LAST UPDATED: 4 December 2023
14 Initiatives For a Greener Race
Are you keen on improving the eco credentials of your race and being good to the environment as well as your race participants? Check out top green tips!
Putting on a mass-participation event can put a strain not only on the organizing team, but also the environment. Plastic bottles, tons of waste and thousands of miles of car journeys all add up to make even the smallest race a potential burden on the planet.
Thankfully, working to improve the environmental impact of your race can be simple, benefiting not only the environment but also your race's image in the eyes of thousands of eco-conscious athletes.
We've put together some great tips to help you run a greener race, most of them at no additional cost to you. And here they are!
1. Reduce water bottle/cup waste
Plastic bottles and cups are an environmental nightmare and, unfortunately, races the world over still go through a lot of them.
Fortunately, technology has come a long way over the recent years, and there's now some very real alternatives available to help you reduce the environmental footprint of your waster stations.
Switch to more sustainable options
Instead of regular plastic cups, why not switch to biodegradable alternatives?
Biodegradable cups are made from bioplastics, such as PLA and other non-petroleum-based "plastics" made from biomass and other sustainable sources. Vegware are one of the pioneers in the use of plant-based packaging materials that often pops up in discussions around biodegradable cups in our race directors group.
Using biodegradable cups can have a huge impact on the environmental footprint of your race, with less CO2 being emitted and less water being used in the process. But you will still need to collect and properly compost all your event packaging, biodegradable or not.
Even better, you can try to eliminate bottles and cups from your race altogether.
It really isn't. Many trail events already run cupless races, enforcing strict carry-your-own-container policies. With plenty of collapsible cup options now available in the market, such as HydraPak's SpeedCup, UltrAspire's C2 or NDURE's Hydra, making your race cupless is easier than ever. And it may also help reduce your aid station crew's workload.
For your cupless policy to work, you will still need to bring water in bulk to your water stations, but with products like WaterMonster you should be able to easily cover that angle. And if it's something more than water you want to offer at aid stations, there's any number of powder/tablet solutions you could try.
How about offering branded eco cups to participants instead of the usual swag, such as T-shirts, medals and Buffs? NDURE offer this for their Hydra cup. It's a really great, practical alternative to your usual giveaways and you can bet it will get a lot of use (and race exposure). And if giving them away sounds a bit generous, why not add some to your race merchandise line?
Hiccup is a reusable cup service that is quickly growing in adoption among predominantly US races.
The whole thing works a little bit like this:
- You hire Hiccup to provide their reusable silicone water cups for your race.
- The Hiccup team shows up at your water stations with all the reusable cups you'll need
- At the end of the race, used cups are collected and sent to Hiccup for washing
- The cups are reused again in another race near you!
Hiccup have an inventory of over 30,000 reusable silicone cups, and can drive to your race with all the cups you need, starting at a minimum of 1,000 cups for in-state races. That is 500 participants for a 2-water-station race (e.g. a 10K) etc.
And for an additional fee, the Hiccup crew will take it upon themselves to also provide your water stations with water- so you have one less things to worry about. Pretty neat!
Go totally Ooho!
If you really want to go all out with your fight against waste, there are ways to not eliminate cups and bottles from your race, but eliminate the need for any sort of container altogether.
No, it doesn't involve runners drinking out of troughs...But rather an ingenious new edible water container made out of seaweed. It's called Ooho and it's the coolest thing to hit races for some time.
If you're thinking water containers made out of edible seaweed sound a bit far fetched, then think again. Ooho has been used to hydrate tens of thousands of participants with Lucozade during the 2019 Virgin London Marathon.
2. Make race swag optional
Although most race participants would expect a nice technical tee as part of their entry fee, a lot of them will never wear it again after a race. That is a significant waste of resources that can be more cleverly redirected to everyone's benefit.
Instead of receiving a technical goodie, why not ask your participants to opt out of the shirt in favor of a greener alternative? You can, for example, offer the option to contribute the cost of your giveaway item to charity or some environmental cause.
That's exactly what scalable reforestation company Trees not Tees does. Trees not Tees will offer your participants the option to have a tree planted for them instead of receiving their race T-shirt. All you have to do is pass on to Trees not Tees the money you would have paid for the T-shirts (down to a minimum) and they will arrange for an equivalent number of trees to be planted for your participants. Each participant will receive a picture of their sapling by email, complete with any sponsor branding you choose.
When offered the option, around 20% of participants choose the tree-planting alternative - sometimes paying extra to plant the tree, as well as receiving the T-shirt. To learn more about Trees not Tees, how it works and what to expect, check out the Trees not Tees episode we did for our Head Start podcast.
