Marathons, triathlons, mud runs and Ironman competitions—these are just a few of the popular races and events you’ll find popping up in every state around the U.S. today. Americans are becoming increasingly more health conscious, and participation in these events rises every year; the Tough Mudder mud run alone has seen over 1.3 million participants since its inception in 2010. But these high intensity events have one particularly unanticipated problem: energy bar and other performance product packaging waste.
Meal replacement bars, energy shots and gel chews have skyrocketed in popularity, in part due to the surge in the number of endurance events. In 2011 for example, U.S. retail sales for nutrition and energy bars was estimated to be around $1.7 billion, 71% higher than in 2006. As the sales of these energy products increase, trails of packaging are left to accumulate on event grounds.
Competitions and races each have their own set of volunteers who sign up to help run events. With hundreds, sometimes thousands of volunteers at each competition, cleaning up can be completed quickly—but how efficiently? As volunteers go through the effort to clean up massive amounts of litter, separation becomes especially difficult as countless pieces of trash and packaging are thrown into the wrong waste streams, inevitably ending up in landfill.
Thankfully, there are organizations that help manage and arrange waste-reduction efforts for event staff. One association, called The Council for Responsible Sport, is looking to make a change in the way competitions handle all of their sustainability efforts. The Council evaluates what efforts are being made by the event to become eco-friendly, and when specific criteria are met, the event is awarded a certification for their achievements. The certifications range based on the number of criterion met, from “Basic” to “Gold” Certification.
A number of marathons have already taken impressive steps to clean up streets from packaging waste and other race debris. The Philadelphia Marathon, for example, achieved a Gold Certification from The Council for Responsible Sport after using the both the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and the Office of Civic Engagement to help educate race attendees about recycling, as well drive forth the goal to divert 75% of marathon waste from landfills.
The Chevron Houston Marathon, also with Gold Certification, bans vendors from using Styrofoam packaging and food containers, also ensuring that a majority of all event-related waste is diverted from the landfill by taking both pre and post-race measures to educate attendees, and direct waste into its proper stream
Organizations and government services do their fair share to help maintain the streets at the conclusion of the race, but how are consumer product companies themselves getting involved? TerraCycle, for example, partnered with energy bar producer Clif Bar & Company to collect and recycle energy bar wrappers, shots and packets, even repurposing the waste material into products such as recycling bins and bike racks. All of the waste gets diverted from a landfill, while subsequently being turned into useful, reusable products.
Poland Springs is another good example, using its “RECYCLE 4 Humanity” campaign to help eliminate some of their own bottled water packaging waste. Before race weekend begins, Poland Springs sets up large clear bins throughout the course and Athletic Village so people can properly recycle their plastic bottles throughout the day. It doesn’t address the issue of consumption that leads to the issue in the first place, but at least it shows that consumer product companies are beginning to take responsibility for the packaging waste their products generate, “greening” these exciting and popular sporting events in the process.
These races and city-run marathons are great for our increasingly health-conscious culture, but can strain resources and promote wastefulness if not managed properly. This is exactly why organizations like the Council for Responsible Sport are critical, and why sustainability efforts like TerraCycle and Clif’s are important to integrate into existing events to ensure that they aren’t just stewards of health and exercise, but of environmental responsibility and proper recycling practices as well.
Author Tom Szaky, founder/CEO of TerraCycle, has won more than 50 awards for entrepreneurship, also writes blogs for Treehugger and The New York Times, recently published a book called "Revolution in a Bottle" and is the star of a National Geographic Channel special, "Garbage Moguls."