SINGAPORE: When avid runner Anjali Sharma started taking part in major running events in Singapore six years ago, she was shocked by the sheer amount of waste they produce.
“You see the number of cups that are thrown and you just think, oh my god,” the 38-year-old, who runs a communications consulting firm, told Channel NewsAsia. “You open the race pack and you want to vomit, because there’s that much paper inside.”
Ms Anjali, who grew up in India and ran competitively before moving to Singapore, participates in an average of five runs a year. This includes the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon (SCSM) and Great Eastern Women’s Run.
And at each of her races, she tries to go waste-free by always carrying her own water bottle and giving up her race pack, medal and finisher’s tee.
“I repeat my tees,” she said. “What are you going to do with the medal? You finish the 21km in two hours, you get a medal; you finish it in four hours, you get a medal.”
“The amount of paper in the race packs – I get a vision of a factory line preparing these bags, and they’re literally picking up paper after paper and just dumping it inside the bag,” she added.
While there are no statistics on how much waste is produced by the annual marathons here, Singapore Environment Council (SEC) executive director Jen Teo told Channel NewsAsia it is a matter for concern.
“There’s a lot of litter found after these events, be it this type of race or National Day. It’s not just the litter, people dump their plastic bottles and it means a lot of waste out there to be cleared,” she explained.
According to organisers, last year's OSIM Sundown Marathon – which attracted some 27,000 runners – produced almost 22,000kg of waste, just slightly less than the weight of two buses. The waste came from 39,700 banana peels, 18,075 packs of energy gels, paper cups and water bottles.
Ms Teo said there’s “definitely an increase” in the amount of waste produced by such runs over the years, given how organisers try to offer more freebies to “get people excited or interested”.
“Seriously, how much of all these do you use? It’s another goodie bag, T-shirt or medal that you collect,” she said. “But people are much more aware now in terms of what they can do to generate less waste by taking less, consuming less.”
And these people, like Ms Anjali, are jumping at the opportunity to sign up for races with an eco-friendly slant.
ZERO WASTE RUNNERS
At this year’s Income Eco Run, which took place on Apr 29 and attracted 9,000 participants, a total of 1,974 runners participated as zero waste runners, which means they gave up their medal and finisher’s tee.
This figure, according to an SEC audit released in May, is a 30 per cent jump from last year. Some 2,000 runners also opted out of getting race packs.
This means organisers saved about 1,400kg of material including metal from medals, polyester from finisher’s tees and fabric from race packs, the audit showed. This figure is an 80 per cent increase from last year.
While the audit indicated that each runner generated 0.1kg of waste, 26 per cent more than last year, the overall recycling rate also went up from 63 per cent to 94 per cent.
This came as organisers used recyclable cups with 50 per cent less plastic lining as compared to standard paper cups, which cannot be recycled. On top of that, banana peels were composted and plastic bottles and cans recycled.
Runners were also encouraged to carpool, use public transport or take provided shuttles to the event, meaning the race produced 30 per cent less carbon emissions as compared to last year.
Ms Teo said the measures proved to be “significant”. “They have been very conscious about ensuring that at every step of the way, where they acquire the applicants, they also educate them on what they can do in terms of adopting an eco race,” she said.
Ms Anjali, who participated in the Income Eco Run, said organisers made it simple for runners to reduce waste. “A lot of people want to be good people and help the environment,” she said. “So if I can just tick a button to choose to be a zero waste runner, then it just becomes so much easier.”
To that end, she added, organisers made use of the thousands of runners, or “captive audiences”, to make an environmental difference on a larger scale. “Races should all do what Eco Run is doing,” she stated. “You’ve got those people, do something with it.”
WHAT ARE OTHER RACES DOING?
IRONMAN Asia, which organises the SCSM taking place on Dec 8 and 9, said it deploys ambassadors on its race route to encourage runners to recycle and sort trash into the correct bins. It did not say how much waste last year's race produced.
A clean-up team will also comb through the route post-event to ensure all waste, including recyclable materials and gel packets, are recycled and disposed properly, it said.
“The team has also increased the number of waste and recycle bins throughout the marathon route,” it added, pointing out that trash disposal was made fun by having basketball-themed bins to aim at.
HiVelocity, which organises the OSIM Sundown Marathon, said it encourages runners to bring their own bottles through pre-event announcements on social media, and places signs along the route to remind runners to dispose trash responsibly.
It also stretches water point areas by adding more but smaller disposal points, while placing larger disposal areas near the finish line.
For this year's race, which took place on May 19 and 20 and attracted 25,500 runners, more recycling bins and signs were set up, organisers added, while ambassadors spread the message on-site through signs and pledges.
Channel NewsAsia has contacted the organisers of the 2XU Compression Run, SAFRA Singapore Bay Run and Army Half Marathon, and Great Eastern Women’s Run for comment.
MORE CAN BE DONE
Nevertheless, Ms Teo feels that more organisers can follow suit. “There’s a lot more out there that can be done,” she said. “You’re talking about at least a hundred of these events in a year. And these are just sports events.”
However, she acknowledged that organisers face logistical challenges when planning ahead and providing an option to give up freebies.
Ms Rima Chai, an experienced runner who has since 2006 been lobbying race organisers to go green, said some are hesitant as they fear it might affect their brand.
“People like free things,” the 48-year-old said. “Have you noticed how runners put up pictures of their goodie bag on their blogs and compare them with other races?”
As for the runners, Ms Chai said some care more about their personal best timings. “It is another egotistical badge to have an excuse for not being mindful,” she said.
For Ms Anjali, reducing waste during runs has not affected her experience “in any way”. “I didn’t lose out on anything,” she said.
“What I do think is that you would always have a section of society who would not opt for it. But you have to go with the fact that there’s a certain section of society that opts for it, and that’s what I am going to work with.”
The pair also encouraged fellow runners to start by bringing their own bottle. “Learn to care,” Ms Chai said, highlighting how volunteers picked up 3.5kg of trash – including gel packs and shoe soles – along a 5km stretch of East Coast Park after last year’s SCSM.
Ms Anjali added: “Go with whatever is easy for you to do, but do something.”