Friday, April 18, 2008

Earth Day 2008: Race Day Trash

This is my contribution for Earth Day...I've just been a lurker spectator before for this particular day, but seeing that things just seem to keep getting worse I figured it's time to start becoming a little more active. I've written about this topic before (reference: Blog Action Day 2007), but since it seems to be such a persistent problem, I figure it's worth discussing again on a day like Earth Day.

As an ordinary competitor (i.e., amateur, not pro, nor elite, nor even respectably good) participating in the usual share of races (triathlons, duathlons, runs, bike rides, hikes, etc.), I used to never really consider the habit of discarding used race aids on the race course: empty cups, empty gels, empty candy wrappers, empty fruit skins, along with the usual slew of paper towels, hankies, pain medication, water bottles, or even clothes and random unwanted miscellaneous equipment. Everybody did it. Nobody seemed to complain. It seemed like a common practice, enough that it appeared to be accepted as race day de rigeur.

But somewhere along the way the nature of race day trash began to grow in the consciousness. You can call it the awareness that comes with maturity, or a sign of our environmental times, or a reflection of a mind just trying to escape the monotony of suffering. Whatever.

Let's just say it began to be a problem. Particularly as I began to notice the sheer volume of trash and the blight it was leaving on the landscape (artificial and natural), as well as the level of effort that was required to clean it up. The scale was just profound. Enough that I felt compelled to begin to try and take some action.

Mindful of the pressures that otherwise consume us on race day, I limited my activities to just trying to set a model and taking care of my own personal trash on the race course. I figured if somebody else saw me make the effort to take my cups and gels and fruit and hankies to the aid station trash can, maybe they'd be inspired to do the same, and thereby spread the cause without the annoying sting of anything so obnoxious as self-righteous proselytizing.

Thing is, given the nature and raw volume of race day trash (and we all know just how much trash we're talking about), it seemed like this strategy was tantamount to being a lone salmon trying to swim up Niagara Falls. At times, I felt like the lone loser caught in his own self-delusional anal-retentive fantasies.

That is, it was until I started competing in races in countries outside the U.S. In recent years, I've combined family vacations with local races as a way of adding an extra element of interest in our travel plans, and this has allowed me to take part in races (to date, a few runs and 1 Ironman) in places like Scandinavia, Canada, and most recently New Zealand.

What I saw was, to say the least, eye-opening. Simply put, these countries are a lot more clean. As in green. At least when it comes to organized public sporting events like triathlons. In each of these countries, I saw race organizers, officials, spectators, and--most importantly of all--participants make a concerted, conscious effort to keep the race clean. I regularly saw people take their trash and walk (or run, or bike, or hobble, or whatever) to the nearest trash bin, and each one was very large, very prominent, and very well marked with instructions for waste disposal.

The result was profound...the races in these countries are some of the most beautiful courses I've ever seen. Jaw-dropping may be even be appropriate. And I suspect that part of it was the experience of rolling through scenic countryside without a trace of litter on the roads or trails, leaving only the pleasure (or at least the illusion) of unspoiled sights and sounds and fragrance and feel of grass, bushes, flowers, trees, hills, mountains, streams, rivers, lakes, wildlife, under sun and sky and air so clear you can see to forever--or, if nothing else, far enough to get your head clear and to realize that you're alive. Which is kind of one of the points of race day.

What was ironic was that many of the locals in these countries actually thought they had a problem with race day trash. All I can think is: you have no idea.

Personally, things came to a head when at a recent race outside the U.S., and suddenly realized that all the U.S. racers were maintaining their habit of dropping their trash on the roadside (and I knew they were American because I'd spoken to them pre-race)...while everyone else was trying to stay green. I suddenly felt very ashamed. Enough to do something about it.

Like write this post.

I'm not saying Americans are the only ones guilty of race day trash. I'm sure there are many countries with this kind of problem. But I figure as a U.S. citizen, I figure that as part of Earth Day I can at least address a problem closest to the U.S.

