry pick certain things. Also, certification. Certification by the Council of Responsible Sport is a huge feather in your cap for a race because that gives you legitimate third party credibility, in terms of your sustainability practices. Because it's not just about the results, it's about the process, it's about the commitment to maintaining and expanding the process. It takes into account all aspects of the race from what you're purchasing upfront to the end of the day at the race.
Reducing event waste
We've discussed, I think, several aspects of the carbon footprint element of this quite extensively, I think. Going back to waste for a minute, I mean, that sounds, in some ways, a lot more straightforward for people. Right? So recycle as much as you can. I guess, try to reduce the total volume of your waste. Are there any easy wins there for events and for race directors to keep in mind in trying to reduce waste?
Yeah. So the objective is to become a "zero waste event." That means diverting 90% or more of the total waste stream to compost and recycling, so not going into landfills, not being incinerated. We've had great success with races to achieve that, that have achieved that. Again, it's a multi-year process. You start small and you build up the ability to have your entire waste stream, up on race day, diverted from landfill. One of the mechanisms, one of the ways we enable that is by what we've-- what Fit Planet developed, we call it the waystation. Typically, we'll have four 8-foot tables set up in a square. So, the square of the tables on the outside and, then, you have the bins, and the volunteers inside that waystation. So you have the green team volunteers with the recycling bin, the redeemable bin, the landfill waste bin, the hard to recycle but Tetracycle-type products that you can get like GU wrappers and, then, the compost bin. So you have the bins and the volunteers inside this station. You have flags on the station that says recycling or waste waystation. And the athletes and participants, they just put their stuff on the tables, the volunteers take it, and they sort it. So there's no contamination. The worst thing you can have is executing it in a recycling program, but it's contaminated. In the US, it's typically above 10% that they'll reject it. You do not want to get your recycling dumpster rejected, at the end of the day, after you put all that work into it. So this is the only way that we found to have a clean recycling stream and a clean compost stream. Otherwise, you're going to have contamination.
Okay. That's really smart. So, basically, if I understand correctly, what you're saying is that you're not relying on the participants to, basically, work out where to put stuff and what's the best way to dispose of waste into the right bins in the right way. So they just leave everything to the volunteers to basically sort out.
Exactly, you do not let the participant throw anything into a bin. Nothing. You have that table in front of the bins and a volunteer who knows what they're doing. I mean, it's a complex thing that, sometimes, some races, they have a variety of different kinds of plastics. Some are recyclable. Others are not. And, then, same thing with wrappers for compost. Is this wrapper compostable? Volunteers will know that, either, yes or no, that wrapper is compostable because they'll be trained beforehand. And we provide them with a list of everything that's being thrown away, and what they need to do, which bin it needs to go in. It's a really important element. And it took us a few years managing waste at events to figure this out. We work with one marathon where we initiated this process. And they went from very low levels of recycling to very close to zero waste. We had, basically, seven stations at the finish of this marathon. It's 30,000 plus-- doing that for 30,000 plus people with seven stations, rather than littering the grounds with these bins next to each other, and it's all over the place and expecting them to do the right thing. It transformed the process.
Dealing with plastic water bottle waste
Yeah, that makes that makes a lot of sense, actually. I mean, it takes me, sometimes, a couple of seconds to work out what bin to throw stuff in my house. Right? It's not 100% obvious. And it's a well known fact that contamination is a big problem. And you don't want to be just throwing away, doing everything right and, then, it gets contaminated. It's really a shame. Sticking with waste, I would assume, perhaps, naively, you tell me that water bottles is basically a huge contributor to races' waste footprint. I guess, more so for like a traditional road race. Is that the case?
Yeah, absolutely. Water bottles and cups is a primary item being disposed - on the course for the cups, and in the finish area for the bottles.
So what happens when people go through an aid station, they take a bottle or a cup, they have a couple of sips and, then, they just throw it all over the place and, then, people go on-- other runners come step on that? Like that must be a total mess. How do you recover that material?
