Tuesday, April 21, 2009

earth day 2009: race day recycling

well, it's Earth Day 2009, Wednesday, April 22, and so time for another eco-friendly blog post.

i've written Earth Day-related posts before, addressing what i thought was a significant--but entirely fixable--problem in sports: race day trash. particularly at triathlons and marathons, which have gained outsized proportions courtesy of their accessibility to the masses. you can reference my previous comments at the following:
i want to do things a little differently this year. while keeping things on the topic of race-generated trash, i wanted to take things a bit further and go beyond just simply advocating to keep races clean, but to also keep races green. in particular, i want to now encourage people to do more than just clean up race-day trash, but to take one more step and look to recycle it.

in the previous posts, i encouraged everyone (race organizers, race spectators, and race participants) to pick up their trash (gel wraps, energy drinks, sunscreen bottles, chapstick flasks, tissues, band-aids, etc.) and deposit it in appropriate garbage receptacles. while this goes a long way to keeping things clean, it doesn't really fix the issue of garbage.

here's why: trash doesn't stop at the garbage bin. simply having everyone dump their trash into confined receptacles on race day doesn't eliminate the waste; all it does it enable the collection of it. at some point (invariably after the race is over), the garbage bins are subjected to the usual government processes used to carry out the regular public waste management policies.

unfortunately, at least in the United States (and i'm too afraid to ask about elsewhere), "regular waste management policies" most likely means dumping trash straight into a landfill.

in essence, simply being content to put race day trash into a garbage bin is really nothing more than an act to make it someone else's problem--except that it's not someone else's problem, but ours.

you see, there's only so much space in landfills, and only so many landfills to go around, and only so much filth and contaminants and poisons and toxins that landfills can contain...and there is no end of trash. in fact, the rate of trash production is growing. meaning that we all (collectively, and ultimately individually), sooner or later, have to confront the garbage problem.

the stats are pretty sobering. a cursory review of various internet sources shows that in 2007 the U.S. produced more than 254 million tons of household trash, with over 137 million tons going to landfills and only 63.3 million tons being recycled. despite efforts to decrease per capita waste production, this country still experienced a 60% increase (!!!) in municipal waste between 1980 and 2005. you can check it out for yourself, starting with the following useful sources:
and the thing is, the trash, no matter how much of it we think goes to landfills, still invariably manages to find itself into the natural world, where it continues to accumulate and generate untold damage to the environment...where we, as people, as a society, as a species, have to live. and it's kind of problematic to do that when the ecosystem you're relying on to sustain you is being choked by your trash.

if you want an idea of just how much of our trash leaches out into the natural world (despite the use of landfills), and just where it all ends up, and just what it's doing, check out this video:

i should note that this is something i see every time i go swimming or surfing after a rainstorm off the Los Angeles shoreline. even though it's only a small scale of what is shown in the above video, what i see is still enough to be absolutely shocking. which is why i've become so sensitive about this issue--once you find yourself adrift in this stuff, and realize just what is in it, you don't ever want to do anything to contribute to the problem again.

which is why i'd like to encourage all races to try and facilitate recycling as much as possible, to reduce not just the trash we see littering the race course, but to actually reduce the trash being generated overall from the race event itself. triathlon, marathon, whatever. any race. every race.

to a degree, it's already being done, and there has been a growing movement towards this. i found some laudable examples:
this is a very good start, and certainly very promising. thing is, i'm worried that it's not prevalent enough.

in particular, i'm not so sure that Ironman events are on the recycling bandwagon yet--and if there's any event that generates trash, Ironman is it. drawing lessons from the above list of races, i'd really like to see every Ironman try to do more to implement recycling efforts by trying any of the following (or anything else in addition to the following):
  • goody bags: get rid of them. and all the random pieces of paper inside them. it all gets thrown away by most race participants anyway. if advertising is the issue, then it should be just as easy to e-mail the ads to race entrees and thereby save trees and stop plastic from intruding any further into our world. and as for all the goodies inside the goody bags, just have them available for people to pick up by hand when they register--or at the very least, use recyclable bags to hold them.
  • recycle bins: big ones. really big ones. on the side of the road at every aid station. something the size of pickup trucks (or mac trucks), with 1 truck labeled "plastic" and another labeled "paper" and maybe another labeled "metal." that way people who are running or cycling by can easily self-sort and toss their trash as they go by--with targets that big, it verges on asking racers to hit the broad side of a barn, which is something anybody can do at any speed...or at least, i'd certainly hope (including even the pros?).
  • pre-race instructions: oh god yes. i think we under-estimate the human willingness to do good things. i think that if race organizers included announcements at registration, the athlete tents, the merchandise shops, the pre-race events, and above all, the pre-race dinner, all containing brief instructions on what race participants need to do to help control race day trash, it would go a long way to creating a self-correcting mechanism on race day. that, and i think it would generate enough response that there would be a reservoir of peer pressure among competitors to be conscientious in dealing with their own trash on race day.
incidentally, i have to admit, i have seen some of this at 1 Ironman: Ironman New Zealand. which is where i got some of these ideas--i'll never forget Didymo Dave (just ask the race organizers), and i'll never forget the 3-meter-high by 3-meter-wide tarp target with a big red bulls-eye painted on it that said "throw trash here" (which almost every competitor did). thank god for New Zealand. now we just need to do it for every Ironman...especially in these freakin' United States.

thankfully, i think American triathletes are starting to generate a grass-roots movement for greener triathlons on their own. you can check out the following:
it's very satisfying. but i just want to see it translate into results, with everyone (race organizers, race spectators, and race competitors) making concerted efforts to recycle. i know i sound like an uptight anal-retentive eco-nut with all this, but it just horrifies me to see just how much trash is being produced at all the races i see--it's something i just don't want to associate with events that i see as being expressions of the greater ideals of human endeavor. it (trash) is just not what we should be about.

so here's to race day recycling. and from one athlete to many others: let's make our races not only clean, but also green.



I am avoiding a life of quiet desperation also.

Bob Almighty said...

A couple of races up here in CT changed from the traditonal plastic goody bags to green reuseable shopping bags as well as cutting out ads. It's catching on.