The TCS New York City Marathon is, arguably, the highest profile race of its kind on the planet. Managed by New York Road Runners (NYRR), it boasts the biggest field in the world with over 52,000 runners. Managing the event sustainably is a high priority for NYRR. GreenSportsBlog spoke with Caitlin Cunningham, the organization’s Senior Manager, Event Development and Logistics, to dig into the specifics of the greening effort surrounding the marathon.
If you live in Manhattan like I do, those two words connote the annual, joyous mid-autumn celebration of The Big Apple that is the TCS New York City Marathon.
To Caitlin Cunningham, Senior Manager, Event Development & Logistics for New York Road Runners (NYRR), Marathon Sunday has an entirely different meaning.
She is responsible for managing sustainability for the Marathon. Not surprisingly, that is no easy task. After all, over 52,000 runners race past an estimated one million spectators across all five boroughs on the first Sunday in November, generating many tons of waste, along with carbon emissions associated with getting to and from the event.
Caitlin Cunningham of the New York Road Runners stands atop the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Bridge, starting point for the TCS New York City Marathon (Photo credit: NYRR)
“We’re aware of our impact on the city in terms of trash and other environmental issues,” acknowledged Cunningham. “So we have to be creative and work hard to minimize our footprint.”
GREENING GOES INTO HIGH GEAR DURING MARATHON WEEK
Runners and spectators begin to see the fruits of the sustainability efforts of NYRR, its partner organizations and several city agencies on the Sunday before the big race.
The Poland Spring Marathon Kickoff five-miler features a partnership between NYRR and City Harvest, the nonprofit that helped launch the food rescue movement in 1982. Since then, it has collected and donated massive amounts of unused food from a myriad of events and other sources to charities throughout New York City. In 2018, 800 lbs. of food from the five-miler found its way to soup kitchens and more.
The night before the race, NYRR hosts a pasta dinner for more than 3,000 runners at the TCS New York City Marathon Pavilion, located in front of Tavern on the Green in Central Park. The organization has a Zero-Waste goal for the dinner, meaning it diverts 90 percent or more of its waste from landfill. With a 2018 diversion rate of 79 percent, the organization is closing on the Zero-Waste finish line.
Then, very early on race day, NYRR and the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) spring into action with a comprehensive mass transit operation. Its objectives are to get more than 50,000 runners to the starting line smoothly and on time, while minimizing environmental impact.
“More than 90 percent of the runners take NYRR-provided transportation options, many of which are added for the marathon, from different points in the city, either directly to the start of the race on the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Bridge or to lower Manhattan’s Staten Island Ferry terminal,” Cunningham said. “About 23 thousand people take the ferry across New York Harbor to the staging area. The nearly ubiquitous use of mass transit is key to getting runners to the starting line on time and also to minimizing our carbon footprint.”
Once in Staten Island, the runners are given bagels and bananas, with City Harvest there to collect the unused food — they also are at the finish line in Central Park, picking up unused “recovery bags”, containing Poland Spring bottled water, Gatorade, Snyder’s Pretzels, and more.
Before taking off across the Verrazano Bridge, many runners shed their outer clothing layers. Prior to 2012, those sweat pants and jackets would be destined for the landfill. But, for the past six years, thanks to a partnership with Goodwill Industries of Greater New York and Northern New Jersey, the apparel has found a second life. In 2018, Goodwill collected 91,000 lbs. of clothing, bringing the six-year haul to just under 863,000 lbs.
That’s a lot of clothing!
Goodwill Industries of Greater New York and Northern New Jersey places collection bins across the TCS New York City Marathon start bridge for runners to donate their heavy clothing before taking off (Photo credit: NYRR)
Once the starting gun goes off, the New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) and private hauler Royal Waste begin a coordinated effort to ensure that, 1) by Monday morning, the city streets show no trace that the marathon even took place, and 2) as much of the vast amounts of waste generated by the runners and spectators is diverted from landfill.
DSNY largely plays the role of street sweeper, gathering leftover spectator trash. They also collect apparel left by runners on the bridges and streets. Unfortunately, those textiles cannot be reused because they were picked up off of the ground, so they go to landfill.
Most of Royal Waste’s efforts focus on recyclables, like bottles, cans, papers and cardboards, with a small amount of composting at this point.
“Royal Waste’s advanced sorting system allows it to do a great job of waste diversion,” noted Cunningham. “They cover the entire course, from the start at the Verrazano Bridge through the boroughs, into Manhattan to the finish line at Tavern on the Green. In 2018, they were able to divert 82 percent of the 222 tons of waste they collected.” That represented a 2.5 percent improvement over 2017.
“New York Road Runners has always made an effort to minimize our footprint on our city and the communities we encounter,” Cunningham said. “Over the past several years we have strived to gain more metrics on our ongoing sustainability efforts so that we can make more precise decisions on the future of our sustainability goals and make our impact even more significant.”
BEYOND THE MARATHON: NYRR HELPS REFURBISH SCHOOLYARDS
Sustainability is a year-round pursuit for NYRR, encompassing much more than the marathon.
“One of our most exciting programs is a partnership with The Trust for Public Land in which we transform asphalt schoolyards into state-of-the-art, green, community playgrounds,” reported Mike Schnall, Vice President of Government Relations and Community Investment at NYRR.
Mike Schnall of NYRR (Photo credit: NYRR)
NYRR has contributed $2 million to help fund the design and construction of playgrounds at seven schools. Students themselves designed the new outdoor spaces, working in concert with landscape architects.
The seven community playgrounds feature green infrastructure design elements, a hallmark of The Trust for Public Land’s playground work. Specialized plantings and porous pavement help reduce storm runoff that can flood streets and overwhelm sewer systems, allowing untreated water to end up in rivers and bays. Each playground absorbs hundreds of thousands of gallons of water annually and includes 20-30 new trees that bring shade and better air quality to their neighborhoods.
Through its partnership with NYRR, The Trust for Public Land unveiled a student-designed playground at CS 154 Harriet Tubman Learning Center, in Harlem (Photo credit: NYRR)
“As New York Road Runners continues to grow, our team will continue its commitment to leaving the communities that welcome us into their neighborhoods better than the way we found them,” Cunningham said. “We have some exciting, new, organization-wide sustainability initiatives and policies in the works and are eager to establish sustainability as a core value of New York Road Runners.”
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