Rakes - with leaf rakes. You'll see the volunteers. If there's a lull in the runner traffic, they'll jump out on the road and they'll rake rake up as many cups as they can. Because, basically, the cups are an accident waiting to happen. If road's wet, the cups are slippery. It's happened to more than one runner that they slip and fall on it. But, yeah, they're raking them up. They're putting them in bags and they're putting them aside. And when we're working with big races that have cups on their course, we ensure that they're bagging the cups separately from all of the waste. And all the other materials at a waystation, it's primarily-- it could be large five gallon jugs. It could be a fire hydrant that's hooked up to a filter, that's hooked up to a faucet that they can fill up the cups with. That kind of waste is separated as well. So there's a lot of cardboard at an aid station that gets crushed and recycled. There are the large containers of what they're going to recycle. And, then, the cups, if a race can negotiate with the water provider - who is, typically, also the cup provider because their logo's on the cup, if they can negotiate with that race - to provide compostable cups, then your aid stations are basically zero waste. You can take those cups and a compost container will come through at the end of the race, pick up all the cups, and take them to be compost, shredded and composted in with all the other compost that they have on their side, on their operational side.
Compostable vs paper water cups
Yeah. Because, basically, you're saying that, if I understand you correctly, a compostable cup is a much lower bar to hit because, essentially, you don't have to worry about it being contaminated or you don't have to try and recycle it. You just take the whole thing, put it, and you get like a shredded slur at the end of it which is much, much easier to recover more of them.
Yeah, exactly. And you can do that for large event. That's the way to go. The Seattle Rock 'n' Roll Marathon was one of the first races that we work with. This is way back when, 2009, I think it was, they composted the cups on the course. This is in 2009. I mean, I haven't-- other races that are doing that. But I think that might have been one of the first ones.
Are compostable cups more expensive? Like why wouldn't people just use compostable cups to begin?
I think the reason why is because the cups the vendors were providing with their product, with their water were not compostable. The resin on the cups was a synthetic. And, so, that is in large quantities is not compostable. And they have to have-- it has to be a wax lining, the paraffin wax lining with some other kind of organic material that's coating that cup. I've seen races try with just uncoated cups but they leak and it doesn't work very well. The best option-- and, now, more of those water providers are going, are transitioning to compostable cups. So it's become an easier option. And you should always ask race directors, you should always ask their water provider, "Please provide us with compostable cups."
Is there a cost difference or a significant cost difference between the compostable and the old school water cup that you would get?
Yeah. I'm not sure exactly what that cost differential is but I think there is still a cost differential. Of course, a lot of these water providers are donating their product to the event in exchange for sponsorship. That's one option.
Can I make my race cupless?
Going back to some of the stuff that we know is happening in trail races which, of course, have a completely different dynamic. What about striving to go completely cupless? So in trail races, you have this paradigm where race directors would ask participants to carry their own flask, or little bottle, or container so they don't have to. So there's no bottles or any kind of waste involved. Of course, you don't get the same traffic at an aid station that you would get in a trail race. Are people even thinking about going cupless in road races? Or do you think that's feasible at all as an alternative?
No, I don't. Especially for marathons and competitive races, you're not going to have somebody carrying a waistband or a vest with a bladder in it that you can sip from as you're running. They're not going to want to carry an extra two or five pounds of weight if they're a competitive runner. They're just not going to do that.
Well, the competitive runners may not. I appreciate that. But for most races, 95% of the people taking part, if not more, are not competitive runners. Right? I mean, at least, it's not like--
Some large percentage - not competitive. The back of the pack is, yes, I guess you could ask them to do this. But I don't think you'll get 100% compliance with the requirement of, "Hey. You have to carry your own hydration and nutrition."
Yeah, I don't think you'll get anywhere close to that.
Yeah. So I think trail running, that's not-- when you have a water station in the middle of nowhere, miles from the road, that's totally inefficient for the race and it's difficult. So that's why the trail runners, trail events primarily requiring their athletes, all athletes to carry their own. And people comply because it's part of being a trail runner. I mean, that's what you do. You carry it in and carry it out. Road races, it's different.
Sustainability sponsors: what are they and how to get them onboard
I think we've covered quite a lot of ground on both waste and carbon, which are the two really key aspects of what goes into the environmental impact of a race. I think we went through some really, really interesting tips from experience there. We spoke earlier of using your races' environmental credentials as a way to promote it as a marketing angle that you could take for your race. So long as you communicated, there is an audience out there who would respond to that. So there's definitely some upside to try - and may even, like, commercial upside to try - to make your event more sustainable. One last thing, I want to discuss with you is - and this is, again, the European speaking, because we're very big on subsidies here - is there anywhere that people can turn to for financial support in terms of putting the effort in to make the races greener? Are there any grants that might be available for people, anything that perhaps-- any kind of incentive, monetary incentive, that could help them along in the process of taking on that cost and that responsibility?
