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Why 4 Miles 4 water is going green

4 miles 4 water
Participants in last year’s inaugural 4 Miles 4 Water event.

Every year in Northeast Ohio, nonprofits and other organizations host dozens of 5ks, 10ks, marathons, fun runs, and other related events. These occasions tend to do a lot of good for our community: they raise awareness and thousands of dollars for worthwhile causes, promote health and well-being, encourage healthy competition, and bring people together. But have you ever considered their environmental footprint?

This year alone, Hermes Road Racing – the region’s leading organizer of such events – will host no fewer than 129 running events. This does not include any number of other events which Hermes does not organize, including the Akron and Cleveland marathons.

Environmental impact of racing events

Think about the potential impact of that number of events. Let’s assume that each event attracts 75 participants, meaning that at least 9,675 people from around the region will come out to take part. If each participant receives a bottle of water, a t-shirt, and a participant bag (pretty standard fare for these types of events), the impact becomes quite significant. Those bottles of water, if stacked upright, would reach a height of 6,450 feet. In other words, that stack of water bottles would stretch nearly 1.25 miles, or more than twice the height of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

The water footprint of the events is even more significant. Each one of those bottles requires up to six times as much water as they hold, meaning that it would require at least 5,000 gallons of water to keep our runners hydrated. And, since every t-shirt requires more than 700 gallons to produce, the t-shirts for each of our race participants will consume another 6.77 million gallons of water.

And this tally does not even begin to account for the additional trash generated, the amount of food wasted, the footprint of the electricity used for the event, or the amount of gasoline required to get participants to and from the race. Ultimately, even something as insignificant as a 5k race for your favorite charity can carry a considerable environmental toll.

Implementing sustainability at the 2014 Gay Games

So what can we do about this reality? Are there steps that we can take to make sporting events more sustainable?

This is a question that I have personally wrestled with. As the Project and Volunteer Manager for the 2014 Gay Games, an event that brought 20,000 participants, volunteers, and spectators to Northeast Ohio last August, I worked to minimize our environmental footprint while maximizing our social and economic impacts.

In this vein, we produced the first sustainability plan in the 32-year history of the Gay Games. This plan, which built upon lessons learned from other sports events, including the 2012 London Olympics, included actions to reduce our use of bottled water, cut our waste stream, provide alternative transportation options, utilize local foods, and green our internal operations.

While we faced a number of challenges – limited human and financial resources, hosting 35 events at venues stretched across three counties – I consider our plan to have been a major success. You can read more in our our sustainability report. Among other things, we managed to avoid the use of more than 2,446 bottles of water, diverted roughly one-third of our waste at our two main venues, provided free public transportation for all of our participants, sourced one-third of our total food from local vendors, and donated more than 1,200 pounds of leftover food to the 2100 Lakeside Men’s Homeless Shelter and the Greater Cleveland Food Bank. Our efforts even garnered international coverage.

Sustainability lessons learned

My work to make the 2014 Gay Games sustainable taught me a number of valuable lessons.

First, implementing a sustainability plan is not something that takes care of itself. It requires a concerted effort at all levels of the organization. In order to make it a reality, you need to make a firm commitment as early as possible.

Second, it is important to learn as much as you can from those people who have gone before you. From the point when we committed to sustainability, we began to research extensively how previous organizers of large-scale events, particularly sporting events, had approached the topic. We read sustainability plans, reports, and lessons learned from several events and organizations and reached out to local actors working in this space to garner their input.

Third, it is vital to set progressive sustainability goals, but also to remain realistic as to what you can achieve.  It would be easy to set a goal of 100% waste diversion, but unless you have substantial human, financial, and logistical resources at your disposal, it will be extremely difficult to achieve this. Event organizers will need to go through an iterative process of discussion and revision in order to develop a plan that corresponds to their goals, values, and resources.

Sustainability at 4 Miles 4 Water

Fortunately, Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc. has drawn from these lessons and is in the process of developing an impressive sustainability plan for its second annual 4 Miles 4 Water event.

This four mile run/walk, which will take place Saturday, May 9 at Edgewater Park, will provide an opportunity for participants to gain awareness and raise funds to address water issues at home and around the globe, all while enjoying friendly competition, music, food, and drinks.

But, more than that, the organizers of 4 Miles 4 Water have also embraced sustainability. They are working closely with the City of Cleveland Office of Sustainability to make this a zero waste event. Ultimately, the goal is to produce less than one bag of trash total. Participants will also receive a stainless steel water bottle, rather than a race t-shirt, in order to cut the event’s water footprint. And instead of providing each runner with a race bag – much of which would go to waste – everyone will be able to utilize a virtual “swag” bag that will further cut down on the waste stream.

Sustainability is more than just a nice idea or a way to market your event or organization. It is increasingly becoming an imperative. As we demonstrated at the 2014 Gay Games and as DLDT is showing through 4 Miles 4 Water, it is certainly possible to host a sporting event that is engaging and entertaining while cutting down on its environmental impact. As we celebrate Earth Day, hopefully more organizers will learn from our work and follow suit.