Did the Mumbai marathon live up to its green promise?

Organisers of the recently concluded Mumbai marathon had promised to take several steps to make their event a green one. In post-event reflection, runners and observers share what they got right and what could be improved.

The Tata Mumbai Marathon 2019, held on January 20th, saw a record 46,414 runners take to the streets. Even as marathons and other runs across the the country have seen increased participation over the last few years, the spotlight on their environmental footprint has also become stronger in its glare. Waste management champions have long been emphasising the need for more responsible organisation of such events and a petition initiated by Shilpi Sahu, calling for the greening of the Mumbai marathon, received 114,000 signatures over a year.**

Before the start of the event, the organisers of the Mumbai marathon, Procam International, had pledged a series of initiatives in response. They aimed to cut the usage of 60000 plastic water bottles by setting up water stations for refills and requested runners to carry their own bottles;  cloth bags would be distributed for kits and for refreshments. Another goal was on-site segregation of waste into wet and dry for easier clean up. The intent was reinforced by the inclusion of the tag #BeBetter.

But in any public event of such scale, waste management remains a huge logistical challenge. how successful, really, was the Mumbai marathon in its efforts? Is it possible to have a zero-waste marathon at all?

What Mumbai got right and what it didn’t

Procam International forged a partnership with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation for last-mile clearance of the waste produced. Participants and observers of the marathon said that several of these measures were implemented successfully on the ground.

“In the expo prior to the event, I could see added attention given to segregated waste bins. Waste management staff were attending to the bins. At the event itself, a major change from earlier years was a good arrangement of 20-litre water refill cans at the start and finish venue. However, only disposable paper cups were there at the stations. The Mumbai marathon has to make an honest effort to cut down on disposables used in the run,” says Shilpi Sahu, a runner.

Gaurav Pant, a participant and regular marathoner observed the difference in the way plastic water bottles were handled at the site. “Last year all bottles were thrown on the road. They were probably cleaned the following day. This time there was a volunteer to collect the bottles and the trail was fairly clean all along the way as a result.”

The effort made by organisers to communicate the message on waste reduction was also appreciated by Srini Swaminathan, a runner and cyclist from Chennai. He says, “I see a lot of small changes. There were cloth bags being given out for the kits and after the race. Some of the initiatives came about most likely due to the existing ban on plastic by the Maharashtra government. The easy availability of public transport to the starting point and the promise of recycling and segregation are commendable.”

But despite an earnest start and praise from many, there remain some kinks to be ironed out before the event can be labelled truly green. An observer of the marathon and a runner herself, Sangeetha Venkatesh says, “I live close to the route of the marathon. I have seen a lot of  bottles this year as well supplied by Bisleri. The runners were throwing the bottles by the sides of the roads. The route is close to the sea, so the litter gets blown into it before it can be cleaned up.”

A scene from the sidelines of the Mumbai marathon. Pic: Sangeeta Venkatesh

Banned items were spotted by Shilpi Sahu too. “A lot of disposables were being used for serving tea. Black garbage liners were also in use which should have been in the list of plastic items banned by the state. They need to move to reusable cups for serving drinks. In contrast, Bengaluru marathon had 100% reusable cups for water on the route and at the venue.”

Looking ahead

Keen runners and observers have many suggestions and learnings that can be incorporated to reduce waste generation and organise an environmentally sustainable event.  

“Runners and organisers have to be sensitised to hold a green marathon. The first item on the agenda must be waste management. It is not enough that the waste generated is picked up by sanitation workers. We must move from recycling to sustainable alternatives. They can even get experts to help them through the process,” says Sangeeta.

A chorus of voices calls for a shift in focus from waste management to waste reduction. Srini adds, “It is not possible to make a marathon zero waste overnight. What we can have is a waste-reduced marathon. At the planning stage itself, the organisers should target the aspects that generate the most waste, such as water bottles, waste at the expo and on the day itself; the mission then should be to eliminate or reduce them before moving on to other aspects. The message must be sustained and issued well in advance, not just a week or two prior to the event. Why think of dealing with waste if you can reduce the amount generated at source?”

One way to go about this is to look at examples and learnings from other cities and marathons. Gaurav highlights the examples of Chennai and Bengaluru marathons where food was served in rented, reusable steel cutlery and in biodegradable cutlery respectively.

Srini also draws from his experience in local and international marathons to point out a few examples. “The Chennai marathon used biodegradable areca nut plates and bagasse cups to serve food. The Auroville marathon doesn’t give any bags but just the pins and a running number. Some marathons abroad give reusable timing chips that must be returned at the end of the marathon instead of the RFID tags used here.”

Having said that, the commitment to waste reduction at every step must come from both the organisers and the runners. Often, the imperative of maximising the interest of runners proves to be the biggest block in achieving a low carbon footprint. Srini is of the view that roping in runners who are not participating in the event to serve as volunteers will help increase awareness among the running community about the difficulties of hosting an environment-friendly event. These volunteers will also be aware of the needs of runners taking part in the event.

Shilpi  holds a similar view. “Volunteers should be trained to manage aid stations in a way that reduces waste — they should be able to wash cups and refill and hand out refilled cups proactively to runners; they can also help runners refill their bottles. In the Bengaluru marathon, a part of electrolytes were given out in tetrapacks, but they were also being mixed in tumblers by volunteers, both along the route and at the venues. Electrolytes and plain water were kept in reusable, hard plastic glasses of two different colours. Volunteers were proactive in handing out refills and also collecting the used glasses.”

While it may not be feasible to completely eliminate plastic bottles from events such as marathons at one go, innovative solutions must be sought to reduce the quantum. Organisers of large marathons could try and forge meaningful sponsorship deals with brands, involving the latter in cleaning up operations and audit of waste generated. In a small-scale model of extended producer responsibility, the bottled water companies should collect the bottles themselves, suggests Srini; this will make it easier to track and dispose of discarded bottles.

While small strides are being made across marathons in the country, the suggestions and learnings from each event point towards the need for a concerted effort on the part of organisers, participants and sponsors to ensure that the environmental impact of these events are minimised. Meticulous planning in steps and an eye on the larger picture will help integrate the various measures taken at each level.

** Updated since first publication

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