Well, first of all, they have to be communicating what they're doing to the general public. And they have to have some kind of a track record in actual sustainable practices. So once they've established those baselines, then, there is an opportunity to find a sustainability sponsor, a sponsor, that would offset the out-of-pocket cost of the sustainability efforts. And there are a few races that we've worked with that have identified, and recruited, and successfully worked with companies that become the sustainability sponsor, to category. I'm not sure if that's really been an effort that races have committed themselves to, but I think it is definitely part of the future for road races, and also trail races, of course, for road races to recruit a sustainability sponsor, because once that sustainability sponsor comes on board, and if they are themselves a sustainable company and have a story to tell, then, it gives them the opportunity to communicate it to a friendly audience and to improve their business. We Fit Planet launched with the idea that that was going to be the model. That was going to be the model for paying for the cost of the sustainability, frankly, the cost of our services, onsite services. It didn't work out back in the day, back in 2008. It's taken, I'd say, a decade for the race community, maybe not a decade, seven or eight years before the race community has sustainability as an objective on their website, or is communicating it to their participants. So once that happens, I think that opportunity is available to them.
So the sustainability sponsor, would they be a corporate or a local business? Or, like, where would that come from?
For local race, it would be a local business, say, it's a company that is an organic grocery company or something like that, or it's a company that provides some kind of sustainable product. That's their core mission in life. But, yeah, I think that's one option. I think, if you're a small race, you'd want to ask the town if they have some money that they can contribute to the sustainable practices. That might be another opportunity because the town could then promote itself as being more sustainable and that could control people to come to the shops and businesses. So that would be one option. I think at the larger scale of events, I think there's a growing opportunity to attract sustainable big brands to take on that responsibility of covering, or at least helping to cover some of the costs. And the profile, high profile companies at a major marathons, for example, there's a lot of benefit from that exposure.
Yeah, that's a great idea.
It hasn't become the standard model which is what we were hoping it would be five, ten years ago, but it is starting to happen.
I can totally understand why it wouldn't have been the go-to option 10 years ago. But a lot has changed over the last 10 years. And I can definitely see something like that catching on. And lots of people, lots of brands potentially starting to come on board as sustainability sponsors, because, the environment is a much hotter topic than it used to be. And there's lots of people that would love to be associated with getting that kind of aura associated with them as sponsors. It's been more than an hour. I think it's been a super interesting discussion. I hope you agree.
It's been fun. Lots of fun.
So how can people reach out to you if they need any help with their sustainability efforts with their races, or they want to reach out to you to discuss any of the things we went over today on the episode?
The easiest way is to email me. It's firstname.lastname@example.org. That's easiest way. Just drop me a line. Happy to chat. One of the things that I didn't mention earlier on was our pledge of sustainability. We have a pledge of sustainability that's available on our website, AFitPlanet.com. We're actually updating the website. It's in the process of being updated. But you can find the pledge of sustainability document that includes I think, 43 different elements, plan for implementing sustainability at your event, sustainable practices. And you can download it from the website. So feel free to grab that. I would also encourage race directors to reach out to the Council For Responsible Sport to understand what they do, and how they do it and, also, to maybe consider certification at some point. We position the pledge of sustainability as a initial stepping stone to help races get established. And, then, maybe, a few years down down the road, that's when they can go for the certification. Big fan of the council's work. They do a phenomenal job.
Yeah. We should bring them on, one of these days, so they can they can tell us their other part of the story because, yeah, they do do a great job. And they've lead in all of this. They've lead the industry quite well so far. Thank you very much again for taking the time to share all this knowledge with us.
I really enjoyed. It was a great session. Thanks.
Likewise. We'll speak again soon. I hope everyone enjoyed this episode. And we'll catch up on the next episode.
Alright. Thank you very much.
I hope you enjoyed this episode on race sustainability with Athletes for a Fit Planet Chief Green Officer, Bruce Rayner.
You can find more resources on anything and everything to do with putting on races on our website RaceDirectors HQ.com. You can also share your questions about making your race more sustainable or anything else in our Facebook group, Race Directors Hub.
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