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What happens to the trail of trash left by LA marathon runners?

The L.A. Marathon is coming. Get ready for road closures and parking restrictions.
The L.A. Marathon is coming. Get ready for road closures and parking restrictions.
Photo by victoriabernal via Flickr Creative Commons

This Sunday, more than 25,000 people will subject themselves to the LA Marathon, plodding mile after grueling mile from Dodger Stadium to the Pacific.

Most will run. Many will walk. But all of them will experience something they’d rather not see: trash.

"It really bugs me when I see people just throw their cups down because there’s trash cans right there," says Karen Hopkins of Santa Monica. She'll be running the marathon for the fourth time this weekend.

"Most of us out there, we’re just doing this to finish, we’re not gonna win a prize. We’re not the elite runners, so if it takes you two seconds to throw it in a trash can, you should do that."

To run the L.A. Marathon is to run a gauntlet of thrown-away water bottles, gel packs, clothes and food -- a lot of which is now being picked up, donated, composted or recycled as part of the L.A. Marathon’s goal of being more sustainable. It used to be that most of this stuff was thrown away. But in 2014, the L.A. Marathon started to clean up its act.

Last year the marathon diverted 62 percent of its waste. This year it hopes to divert 75 percent.

"We’re really recycling as much of the material as we can," says Jaime Nack. She’s president of Three Squares, the environmental consulting firm in Santa Monica that designed the sustainability program for the 2018 Skechers Performance LA Marathon.

"Any of the materials that are dropped at the start line -- that could be clothes that runners dispose of before they start the race. All of the clothes are being collected and donated by the Valley Rescue Mission," she says.

It depends on the weather and how many layers runners choose to wear when the race begins, but it’s usually a couple tons worth of jackets and other clothing. With a start time of 6:30 am – in March – it can be chilly, so runners layer up, only to throw those things away once they get warm.

"Any food that can be repurposed will also be collected by Move for Hunger," Nack says. "Even materials you wouldn’t normally think could be recycled, like the heat sheets and the plastic film, we are collecting and recycling those."

Those heats sheets are disposable mylar blankets runners use to regulate their body temperature. Instead of throwing them in the trash, this year, they’ll be recycled by the company Trex, which will use the old blankets for plastic decking.

"On the compost side," Nack says, "our focus is capturing all of the food items, like the banana peels and leftover bagels that the runners discard at the start line and at the finish line."

All of that will be collected and sent to a local compost facility, she says.

The L.A. Marathon has a gold certification from something called the Council for Responsible Sport. It’s sort of like the LEED certification for architecture, except it’s for sporting events. The L.A. Marathon is the only L.A. event that participates in the program, earning points for attaining certain levels of sustainability.

"Events that start to look at this, they really have to make a commitment," says Shelley Villalobos, managing director of the Council for Responsible Sport. "How our program is structured is it’s a menu of best practices."

Like waste diversion. But also, using zero-emissions sources of energy. And saving water. In its four years with the program, the LA Marathon has already improved its rating from silver to gold. But there’s more to do to reach the council’s pinnacle of sustainability: evergreen.

For that, marathoner Karen Hopkins has a suggestion.

"I think they could go cupless," says Hopkins, who trains with the local running group, the Leggers, and who runs with a refillable water bottle strapped into to a holster that she refills at water stations so she doesn’t have to use disposable cups. "A lot of racers have and they survive."

The LA Marathon itself? Surviving that is another story.