Here's my argument against race day trash:
  • The level of waste is completely out of proportion to the level of competition. By this, I mean that it seems the only people who could be excused for throwing trash on the race course would be professionals and some elites whose livelihoods depended on their velocity and finishing time. For the rest of us, there just isn't that much at stake to justify defacing public property (i.e., if the only thing at stake is your own ego, then how does that weigh against the public money that has to be spent to clean things up?).
  • If you're going to walk (or run) through an aid station to get energy drink, water, gels, fruit, etc., then it shouldn't be too hard to walk (or run) to the trash can at the aid station to drop off the garbage. Seriously, it's only a few meters. It's not that hard. And even if you're on a bike, it's not that hard to slow down to drop your refuse at the trash bin. it's only a few seconds, and the vast majority of competitors are not going to have their livelihoods threatened by losing a few seconds to maintain a clean environment (i.e., again, if the only thing at stake is your own ego, then it's immaterial compared to the few seconds it will take to properly dispose the refuse you are holding in your hands).
  • Even if race fees go towards cleaning up garbage, and hence offset the public taxes expended on the problem, this still creates the subsequent issue of race organizers increasing race fees...just like any business, they're going to pass on the costs (race day trash collection) onto their consumers (competitors). In which case, as a consumer, I'd prefer to save some money and try to see if costs (trash) could be decreased.
  • It doesn't seem limited to race day. I'm seriously starting to suspect that competitors who are lackadaisical about throwing trash on the course during a race are also people who are just as lackadaisical about throwing trash on the streets on normal days...their carelessness seems habit-forming.
  • It seems entirely contrary to the notion of athletics to be so careless about garbage. Athletics is supposedly about values like commitment and discipline. But there's not much commitment and discipline in simply dumping garbage on the race course.
  • This was (and is) the kind of behavior that on normal days would be considered littering, which in most places is a crime involving a fine (and in some extreme cases, more).
  • It's ugly. It's nasty. It's disgusting.
In terms of ways to deal with trash, the strategies I try to practice, and which I offer here, are two-fold:
  • Pack-in-Pack-out: Also called Leave No Trace. This is a hiker's rule held by backpackers camping in the wilderness. It's a general principle meant to preserve the natural world in a pristine state so that its ecology can continue without any more human disruption than necessary. It's also meant to keep things in a way that other people can enjoy it after you've left.
  • Aim for the Trash Can: I figure I can hold on to my trash until I spot a trash can, and which point I can save other people's energy by being responsible and disposing my own garbage into the trash bin. It's not that hard, and I figure it's the least I can do for all the work that race organizers, volunteers, and local communities do in hosting me.
These are the same arguments I've made before (literally). But they're worth repeating, even if it only means that it'll start people thinking. If just a few people can start taking care of their own race day waste (it doesn't have to be someone else's waste, but just your own), it'll mean that much more to making a cleaner and more enjoyable experience for everybody--and not just in terms of being greener, but also in terms of just simply being better.

Which is, in part, what sport is supposed to be about: making the human condition better. For everyone.


TriExpert said...

Hear, hear, Jonathan!

A former USA Triathlon official, I've issued many penalties for Abandoned Equipment (the formal name of the rules violation). I've witness colleagues having DQed professionals for tossing gel wrappers not within view of an aid station. (Imagine the ensuring tantrum. No, worse than that!)

I had never thought about it as comprehensively as you, though. I always came from the narrower perspective of "improving community relations."

Many races that are thought of as "annual fixtures" at a given venue have to fight to return, year after year.

jonathan starlight said...

thanks for the comments! great to hear i'm not alone!

Sladed said...

I agree with you and carry my gel wrappers and cups until I find a trash can, even to the point of having to wait until the next aid station. If I have a pocket I'll hold the trash there. On the other hand, race organizers could help matters, especially during the run, if trash cans were placed a distance of say a tenth or half a tenth of a mile from the station so you have a place to drop the trash when you're done. Having a trash can 10 yards past the aid station usually isn't helpful to most of us. If this was done consistently at all races and athletes were told about them and encouraged to use them, I think more would.