On a cool and cloudy January day in the Chinese coastal city of Xiamen, tens of thousands of men and women pounded the streets in the first IAAF Gold Label road race of 2019. But this was a competition with a difference — heavy on sustainability, light on single-use plastics and the first international marathon to join UN Environment’s Clean Seas campaign.
The organisers pledged to reduce plastic waste by 60 per cent through a series of measures that included replacing nearly one million single-use plastic cups with biodegradable ones made from maize straw. Single-use plastic bottles were also banned, eliminating some 200,000 bottles usually discarded along the route.
Nearly 37,000 athletes from 38 countries took part in China’s largest marathon, with Ethiopia’s Dejene Debela winning the men’s contest and compatriot Medina Deme Armino taking gold in the women’s race. But the day’s biggest winner was arguably the ocean with the Xiamen Marathon setting its own personal best for a sustainable sporting event.
Two hundred runners wore T-shirts decked in the Clean Seas blue-and-white logo, spreading the message that the world needs to do more to turn the toxic tide of marine plastic pollution.
As elite runners sped along the course, family groups followed behind, picking up discarded cups and other litter and mimicking a growing global trend known as plogging, which sees joggers bag rubbish as they clock up the miles. Women pushed buggies as their children walked alongside, collecting litter and a valuable life lesson at the same time.
These hardy volunteers might not have registered the speediest times but they certainly set a new gold standard for sustainability.
Chinese actor and producer Li Chen, who is a goodwill ambassador for UN Environment, joined the plogging families and said the Clean Seas campaign was delivering a clear and relevant message.
“Everyone can do something to help such as reducing their personal plastic footprint, educating friends and breaking up with plastics, as well as transferring to a more sustainable lifestyle,” he said.
The marathon was also paper-free, with all announcements going digital and saving approximately 10,000 kg of paper. Instead of asking runners to print out their participation letter, the organisers used new technology to register competitors. They also recycled the placards used to record running times and produced promotional material from biodegradable products.
Since its launch in 2017, the Clean Seas campaign has mobilised governments, businesses and individuals to do more to beat the plastic pollution that is poisoning our seas and endangering marine life.
In October, Australia became the 56th country to sign up, pledging to recycle or compost 70 per cent of its plastic packaging by 2025, with problematic and unnecessary single-use packaging to be phased out through design, innovation or the introduction of alternatives.
To date, humans have produced around 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic and some 8 million tonnes — including plastic cups, bags, straws, and bottles — are dumped into our seas every year. Major sporting events can generate up to 750,000 plastic bottles apiece — a clear indication of the critical role organisers have in changing the prevailing throwaway culture.
Events managers worldwide are becoming increasingly aware of the need to respond to growing public concern. However, change can come at a price: one of the sponsors for the Xiamen Marathon — a water company — withdrew some of its funding on the basis that its products would have no visibility in this year’s race.
Although the task facing the world of sport is challenging, victories are starting to mount up. In London, the first plastic-free running event was held in September after the organisers of the Harrow Half-Marathon banned single-use plastic bottles and cups. Runners were instead offered Ooho, water in biodegradable sachets made using seaweed.
Around 90,000 compostable cups were used at last year’s London Marathon in a trial aimed at reducing the number of plastic bottles dumped along the route.
Also last year, the Volvo Ocean Race set a new standard by holding its most sustainable race ever and drastically reducing its use of plastics. Working in partnership with UN Environment, the organisers tackled plastic use in race villages in 12 cities across six continents and organised groundbreaking research in some of the world’s remotest waters. The organisers also published a comprehensive guide to running a sustainable sporting event, covering everything from single-use plastic bottles to ensuring that corporate sponsors do not use plastic.
Qi Bing, from the Xiamen Marathon Committee, said the race’s collaboration with the Clean Seas campaign was of great significance.
“We are honoured that all of our work on the environmental dimension has been aligned with and recognised by the international organisation. It also shows that Chinese marathons have moved forward by taking a first step towards becoming sustainable and green sports.”