3. Reuse bibs
It may be a bit of a tricky maneuver to pull off in some of the more populous running races, but collecting bibs at the end of a race and reusing them could dramatically save down on race waste.
Reusing bib numbers could be easier in race series or team races, where people can register for a number of events and can be reasonably expected to try to reuse bibs throughout the series. If your race isn't part of a series, it may still be worth to try to promote the reusable bib as an incentive in getting participants to return to the event.
4. Recycle bibs
If your race uses Tyvek bibs (and most races do) you can always try to collect and recycle the race bibs you issue to participants. Perhaps by asking them to hand them over as they receive their medals at the finishing chute or by placing collection bins around the finish area.
Normally, Tyvek is one of those tricky products that not all waste management facilities are equipped to handle. But if you're based in the US and you're really committed to giving bib recycling a go, you can always get in touch with DuPont's recycling hotline on 1-800-44-TYVEK® or 1-800-448-9835, for more information on returning your unwanted race bibs.
5. Choose eco-friendly apparel
For those participants that do elect to receive a T-shirt, you can try to make it as environmentally friendly as possible.
Did you know you can produce a great quality technical T-shirt from recycled plastic bottles? Each shirt uses between 8 and 16 plastic bottles, depending on size and mix of other fibers such as recovered cotton. Now, there's two birds with one eco stone for you!
A number of companies offer printable tees from recycled plastics and other recovered or recycled materials. Here's a few to get you started:
Another option to giving away technical tees is giving away cotton tees instead. Cotton T-shirts are a lot more versatile in real life and can be worn in more diverse occasions. If you decide to give out cotton, choose organic cotton, which is grown without pesticides and chemicals, for a greener choice.
6. Go paperless
Sending and receiving paperwork is not only harmful to the environment, but also a logistical nightmare and a drag on valuable human resources. By digitizing your registration forms, race manuals, medical certificates and other communications you can increase your efficiency while dramatically reducing paper waste.
To help you manage communications digitally, use services like Google Forms to create and share forms and cloud storage like Google Drive to share documents with your participants with the click of a button. If the use of paper forms is unavoidable, opt for recycled paper products wherever possible.
7. Switch to virtual goodie bags
More to the point on paperless communications, should you really be delivering sponsor promotional materials in printed form? In a plastic goodie bag? That's so 20th century....
How about opting for a virtual goodie bag instead? Your participants still get the same great offers, plus they're always there and easy to find online without trees having to suffer in the process.
Want to have a go at putting together a basic virtual goodie bag yourself? All you're going to need is:
- A page on your website with all the offers
- A link (or QR code, if you feel like going a bit fancier) to your page printed and handed over to your participants (or laminated, in a keyring, printed on their bib, the possibilities are endless!)
8. Use eco-friendly race signs
If you're planning to erect signs around your course, you may want to choose as eco-friendly a material as possible. Cardboard is usually a great choice for this, providing a good balance between durability when you need it and degradability when you don't.
9. Offer a carpooling service
Like other initiatives on this list, carpooling can provide benefits to your event that go beyond the ecological. Getting your visitors and spectators to use a carpooling service will alleviate congestion around your course and foster a great community atmosphere around your race.
For smaller races, you can try to coordinate a carpooling service on a spreadsheet. However, the complexity of this quickly escalates with event size. If you want a bit of help, there are numerous dedicated carpooling software out there. Here's a few:
10. Reduce packaging in your supply chain
Although we've focused the discussion so far on initiatives specific to mass-participation events, you can always aim to cover all the more common ways of cutting down on waste - such as reducing packaging.
If you are ordering medals, T-shirts or anything else, make sure you work with your supplier to minimize the amount of packaging used in shipping your supplies. For instance, ask your T-shirt printer to skip individual packaging for T-shirts. These are almost always non-recyclable and a shame to have to throw away.
11. Switch to a green electricity provider
Switching your energy supply to a greener source can help eliminate the carbon emissions associated with running your office, charging your equipment, or any other race-related activity you use electricity for.
Green electricity (or clean electricity, as it's sometimes referred to) is electricity produced from renewable sources, such as wind and solar power, and therefore has a much smaller impact on the environment compared to electricity produced by burning fossil fuels, such as coal, gas or diesel fuel.
To switch to using green electricity, you can start by checking if your existing energy supplier offers a green electricity plan (usually that option will come at a small premium to your standard energy cost). If they don't, search online for energy suppliers who offer this option - there's plenty by now who do, and you should be able to switch to the green option fairly easily without interrupting your electricity supply.
