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The London Marathon – winning a sustainable race?

July 06 2023

The stature of the London Marathon ensures runners flock to the UK capital every year from across the globe for one of the most famous mass-participation events of all.

The London Marathon – winning a sustainable race?

The size of the event brings many challenges when it comes to sustainability – from generators and water bottles for runners through to how the participants travel to the marathon. 

For the 2023 edition of the TCS London Marathon, organiser London Marathon Events (LME) made giant strides towards the goal of net-zero carbon emissions across its own operations by the end of 2024. 

“The TCS London Marathon is an iconic event which has an impact on tens of thousands of people and also gets worldwide media attention and exposure,” Kate Chapman, Sustainability Advisor for London Marathon Events, tells Global Sustainable Sport. 

“As well as the direct environmental impacts that can result from almost 50,000 people running a 26.2-mile route through London, which we aim to reduce as much as we can, there is also the incredible opportunity to advocate for greater environmental sustainability.”

This year, initiatives included baggage lorries and generators powered by HVO (hydrotreated vegetable oil), a biofuel with low carbon and particulate emissions; compostable cups with Lucozade Sport; the ribbon of the finisher medal made from recycled materials; and free travel to the starting line for all participants travelling on the DLR, London Underground and selected Southeastern trains.

Further steps included the use of six electric lead vehicles, with 53% of hired vehicles also being electric; recyclable finisher bags made from sugar cane; mile markers made from event waste and recycled ocean plastics and New Balance finisher t-shirts made from 100% recycled polyester.

Image: Ian Walton for London Marathon Events

Image: Ian Walton for London Marathon Events

Waste management

For any mass-participation event that takes place over a considerable distance, waste is a headache. The sight of runners gulping down water then throwing away cups onto the roadside without breaking stride has become commonplace at major marathons over the years.

To tackle the issue, the London Marathon implemented a #DrinkDrainDrop campaign, which encouraged runners to drop empty bottles made from recycled materials into dedicated zones, so that they could be collected and recycled in a closed loop.

There were also dedicated waste stations, where participants could hand in waste to be sorted by workers, with finisher bags and wrappers also handed in at these points. Runners were further encouraged to wear a bottle belt or hydration vest to reduce the number of bottles, with runners carrying their own water reducing bottle use by more than 40% over the 26.2-mile course.

Reusable banner roll was used across the route and London Marathon announced a partnership with the Trees not Tees organisation, which offered participants the option of planting a tree instead of receiving a finisher t-shirt.

As outlined by Chapman, all stakeholders have a role to play in pushing the sustainability agenda.

“The marathon can showcase what can be done by event organisers, sponsors, suppliers, and participants to take action to improve environmental performance,” she says.

Bib numbers were also printed on demand to reduce waste and the event’s sustainability initiatives were promoted at the TCS London Marathon Running Show. Flapjacks included in the finisher bags were made in the UK from a local producer with leftover food and drink donated to The Felix Project, a London-based food waste and redistribution charity. The organisation collects surplus food and delivers it to nearly 1,000 frontline charities, primary schools and holiday programmes.

With tens of thousands of runners, participant travel is also a factor of LME’s sustainability work. There is a carbon levy in place for international ballot participants to help compensate greenhouse gas emissions associated with participant travel.

Image: Jon Buckle for London Marathon Events

Image: Jon Buckle for London Marathon Events

Sustainability journey

As Chapman explains, though, the event’s sustainability journey is a marathon, not a sprint.

“Our focus on environmental sustainability began in earnest in 2018 with a full assessment of our environmental impacts and the creation of an environmental strategy. Environmental sustainability is now firmly embedded in our corporate strategy,” Chapman says.

The environmental strategy is based on five pillars: identifying, understanding, measuring, monitoring and continuously reviewing LME’s environment impact, with a focus on waste production and greenhouse gas emissions; eliminating, reducing, reusing and recycling all waste; developing and implementing a responsible procurement framework; reducing energy consumption and improving efficiency and publishing an annual environmental performance report.

This year, LME partnered with the Council for Responsible Sport to measure the social and environmental impact for the 2023 TCS London Marathon. LME utilised the ReScore app, a cloud-based application developed for the Council for Responsible Sport by Tat Consultancy Services (TCS). The app enabled event organisers to measure, track, report and verify progress across a range of social and environmental indicators.

By using the ReScore app, LME was able to begin the process of quantifying and demonstrating the social impact of the organisation’s work on inspiring activity.

“Social impact has always been at the heart of LME’s wider purpose – improving health, helping to deliver grassroots sports facilities, supporting charities to raise tens of millions of pounds and inspiring thousands of people from all walks of life to get active,” adds Chapman.

Image: Andrew Baker for London Marathon Events

Image: Andrew Baker for London Marathon Events

Hurdles

With all the work undertaken by LME to make the London Marathon more environmentally friendly, there are a number of challenges when it comes implementing different initiatives.

Chapman explains that when making decisions around sustainability efforts, it is important to get the balance right between participant health and wellbeing while being mindful of the environmental impact. For example, one such challenge is to deliver hydration to runners whilst being keen to minimise waste.

“Sometimes doing the right thing from a social impact perspective can have a negative environmental impact,” says Chapman.

Other challenges include managing the short timeframes of events, with roads needing to re-open quickly. This means that clean-up times can be tight.

It can therefore be difficult to test out something new whilst managing the temporary nature of mass-participation events.

“If you experiment with something, you only get that one chance per year to see if it works,” explains Chapman.

There is also some difficulty around finding circular solutions, with Chapman adding that many event products are single-use, with onward use and reprocessing options limited for items like running bibs with timing chips.

Image: Joe Toth for London Marathon Events

Image: Joe Toth for London Marathon Events

Do your bit

Organisers are also well aware that the participants can have a positive impact through their preparations, as well as at the event itself, such as selecting the right food to eat, like seasonal fruit and vegetables, and local produce. Carefully planning meals can reduce waste, and incorporating plant-based options into regular meals can also be beneficial for the environment.

Meanwhile, training outdoors can reduce the use of electricity on machines at the gym, the organisers add.

LME also suggests donating items that still have some life left in them to charity shops or organisations such as ReRun, a UK-based organisation that aims to extend the life of running kit. When purchasing new kit, runners should try to look out for items made of recycled materials.

LME also encourages participants to train locally. If entering an event in preparation for the London Marathon, why not enter a local race that does not require the use of a car or can be accessed by public transport? This can help to limit the emissions produced by participant travel.

For an event seeking to push boundaries, further tips, advice and innovations are inevitable in the coming years.

The 2024 TCS London Marathon will take place on Sunday, April 21.

London Marathon Events is the organiser of the London Marathon, as well as other mass-participation events. Its sustainability strategy can be accessed here.

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