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How the Philadelphia Marathon Pulled off a Zero-Waste Event with 90K People
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How the Philadelphia Marathon Pulled off a Zero-Waste Event with 90K People

Events create a lot of waste. Take large-scale events, like races – complete with disposable cups and bottles, post-celebration snacks, discarded warm-up clothing, and thousands of people – and you have the potential for significant waste.

A zero-waste goal (which means diverting 90% of waste from the landfill) for such an event may seem next to impossible.  However, the team at the Philadelphia Marathon works hard to make this three-day event – with 30,000 participants, 60,000 spectators, and 3,000 volunteers – a zero-waste, sustainable weekend.

Over the past couple of years, the Marathon team has been making progress to achieve this ambitious goal. In 2017, the Philadelphia Marathon became an official City of Philadelphia Silver Status partner, which requires a minimal 70% waste diversion rate and 7 out of 10 City Zero Waste Actions. In 2018, the Marathon achieved an 89.3% waste diversion rate, meaning that less than 11% of waste generated went to a landfill, nearly achieving zero-waste status. (Read more about the city’s zero-waste events program here.)

How can they pull off such a feat? It truly takes a village. In order to go zero waste, the Marathon has had to consider all event aspects, schedules, staff plans and more, and bring in a number of sustainability partners and champions.

The Philadelphia Marathon’s Sustainability Initiatives

Philadelphia marathon waste bins
Trash, recycling & compost bins at the Philadelphia Marathon

To start, the Marathon organizers enlisted Waste Watchers, a green dream team of volunteers who trained to help participants sort their waste in the proper recycling, compost, or waste bins.

Ever see those sweatshirts, pants, and layers that runners shed on the ground at the starting line? Waste Watchers also collected left-behind clothing for donations to local charitable organizations. After the 2018 race, volunteers collected more than 4 tons of apparel.

Philadelphia marathon clothing recycling
Volunteers at the Philadelphia marathon picking up clothing discarded from runners

The team also evaluated and reconsidered all materials used during the event. Styrofoam was eliminated from the race and replaced with recyclable cardboard and plastics. 

Those water stops? The City switched from plastic to natural wax-lined cups so that the 300,000 cups along the course can be composted.

Even the porta-potties were stocked with recycled toilet paper.

Behind the scenes, the Marathon team focused on several other green initiatives, including a reduction of paper use. Communication was streamlined with electronic versions, and when paper had to be used, the marathon chose 100% recycled paper and minimal handouts when needed. In communications, participants were encouraged to do their part: take SEPTA and public transit to get to the starting line, visit local businesses, and ask hotels not to change towels and sheets each day.

Finding New Purposes from a Tricky Material 

HeatSheet Recycling at the Philadelphia Marathon by Comcast

However, there is one challenging material that usually ends up in landfills: HeatSheets. Initially developed by NASA for the US space program, HeatSheets reflect up to 90% of a person’s body heat and can be reversed to deflect external heat sources. Just like campers and hikers pack them as survival equipment, runners use HeatSheets to avoid hypothermia after a combination of sweat and low outdoor temperatures.

Made out of #4 LDPE (low-density polyethylene) plastic with a thin layer of aluminum, these sheets are easy to store and hand out at the end of a race. However, they’re also difficult to recycle since HeatSheets can’t currently go in conventional curbside residential single-stream recycling bins.

During planning calls for the 2019 Marathon, local partners Comcast (the Marathon’s 2019 Sustainability Sponsor), along with the City of Philadelphia, the Comcast Business team (the first Corporate Challenge sponsor), and the Marathon team, came together to help find a solution to the HeatSheet waste problem. The Comcast Sustainability team and the City brought in additional partners to ensure the HeatSheets could be recycled.

Comcast Sustainability tent
HeatSheet Drop-off bins located in Comcast Sustainability’s tent at the Philadelphia Marathon

The HeatSheets were collected following the race and in the coming weeks they’ll be sent to Evercrest’s New Castle Delaware facility. In their “next life,” the recycled HeatSheets will be repurposed into Continuus EVERBOARD™ external wall and roofing boards, used in residential and commercial buildings. 

“We’re proud to be able to support the Marathon team’s important zero waste goal, right here where we live and where we’re headquartered.”

Susan Jin Davis, Chief Sustainability Officer of Comcast

Comcast has been proud to support sustainability, both internally through its long-term aspirational goal of becoming a zero-waste company, and externally through events like the Philadelphia Marathon.

“We’re proud to be able to support the Marathon team’s important zero waste goal, right here where we live and where we’re headquartered,” said Susan Jin Davis, Chief Sustainability Officer of Comcast, who also participated in the Marathon. 

From Environmental Sustainability to Employee Wellness

Comcast is not only focused on sustainability from an environmental perspective, but also on employee wellness. 

Earlier this year, the City of Philadelphia announced that Comcast Business supported the Corporate Challenge, a platform for companies to encourage wellness and community. According to Anita Dorf, Vice President of Enterprise Marketing for Comcast Business, the Marathon highlights the company’s commitment to overall wellness. 

“In the business world, we’re naturally competitive and laser-focused on winning. Our goal with the Philadelphia Marathon’s Comcast Business Corporate Challenge was to harness this spirit of competition to encourage wellness and community throughout the Philadelphia region, while also raising awareness for the amazing work of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR),” said Dorf. 

With 1,400+ Corporate Challenge participants, Comcast can mark this year a success. As Dorf said, “We’re incredibly proud of the success of this year’s Challenge and appreciate all who participated.”

With all these efforts and invested partners, the Philadelphia Marathon has made huge green strides over the past few years. Anxious for the final numbers? Stay tuned for official 2019 diversion numbers from the City. In the meantime, find out how your organization can host a zero-waste event in Philadelphia.

After all, it’s all about progress to incorporate more sustainable actions. It doesn’t have to be perfect: sustainability is a marathon, not a sprint.

This event was sponsored by Comcast.

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Julie Hancher
Julie Hancher is Editor-in-Chief of Green Philly, sharing her expertise of all things sustainable in the city of brotherly love. She enjoys long walks in the park with local beer and greening her travels, cooking & cat, Sir Floofus Drake. View all posts by Julie Hancher

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