Running Green: Thinking Beyond Trash

Last June, I shared my plans to collect all my running trash for the remainder of the year in a glass jar in an attempt to be zero waste… or as low waste as possible. 

Six months, lots of races, even more training miles – how did it go?

I started off with an empty jar. This is what it looked like after six months.

This is what ended up in there:

The jar’s contents can be divided into four categories:

  • Food and drink packaging: 10 SWORD endurance drink wrappers, a cup from a long run, and a napkin from a post-run donut*
  • Clothes and gear packaging: tags, stickers, little plastic pieces
  • Miscellaneous race stuff: backing and plastic film from a patriotic temporary tattoo that I wore in my 4th of July race, random sample from an expo
  • Race bibs**

*I made the choice to include this since it was physically at the run, as opposed to a pit stop I made afterwards.
**My Philly bib isn’t included since I am saving it as a memento.

What trash isn’t shown here:

  • A plastic cup from a post-10K beer
  • Various snack wrappers from the Indy Women’s 5K
  • Various cups from alcoholic beverages after the Indy Women’s 5K
  • Nail wraps that I wore for the marathon; both the packaging and eventually the wraps themselves were trash
  • Cups from the Philly marathon

What’s not in the jar?

  • Gel packets – I recycle those through the TerraCycle Performance Nutrition Recycling Program
  • All the pre-race stuff I refused: flyers for upcoming races, car wash coupons, tiny samples of this and that. I have never been that big into expos, but really became a pro at breezing through during this time period.
  • Two pairs of shoes. The first pair is pretty shot, so I’m hanging onto them for shoe recycling the next time I’m near a Nike or The North Face store. The second pair were in better overall condition, so when I saw someone on our local Buy Nothing group looking for a pair of 8.5 athletic shoes, I paid them forward.

As time went on, I became less diligent about saving every little piece to put in the jar, and I made some decisions that I knew would create waste. That said, I learned a lot about what is avoidable and what isn’t. For example, since I was training for a marathon, the electrolyte drink was not ever in question. Yet, I didn’t have to race as much as I did.

This project was a good exercise in rethinking my habits and in seeking out new resources. I switched to nearly always running with my own hydration, instead of relying on paper cups during supported group runs and races. For two of the races, I was able to select a “no shirt” option when registering. I donated the heavy, stiff cotton t-shirt from the 4-miler, and the technical tank from the Indy Women’s 5K is one of my new favorites.

Could I have done a better job with this? Sure. There is always room for improvement. I could have not raced at all, only run from my home, made my own electrolyte drink, carried a mason jar instead of buying a belt, or fashioned my own tights out of yard waste. But that is not realistic for me, nor for most people. I can recognize the importance of these small steps, while still creating some waste. It’s about progress, not perfection. 

One area where I could definitely improve is gear: buying less of it and making more sustainable choices. During the trash jar timeline, I bought shorts (Ebay), a Flip Belt (local running store), compression socks (new, online), tights and ear warmers (new, online) and a “Runner” sweatshirt (Poshmark). If I had to grade myself in this area, I’d give myself a C+. One thing I would really like to do going forward is implement a rule to wait 30 days before making a purchase.

It’s okay to fail, but don’t let failing make you give up. I think of this like a New Year’s resolution mindset. I had a big goal, and I didn’t let a little waste here and there make me scrap the whole thing. Less waste is still better than where I started! I sometimes forgot my Flip Bet, for example, and I actively decided not to wear it in the marathon, but that doesn’t mean I have ditched it entirely.

Ask if you can opt out. I mentioned this in my halfway post, too, but always ask. A lot of things happen by policy or automation, and people may not think to change it up unless you ask. “Is it possible to just get that in my reusable bag?” or “Can I skip the shirt?” 

I did find that it’s easier to speak up in more of a day-to-day scenario, such as shopping at your local running store, versus at an event when everything is a well-oiled machine. This is partially due to my state of mind and ability to plan ahead by rehearsing those conversations on a regular day versus a race day. But it’s also the difference in dealing with people who may have encountered this before versus volunteers who are just trying to do one thing and want to give you the medal, gosh darn it.

It’s not really about the jar. You’re probably thinking, “What? Then why did she write about it for six months?” Well, the jar is a little misleading, and not just because of the things I listed above that I didn’t put in it. 

Post-race detritus from the Philadelphia Marathon

Though the jar did give me a great visual reminder of my goal and keep me in check, what really hit home during this project – particularly the more I learned – was how wasteful running can be. Car trips to training runs and races. Flights to my marathon. Hotel rooms. The wastefulness that is an expo or race. How technical clothing is manufactured. What happens when you wash synthetic clothing.

I know – that’s a lot and it’s pretty heavy. Yet as depressing as it sounds, I think that is positive news. If I could make a change for six months by really focusing on trash (and really learn a lot along the way), I can educate myself and make progress in these bigger areas, too, like choosing more sustainable races, making lower impact purchases, and just challenging myself and being willing to change.

This isn’t the end of my quest to reduce the environmental impact of my running. I think, if anything, this experiment caused me to push myself more towards reducing my footprint.

How do you run green?

Other posts in this series:


Southern transplant who loves 90s boy bands, outdoor adventures and college basketball, although not necessarily in that order. Recovering running perfectionist.

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  1. That is quite brilliant. It is alright for us to fail, but our failure should be a source of motivation to do more not to remain on the floor. Get the gig up.

  2. I admire you so much for your ability to REMEMBER to ask. To not have a straw, to carry your own fluids on group runs, to check into the possibility of having a no short option or go cup less at a race. I’m pretty sure this was a resounding success because you had that tiny jar of trash, but it’s counterbalanced by all those people who won’t use a cup or choose another shirt at Survive the Night this year. One thing that could help: I sometimes carry an empty pill bottle with premeasured Sword so I don’t have to use the packets. You’ve likely thought of that, but just in case. Too bad we don’t still use shoe tags—feel like we could eliminate bibs with that.

    1. Thank you! The pill bottle idea is a good one. Part of the issue I had this training cycle is that the large, multi-serving bags of Ginger Sword were on backorder everywhere. Since I know that those work for my sometimes finnicky stomach, I wasn’t willing to mix it up in the interest of creating less waste.

  3. I’m in the midst of a fairly major de-cluttering of my house so I’ve been thinking a lot more about what comes into the house and how to get it out again. I haven’t worried about small items like Gu packets, but I *have* been surprised about slowing down my purchasing habits. I wouldn’t have categorized myself as someone likely to make impulse buys. Yet when I decided to buy as little as possible in all areas of life for six weeks? I discovered a lot of impulses lurking in the background. I’m still in the early stages of this process and for me, it’s not just about running, but becoming more aware of the flow of STUFF has been very enlightening. Thanks for the great post!