12. User solar energy on race day
Taking the idea of green electricity one step further, you can aim to eliminate dirty diesel generators on race day by switching to solar generators instead.
Solar generators are portable power stations that can be recharged by either plugging them into an electrical outlet or by using portable solar panels when out on the field. By matching the capacity of your solar generators and solar panels with your race day energy needs, you can end up powering your entire field operation on solar energy.
Considering the highly volatile price of diesel fuel, using solar power can be a great way to save money in the long run. But, you should do some math to ensure you'll have enough capacity from your equipment on race day to power everything you need powered on race day.
13. Go carbon-neutral with carbon offsetting
If you're running a large race and want to go the extra mile in making it environmentally sustainable, you could consider putting the effort in to make your event carbon-neutral. Making your event carbon-neutral ensures that your event has a zero net carbon footprint.
To get to that magic carbon-neutrality goal, there's two things you would do:
- Where possible, reduce the sources of carbon emissions in your event - for example, through carpooling, as discussed above.
- Where reductions aren't possible, calculate your remaining carbon emissions footprint and work to "eliminate" the effect of that though a process called carbon offsetting.
So what is carbon offsetting?
Simply put, carbon offsetting is the process of offsetting the carbon (and carbon-equivalent) emissions from your event by purchasing an equivalent amount of credits (carbon offsets) generated by projects that remove carbon from the atmosphere. Carbon-offsetting projects could include reforestation projects, direct carbon capture projects and a variety of other schemes.
Here's how this works in practice: Say, you calculate that your event produces 100 tons of CO2, and you have no practical way of reducing that further. To "neutralize" that remaining 100 tons of CO2, you purchase carbon offsets for 100 tons of CO2. The money you pay when purchasing these offsets goes to fund a project that removes 100 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. The net effect of all this is that you have put 100 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere (through your event), removed 100 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere (your carbon offset purchase), so your event has a net zero carbon footprint. Your event is now carbon-neutral.
It all sounds terribly straightforward - and for the most part it is. With one important detail: making sure the carbon offsets you purchase are for quality projects that really do what they say they do. And here's where you want to do a bit of research with the help of a reputable carbon credits broker.
If you're interested in getting a little deeper into the mechanism of carbon offsetting and carbon neutrality, do make sure to listen to our race sustainability podcast, where we go through all that in a bit more detail.
Offsetting emissions from participant travel
It may surprise you to hear that the largest contribution to a race's carbon footprint comes from emissions associated with participants traveling to the race. Even for a local race, these emissions can quickly add up.
As we saw in the previous section, you can try to offset these emissions in principle using carbon offsets. But that can end up costing you a decent amount of money, and the cost may put you off tackling this very important source of pollution in your race.
There is, however, one thing you can do: Put the cost of offsetting these emissions back onto the people responsible for them, i.e. your participants.
To calculate how much it would cost you to offset your participants' travel emissions:
- Pull up your participant addresses from previous years (using data from your registration platform)
- Use Google Sheets to calculate the distance traveled by each of your participants
- Take an average of these distances by mode of travel (e.g. for participants who drove to the race, the average distance driven was 18mi; for those flying to the race, the average flight distance was 349mi etc)
- Use a travel emissions calculator to convert these distances into tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions for each separate mode of travel
- Work out an average CO2e travel contribution for your participants and, from that, the price for offsetting these emissions with the help of a carbon credits broker
Once you've estimated the cost of offsetting participant travel emissions, you can either include that cost in your registration checkout as an optional sustainability surcharge or just go ahead and include this surcharge to your registration price for all participants. The additional money you raise can then be used to purchase the carbon offsets you need to neutralize this source of emissions in your race.
If you're interested in passing on the cost of offsetting travel emissions to your participants, make sure to check out our podcast on carbon-neutral race production with Orca Running's Porter Bratten, who has successfully implemented a participant surcharge travel for his races.
A quick word on certification
You may just want to do some of the stuff discussed above without any formality or fanfare. But if you want to get a little more serious about your sustainability effort, you may want to consider certifying your event's environmental credentials.
Certifying your event is often a multi-year process, starting with an assessment of your event's current environmental impact, followed by the implementation of a number of best practices to help gradually reduce that impact to a minimum.
The Council for Responsible Sport (CRS) is a nonprofit organization, that has worked on developing a set of industry standards for assessing the impact mass-participation events have on the environment. CRS administers a "green" certification program for races, in conjunction with trusted third-party verifiers. For more information on getting your race certified by the Council, visit: councilforresponsiblesport.org/assess-certify.