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Ready, Set, Go Green

Hartford Marathon Has Joined The Race To Save The Earth From Trash

By STEVE GRANT | Courant Staff Writer

September 06, 2008

In the cosmos of environmental worries, a sporting event like a marathon may not spring to mind.

But a marathon attracting thousands of runners, like the ING Hartford Marathon on Oct. 11, can generate enormous amounts of waste. Thousands of discarded, empty plastic water bottles is routine at a big race, and but one example of a waste stream that can become a raging river.

Now, at a time when green is the new goal the new gold that is changing, and the Hartford marathon is setting a torrid pace.

"When you talk about their level of commitment and the way they have infused green into their race production model, it overshadows anything other U.S. marathons are currently doing by a wide margin," said Jeff Henderson, executive director of the Council for Responsible Sport in Portland, Ore., a year-old organization that certifies sustainable sporting events.

Marathon organizers have been working several years to make the event green. A major change came last year when engineers at United Technologies Corp. donated their expertise to design and build a massive, portable bubbler system with water tank at which 40 runners at a time can get a drink. It is placed near the race finish line in Bushnell Park. The marathon foundation paid $2,000 for the materials and the tank is provided by the water supplier.

"In the past there have been 10,000 of these stupid, individual water bottles at the finish line," said race director Beth Shluger. "People would come to the finish line, guzzle water from a bottle, and two seconds later it would be in the trash. And the boxes they came in. Last year absolutely nothing."

Word of the bubbler system spread quickly through the race world. "We've had requests from sporting events as far as Africa asking if they could have the plans of how to build it. I'll bet we've had 50 requests," Shluger said.

The ING Hartford Marathon this year is expected to draw about 10,000 participants 8,000 adults and 2,000 children who will compete in the 26.2-mile marathon or a half-marathon, a 5K race, a relay or a children's race. All participants and all volunteers, of which there are 1,500, are served a meal after the race. Food for the race is chosen with an emphasis on environmental sensitivity, eschewing foods grown with synthetic fertilizers or pesticides and seeking local produces that don't require long-distance transportation.

"Ninety-five percent of what we serve is organic, locally grown or locally sourced," Shluger said. This year's meal will include macaroni and cheese with organic whole-grain macaroni and Vermont-made cheese. That comes at a higher cost: the organic pasta is about $1.50 a pound instead of perhaps 89 cents a pound for a conventional pasta product.

The marathon has a budget upward of $800,000, with revenue from sponsors and entry fees. The real cost of the marathon, if donated goods and volunteer time were calculated, is well over $1 million, Shluger said.

Because some changes would be too expensive, the greening of the marathon process is a continuing one. Several years ago, the organization stopped purchasing any Styrofoam product or any other product that was not recyclable, where possible. Shluger said organizers this year looked into replacing the traditional give-away race T-shirts with shirts made of either bamboo or organic cotton, but the price would have been 500 percent higher. That was too much for this year's budget, so a decision was made to limit the change to souvenir products sold at the race.

"We have to make some realistic decisions of what we can afford to do," Shluger said.

Another change this year is the race goody-bag given to each participant and filled with coupons and small gifts. Plastic bags, donated in previous years, are being replaced with reusable, recyclable drawstring bags that won't go into the trash the same day.

Instead of no cost for the bag, the price was $13,000. "It is a big expense, but something we thought was worth it," Shluger said. "It was a decision; 10,000 bags to a landfill, or nothing."

Participants, volunteers or spectators who ride a bike to the race instead of driving a car can park their bikes in a VIP area in Bushnell Park, where massage therapists, special refreshments and a reserved bank of portable toilets will be available at no charge. Volunteers will watch over the bicycles throughout the day.

Participants also receive a medal for finishing the race. In the past, the medals came individually packaged, but the vendor was asked to ship them unpackaged this year.

"If you don't stop to think about it until race day, you open them up and there are 10,000 little plastic bags with a little elastic around each one. And now we won't have any of that," Shluger said. The medal this year also is made with recycled metal.

ING, the marathon's title sponsor, which also sponsors five other long-distance running events in the U.S., is planting 26 trees along the marathon route as part of its own green campaign, at a cost of $10,000, according to Joseph Loparco, the company's director of external communications.

Among other race changes, including an athletic shoe recycling campaign, an informational flier for participants, which might have been a paper handout, has been printed on the backside of the race bibs that all runners must wear, saving 10,000 sheets of paper.

"They keep doing more," Henderson said. "They keeping coming up with new things." His organization will be on hand at the marathon next month to monitor the race for sustainability certification. A sporting event can earn a baseline certification, or silver or gold certification, or the highest level an "evergreen" event.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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