How the Boston Marathon Is Embracing Sustainability
Here’s what organizers of the world's oldest annual marathon are doing to limit its carbon footprint, and how athletes can do the same
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This article is part of Outside Run’s complete 2023 Boston Marathon race coverage.
The Boston Marathon is making major strides when it comes to sustainability. As one of the world’s premier marathons, it’s working hard to implement systems and educate participants about event sustainability. And while running might not immediately seem like it has an enormous carbon footprint, the impact adds up.
Just getting to the start line produces emissions. More than three-quarters of race participants travel from outside of New England, producing .24 pounds of CO2 per mile of air travel. The marathon’s official flight partner, JetBlue, offers an option for travelers to offset its carbon emissions. Then, the buses that transport athletes 26 miles from Boston Common to the startline in Hopkinton contribute another 11.2 tons of greenhouse gas emissions (though mass transit, like buses, has less impact than personal vehicles). A major challenge presented in shrinking the marathon’s footprint is the sheer size of the event, with more than 30,000 runners and half a million spectators along a course.
“The biggest issue is definitely the scale of the marathon, and the fact that it happens so quickly over just one day. We have a limited window to get things set up and make sure everything’s going according to plan,” says Will Pollard, operations manager at the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.), which owns and operates the race. “The fact that our footprint spans over 26 miles creates a lot of logistical elements that require a lot of planning to figure out.”
The B.A.A. is also working on educational initiatives for participants, including athlete newsletters and a booth at the expo that will spotlight the B.A.A.’s successes and challenges in making the marathon more environmentally friendly.
“There is always room for improvement! We evaluate each operational area post-event to see what worked well and what could use tweaking,” says Pollard. “I’m excited to see what we learn after this year about where we want to take the program next.”
Physical waste presents a major challenge for event organizers. In 2017, the marathon produced 62,000 disposable water bottles, 1.4 million water cups, and 171,380 paper brochures. While race foods, like bananas and orange slices, are compostable, athletes often toss food and trash on the ground, which results in more manpower needed to sweep the course, potentially tainted waste streams, and biodegradable waste ending up in landfills.
In recent years, 80 percent of waste from the Boston course has been diverted into sustainable streams such as recycling or compost. The B.A.A. has achieved this by placing volunteer-run waste stations in high-traffic areas of the course so that athletes and spectators can sustainably dispose of things, rather than throwing everything in the trash.
“Someone will bring an item that they need to throw away, then the volunteer will sort it into the correct stream: recycling, compost, or landfill,” says Pollard. “This gets everything organized before being hauled away by our trash and recycling partner.”
Sorting things effectively is critical for making sure materials can be composted or recycled, since “tainted” streams (like recycling bins that contain trash products) can’t be recycled or composted.
In 2022, the B.A.A. introduced compostable cups along the course.
“We have 24 hydration stations set up to service all 30,000 athletes; that’s a lot of material that has previously been collected and sent to the landfill,” says Pollard. Now, all Gatorade and Poland Spring cups are made of compostable materials. The cups are collected in compostable bags and transported to a large, industrial compost facility. Last year, over 6.5 tons of cups were composted (roughly the equivalent of an adult African Elephant).
Runners typically bring extra layers to Hopkinton on race morning so they can stay warm before the start. Volunteers will collect discarded hats, gloves, jackets, and shirts from the Athletes’ Village area all the way to the Ashland town line. Last year, 21 tons of clothing were collected at the start line and donated to Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Event organizers aren’t just working to redirect used clothing back into circulation; they’re also ensuring that new garments are more sustainable and use more recycled materials. This year’s Boston Marathon Celebration Jacket contains 70 percent recycled content. This is a substantial move, as adidas provides volunteer jackets to more than 10,000 volunteers and official participant shirts to 18,000 men and 14,950 women.
“We’re creating products with recycled materials, making products to be remade, and developing products made with nature,” says Jennifer Thomas, Vice President of Global Sports Marketing at adidas. “Overall, the Boston Marathon articles reflect our overall ambition to use sustainable materials in 9 out of 10 products with every article in this collection using either recycled polyester or cotton that is sourced through our partnership with Better Cotton.”
This year’s Boston finisher’s jacket contains yarn that’s 50 percent Parley Ocean Plastic, which is plastic from islands, beaches, coastal communities, and shorelines that is upcycled into polyester fibers. According to Chris Lotsbom, Director of Communications at the B.A.A., the jacket colors reference the intersection of athletics and the environment, “by pairing natural tones inspired by sand and stones as a twist on the traditional blue and yellow colors of the Boston Marathon.”
Adidas is also partnering with the B.A.A. to collect and recycle water bottles from race weekend and turn them into park benches, in addition to providing a race bag for all participants that is sustainable and has a tag that reads: “This bag is made of 100 percent recycled polyethylene, sparing unnecessary natural resources + energy consumption. 91 percent of plastic products end up in a landfill despite being sturdy enough to give a second life,” to help educate participants about textile production and recycling. Adidas will also have a booth at the expo that will prominently feature the brand’s sustainability efforts and highlight a timeline of what adidas has done in sustainability, and what additional actions they hope to take to meet ambitious sustainability goals.
The B.A.A. is learning as it goes, but optimistic that it can keep finessing systems and incorporating learnings from previous years to limit the event’s environmental impact.
According to the Council for Responsible Sport, environmentally responsible races can recycle everything from cardboard to aluminum and glass. The Council certifies and lists events that meet certain criteria established by the Council, but the Boston Marathon has yet to achieve this standard, though they have been working with Athletes for a Fit Planet to establish best practices.
“We produce year-over-year sustainability reports which summarize our program post-race. These reports include weight data from the haulers and calculate our diversion rates. It’s important that we’re seeing year-over-year improvements,” says Pollard. “We also will use these reports to target new areas to target the following year.”