The rising tide of public opinion against plastic pollution of the planet is impacting Cape Town’s most important road races, with both the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon and the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon taking significant steps to ensure the protection of the Mother City’s valuable natural environment.
Fresh water and marine ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to non-biodegradable plastic, with the impact on living organisms growing at alarming rates.
The oceans currently carry an estimated 120 billion tonnes of plastic and experts have warned that sea-food lovers ingest around 11000 pieces of micro-plastic each year.
The use of water-filled plastic sachets at refreshment stations along the routes of the road races in South Africa has become standard practice but is contributing significantly to the problem.
Unlike trail running, which emphasises self-sufficiency of the athlete, road running competition allows athletes to run unencumbered, with hydration and nutrition support provided at regular intervals along the route.
And while a few road races in Cape Town have followed the lead of trail racing regarding hydration, the majority do what they can to aid fast times, including providing sachets along the routes.
Leading distance runner and environmental activist, Karoline Hanks, was dismayed at the amount of plastic litter following the Two Oceans Marathon in 2013 and wrote to the organisers, challenging them to hold a plastic-free marathon within five years.
“Although the five years has seemed like an eternity, I have been encouraged that serious conversations are now taking place with key stakeholders to find solutions,” said Hanks.
“The published images of Carol Vosloo (Two Oceans General Manager) swimming in the Two Oceans Aquarium with Bob the Turtle (a victim of plastic ingestion) were very powerful and an indication that Two Oceans Marathon is making a serious stand on plastic pollution.”
The Two Oceans Marathon has committed to researching alternative hydration methods, aimed at hosting a plastic-free event in the future and has taken a strong stand against runners who disregard the rules on littering, warning that runners will face heavy penalties including disqualification, when caught littering on the route this year.
As part of the event’s “Go Green” campaign, developed in conjunction with the Wildlands Trust, the organisers implemented a “yellow and red card” system last year to sanction runners caught discarding the plastic sachets outside the demarcated “throw zones” at the refreshment stations, where large cardboard containers were provided to collect the used sachets from runners.
The sachets were then collected, sorted and up-cycled into 500 “green desks”, which were donated to schools in desperate need of furniture, including Ikhaya Le Themba at Imizamo Yetho, overlooking the Two Oceans route up Constantia Nek.
Cape Town Marathon recently won the 2017 AIMS (Association of International Marathons and Distance Races) Green Award for excellence in environmental practice.
“As organisers we’re acutely aware of our duty to ensure that we protect the fragile environment in which our event takes place,” Cape Town Marathon race ambassador, Elana Meyer emphasised.
“With over 20000 runners and their supporters descending on an ecologically sensitive environment between the ocean and Table Mountain National Park, we have a great responsibility to take care of the environment.”
Conscious of the need to reduce plastic pollution, Cape Town Marathon adopted a ““zero waste to landfill” policy, aimed at recycling all waste. As a result, during the 2017 event, waste was reduced by over 25% per runner thanks to an on-site waste-sorting facility.
Almost three tons of recyclable waste (including paper, glass and plastic) were collected.“We’re particularly proud of this, as a big source of waste is the plastic sachets that have become a challenge for race organisers across South Africa,” race director Janet Welham said.
“The Cape Town Marathon is a carbon-neutral event, having offset its carbon footprint in 2017 by supporting three South African charities and purchasing carbon credits from the JSE supporting South African-accredited climate-neutral projects.”
The search is on to develop ideal bio-degradable alternatives to the plastic sachets. The Big Sur Marathon in California last year used cups made of biodegradable corn starch, while a London-based company has recently developed “Ooho” - a biodegradable water bottle made of sea-weed which has been used at certain UK road races.
Both of Cape Town’s major marathons are working with local entities to develop suitable bio-degradable water-holding alternatives, but not without difficulty. “We tried out a product on Chapman’s Peak Drive a few years ago,” explained Vosloo, “but they failed to retain water sufficiently and runners suffered dehydration.”
Cape Town Marathon are working with CSIR on an alternative product for the 2018 race in September. “It’s not yet finalised, but we are optimistic of finding a solution in line with our commitment to the environment,” said Ruth Robertson of the management team.