Do today’s modern marathon races generate a lot of the garbage and pollution that they are geared to fight?
That is the question floated by a new campaign, ‘Green the Mumbai Marathon’ started by Shilpi Sahu, a Bengaluru-based green activist who has been participating in races for almost six to seven years. She confirms that every race leads to a huge pile-up of plastic bottles, plates and tetra packs that have been used to serve water and food to runners and volunteers. With about 20,000 to 40,000 runners dumping plastic waste into lakes or nearby parks and crowding available spaces, a mountain of garbage is left behind after every event.
Listing the items that are distressingly piling up, Shilpi says that “single-use 250 ml plastic bottles, tetrapaks distributed at aid stations and cold food packaged with thin plastic at the finish line” are the most common villains.
How to control the waste
The means of ensuring a greener environment is simpler than it seems. It is important to just use reusable glasses, eco-friendly food packages and conduct a waste audit after every race, she explains. Paper cups too have plastic coating and are best avoided. Even premixed electrolyte tetrapaks with straws and plastic are not required. Instead, powder packs could be emptied into jugs and then converted into energy drinks. If companies insist on serving energy drinks in tetrapacks, they need to be ‘upcycled’ through the company’s CSR initiatives, feels Shilpi.
In place of packaged food, it would be good to serve hot items on steel or biodegradable areca nut/leaf plates.
A meticulous waste audit after every event would help to document the statistics related to the event. It would showcase how much has been used and wasted.
Rema Ramachandran, ex-banker, consultant to companies and programme action chairperson of Soroptimist International, Bangalore, recalls a ‘Run for Cancer’ organised with the participation of about 800 runners in 2017. Some food in cardboard boxes and water through small canteens were served in a struggle to maintain a green balance.
Some of the bigger organisers have taken the issue by the horns, according to Shilpi. The Bengaluru Marathon put together by NEB Sports initiated green initiatives in the first edition, preparing to serve zero waste to post-run hot food on steel cutlery. A page in the event booklet even carries messages to raise awareness for reduction of the waste footprint.
Shilpi also mentions that Bengaluru TCS 10k held in May every year uses single-use water bottles, refill stations, reusable cups and areca nut plates for the Majja run. It ropes in a large number of runners who are not necessarily trying to finish fast.
But while waste management is more streamlined and manageable in smaller races, the challenges get bigger with size. Procam, the biggest organiser of races in several major cities of India, including Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Delhi, brings together 11,000 to 45,000 runners every year.
Procam CEO Dilip Jayaram gives credit to N. S. Ramakanth, member of the Solid Waste Management Round Table in Bengaluru, for tireless and efficient waste management, right down to the last mile. After all, the problems in organising marathon races are huge. There are 1,600 volunteers, who have to be fed. Apart from that, the waste generated after the race is also massive. In a website, Procam explains that “out of the 5.49 tons of waste generated at the venue, only 159 kg was sent to the landfill and rest all the 5.33 tons of waste were either re-used, recycled or composted.”
Some of the Marathon runners have even participated in international events and affirm that the organisers abroad don’t really do anything differently. Yet, getting the logistics to streamline the races still becomes easier in other countries. Having been part of the Berlin Marathon, one of the six major international races that include venues such as London, Tokyo, New York, Boston and Chicago, 37-year-old Rajan Venkatesan, a Chartered Accountant from Chennai, observes that there are a number of differences in the management of big races, from city to city.
In a comparative analysis, Venkatesan explains that some of the issues get fixed faster abroad than here. There might be 45,000 on the run for five hours in Berlin, as opposed to 20,000 in a city here. Yet, it is a challenge to get police protection and municipal cooperation in India.
Every person has to register with Rs 900 in Chennai and with Rs 2,000 in Mumbai. The difference between the amount generated through registrations and what’s needed for organising the events in both the cities is significant, as the municipal as well as the police personnel have to be paid. Hence, it is tough to get cooperation in the post-race cleaning exercise in Chennai, and even more so in Mumbai, while it is comparatively easiest abroad.
