Organizers look to lessen Marathon's environmental impact

By David Abel
Globe Staff / April 19, 2009
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At the marathon in Austin, Texas, organizers offer runners organic T-shirts, a finish-line farmers' market, a stage operated by solar power, and a system to recycle 15,000 pounds of trash. In Toronto, marathon officials have replaced plastic race kits with biodegradable sacks. Runners at the annual triathlon in Portland, Oregon, receive medals made out of recycled bicycle parts, and those who complete the local marathon are awarded tree seedlings.

Other races transport runners to the starting line in biodiesel buses or prod them to donate their old sneakers.

As an ever-rising number of runners arrive this weekend from every state and 60 countries to compete in tomorrow's 113th Boston Marathon, organizers for the first time are taking significant steps to cut the race's carbon footprint, recycling more of the thousands of pounds of waste created and encouraging everyone from elite athletes to those slogging for charity to make one of the nation's least environmentally friendly road races more green.

"This is a huge step forward for us," said Guy Morse, executive director of Boston Athletic Association, which oversees the race. "We felt it's an obligation of any major event to do as much as it can to offset its effect on the environment - and not just to pay lip service."

This year, the race will use more than 1,000 gallons of diesel in 525 buses to transport 26,400 runners the 26 miles from downtown Boston to the starting line in Hopkinton; some 8,000 volunteers will distribute about 1.4 million nonbiodegradable cups for water and Gatorade at every mile; organizers will serve 11,300 pounds of pasta and 3,400 pounds of vegetables at the prerace meal; and those who make it to the finish line will be greeted with 28,000 mylar blankets and 62,400 half-liter bottles of Poland Spring water that use less plastic.

To offset the emissions produced by the buses, the marathon's organizers this year are buying 22,440 pounds of carbon emission credits. They're replacing the pace-setting motorcycles that escort the elite runners with new electric scooters that run at the equivalent of 357 miles per gallon. They plan to compost left-over food and other biodegradable refuse. And they're employing dozens of Department of Correction inmates on "green teams" to collect the discarded cups, bottles, and blankets and ensure that all recyclables make it into 600 barrels distributed along the course.

Still, Boston is behind many other marathons around the country. Some offset all the carbon emissions produced by their runners, including their airplane travel. Others require the use of corn-based cups that can be composted and ban petroleum-based bottles. An increasing number of marathons have set up carpooling services and encourage biking to their races.

"Given that it's a point-to-point race and the numbers of people involved who come from far away, I think it's fair to say Boston has one of the largest carbon footprints in the country," said Jeff Henderson, executive director of the Council for Responsible Sport, an Oregon-based group that tracks the most-green races and provides sustainability certification for sporting events.

Among the council's most highly ranked races last year was the Hartford Marathon, which aims to be the "most sustainable athletic event in the country," according to its website.

Beth Shluger, executive director of the Hartford Marathon Foundation, said the race serves its runners only organic, locally grown food; uses corn-based cups; offsets all its 10,000 runners' carbon emissions, including air travel; provides canvas race kits to its runners instead of plastic bags; and recycles just about everything used.

Hartford has also stopped handing out water bottles at the finish line. Instead, the race built a 75-foot long water fountain that allows 40 people to drink from it at the same time.

"Boston is the pinnacle of marathons in the entire world - whatever they do sets an example and becomes more acceptable for the rest of us," Shluger said. "What if Boston said no more race bags or no more paper or plastic bags? That would make it easier for the rest of us."

Bruce Rayner, founder of Athletes for a Fit Planet, a Holliston company that does environmental consulting for road races and charity events, said short of changing its course by making the race start and end in the same place - an unlikely outcome for the nation's oldest marathon - Boston should require all its vendors to provide recyclable products and offset the emissions from those who travel to come here.

Only 2 percent of this year's runners are from Boston; 75 percent come from beyond New England, according to the Boston Athletic Association. Fifteen percent are flying in from abroad, including 175 from Germany, 108 from Japan, and 82 from South Korea.

"There's huge waste associated with any event like this," Rayner said. "At the least, they should cover their carbon footprints."

Boston race officials acknowledge they have a distance to go, especially because the race has grown every year and more than doubled in the past decade. This year will be the largest race on record, with the exception of 1996, when organizers opened the marathon to anyone who wanted to run to celebrate its 100th anniversary.

But the organizers said this year marks the beginning of a long-term effort to take more aggressive efforts to balance environmental concerns with producing a well-managed marathon.

"We can't take our eye off the race, but there's a lot more we can do," said Dave McGillivray, the marathon's race director, adding that he thinks next year the athletic association will substantially increase the carbon credits to account for all the air travel. "This is our first step, and it's part of our learning curve. We will improve."

David Abel can be reached at