As all organisers and runners seem to be either green activists or at least are part of an environmental drive, it is not immediately clear why it is a problem eliminating the use of plastic in races.
In spite of Procam claiming that it cleans out its garbage regularly, green activists find its approach inefficient. Says Shilpi: “Three days past the event, waste from Azad maidan was still being sorted. Putting more hands sorting through garbage is neither profitable nor dignified to the waste workers.”
Rajan Venkatesan explains it. He recalls that he was part of almost 13 half-run and two full-run marathon races in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Coimbatore. While most races were organised by Procam, the biggest event organiser in Delhi and Mumbai, Rajan has also been among the core organising committees of a body called Pettai Rappers in Chennai. Being on both sides of the race – as participant as well as organiser – has made him understand the overall psychology of runners and races.
“Most runners are in it only for the brief experience, so that they can put up some photographs on Facebook,” he smiles. He assesses that in a 20,000 race, you can expect that 13,000 would be 10K runners and 6,000 would run half marathons. Only 1,000 serious runners would be finishing full marathons. Only the serious ones would be prepared to make the various small compromises that can help to reduce the waste.
On the other hand, people who come only for the experience are often accompanied by their families. They would actually need to be offered food and water on time. Providing water is a big task in itself, he explains. It has to be transferred from bubble tops to drums and then into clean glasses that can cater to a huge crowd at water stations.
Venkatesan feels that his Chennai experience has always been the “greenest,” as his group has been organising races with recyclable glasses and bagasse plates that are 100% biodegradable. However, for the first time, last year, there were 21,000 runners, which made it difficult to organise and manage the timely and adequate provision of water. They thus had to resort to plastic bottles. The number of runners and their inclinations automatically tend to open the doors to plastic.
Dharma, CEO of Protons Sports and Fitness, has organised 35 races in the last four years. He agrees that organisations need to take on the responsibility for greener marathons, but it is not as if the cause is totally neglected. For example, the SBI Green Marathon is considered an environment-friendly race. Yet, many issues need to be kept in mind when human races are involved. For instance, SBI gives running bibs as badges or mementos to runners. These bibs use paper with thin plastic reinforcements in order to make them non-tearable. They are offered to the runners like memory certificates, which automatically increases the use of plastics!
While Dharma has been trying to eliminate the use of plastic bottles, he explains that there are many challenges. Using kullads won’t really help too much, as they get dirty and one cannot keep washing them. So the organisers require reusable glasses. The solution is to not only focus on biodegradables and reusables, but also maintain a good house-keeping staff that can offer quick service and deft cleaning.
Would people bring their own bottles if asked? Just getting people to register for races is difficult for companies, he explains. Many citizens find it difficult to just pay and register. After that, if they are asked to bring their own bottles, it would be impossible to even get them to begin!
As for water stations, they might not help beyond a point. “How many runners are willing to wait in queues to get their water at intervals? Very few! They just want to run quickly and move away, instead of waiting for water.”
What are the alternatives, then? A holistic approach and cooperation from all stakeholders, he explains. If only the organisers have to take on the onus, then it leaves very few options open.
Awareness is the key
According to Dharma, the biggest challenge lies in sensitising citizens and participants. We cannot force our rules on anyone, but it is important to talk to citizens and keep up the dialogue with them. They have to understand that apart from joining races, they need to make small sacrifices that can keep the environment clean. Once all participants understand that their experience should expand beyond just the running exercise, they would be more alert and open to giving up small conveniences for the sake of the environment.
From conversations with runners and organisations, the issue seems to be a bit of a chicken-and-egg story. While green activists ask organisers not to shift the onus on to the runners, managers plead that they cannot work without cooperation from citizens.
What is clear, however, is that a holistic approach is needed. It is important for the local municipalities too to assess the amount of waste generated and take necessary steps. Sponsors too, such as TCS or Procam, need to devise greener roadmaps that can be reached faster. Ultimately, the solution is not to sensitise only one level. Event organisers, the government and citizens need to stop working in silos and join hands to move towards greener races.