Excess. It’s everywhere. We’re surrounded by it every hour of every day.
And I’m not referring to the obscene excesses of capitalism – those are enormous in their own right, and not something I wish to touch on in this blog post.
The excess I’m talking about is synthetic plastic, the 1907 invention that changed our world forever. It’s everywhere we look – it’s used extensively in every industrial sector, in medical technology, science, art, education, sport, music, commerce, the food industry… let’s face it, plastic is involved in every aspect of our lives.
This post is not out to demonise all plastic – the stuff is useful: it’s strong, non-corrosive, recyclable, pliable, waterproof, has thermal and electrical insulation properties, and a whole host of other characteristics that make it great. What I’m not afraid to slate, however, is the single-use type of plastic that has become so much a part of our daily lives that we don’t even think twice about reaching for it – it’s everywhere, it’s convenient, and it’s cheap.
But actually, it’s not cheap at all. It comes with a massive price tag – one that we don’t see immediately, but that we pay for hundredfold… and then some. It’s not a once-off payment either – it goes on forever.
All physical matter remains, even after being broken down. No amount of crushing, burning, grinding or disintegrating rids our planet of physical matter – it merely changes form. Everything ultimately becomes something else, even if that “else” is gas.
Organic things like vegetation, biodegrade with time – an apple core, for example, takes about 8 weeks to rot into the soil. Other things, like plastic, struggle to biodegrade at all. Plastic shopping bags (low density polyethylene) will probably take around 500 years to break down, and that’s only in the presence of ultraviolet light – if the bag is not exposed to UV light (ie. if it’s in a landfill or on the sea bed), the plastic may stay intact forever.
Discarded plastic bags are a scourge of our time – they’re everywhere. They’re blown by the wind, strewn across vast sections of land, washed down stormwater drains, choking rivers and polluting the seas.
Scientists say that there could be more plastic than fish in our oceans, by weight, by 2050. That’s mind-blowing. Micro-sized plastic bits have been identified as one of the most concerning problems we face on this planet. The microparticles enter the food chain in rivers and seas when fish, birds and other marine life mistake them for food and ingest them. The creatures then usually choke and die.
What can we do?
For our future health as a society, we need to minimise our single-use plastic usage. The most obvious step is to say NO to the plastic bag for your groceries – rather bring your own bag. Say NO to plastic straws in your drinks – either go without, or bring your own bamboo straws for your kids. There’s loads we can do to reduce the amount of single-use plastic in our lives.
And if you run road races, that’s easy: say NO to plastic sachets – carry your own water.
Or better still, consider whether you need water at all during your race.
I interviewed Prof Tim Noakes this week about hydration during exercise. He states categorically that if you’re running fast and in hot conditions, you need about 500ml of fluid an hour. That’s it. People should drink to thirst.
“It’s true that when it’s hot you will drink more, because your mouth gets drier. Similarly, when it’s cold you can run much further without needing to drink. But generally, under most normal conditions of running races (which tend to start in the morning when temperatures are cooler), 500ml per hour is about right,” says Noakes.
As Noakes’s research into numerous deaths during endurance events over the years has shown, the danger to the runner is not about dehydration – it’s about over-hydration, or hyponatraemia.
“If you drink 1.2L per hour during a marathon, and your body retains that fluid, that’s enough to kill you.”
So, the research shows we simply don’t need water tables every 3km on races. And for 10km or 15km races, there’s really no need for any.
“During a 10km race, even on a warm summer’s morning, people shouldn’t need to drink at all. There’s no need for water tables, or to even carry your own fluids – providing you don’t start the race thirsty, there’s no need to drink at all during your run,” says Noakes.
The status quo is a bit crazy: on a 90 min training run, we’re unlikely to drink at all. But put us into a race of that same distance, suddenly we think we need a host of water tables!
Noakes says it’s nonsense. “Research has shown that as long as you’re not thirsty, performance will not be impaired. That’s over any distance. There’s a wide individual variability – some people literally don’t need to drink for two or three hours. But the key is to just drink to thirst.”
The scary facts about sachets
Old Mutual Two Oceans 21 and 56K plastic stats (2013)
– water sachets 952 000 (x100 ml)
– Powerade sachets 180 000 (x100ml)
– Coke cups (wax lining) 112 000 (x175ml)
– plastic bottles (half filled) 136 800 (x250ml)
– waste bin liners 1 000
– plastic refuse bags 15 000
– goody bags (polyester) 26 000
(table by Karoline Hanks, stats from OMTOM)
These were the figures of single-use plastic used the Old Mutual Two Oceans in 2013. The two races together used almost 1.2 million plastic sachets. There’re more than 90 other road running races on the calendar in the Western Cape alone… These scary numbers are just a small indication of the enormity of the problem – multiply them by the number of road running events across South Africa, and it starts becoming frightening.
Yes, race organisers do all they can to ensure the race route is cleaned of runners’ litter. But realistically, there’s always debris left behind. If the wind is howling on race day, or it’s raining, empty sachets travel – they get blown off the road and into bushes, or washed down stormwater drains. Ultimately, they end up in the environment, and inevitably, in our rivers, dams and oceans, where they’ll be ingested into the food system, poisoning birds, animals and, ultimately, us down the line.
As awareness increases around how detrimental to our environment the plastic sachets used at road races are, there is a growing groundswell of pressure by many in the running fraternity to insist that event organisers cease the use of sachets at races. I’m proudly part of that groundswell. There are other ways of ensuring we have water at road races! We can carry our own, either in a pack (just as we do on trail), clutch a soft flask, or wear a waist belt that holds a soft flask or water bottle.
Importantly, this anti-sachet campaign is not about anti-littering – it’s about anti-SUP (single-use plastic), addressing the impacts of our relentless dependence on fossil fuels (to make SUPs), the climate change impacts and about generating awareness around our waste footprint more generally.
As Karoline Hanks, who has been relentlessly championing this cause for the past four years, says:
“This campaign is NOT about blaming race organisers, clean-up teams or runners. Those arguments are pointless and circuitous. It is NOT an anti-litter drive, and never has been…for me at least. It is all about generating awareness around single-use plastic, the unacceptable abuse of natural resources that this represents, the impacts it has on our marine and freshwater ecosystems, and the fact that we simply HAVE TO find alternative and plastic-free ways to hydrate runners and walkers in these big events across the country. It is all about connecting the dots….seeing our impacts on other (voiceless) creatures. Understanding that we can all make small changes, shift behaviour, reduce our footprint.”
Calling all runners out there: necessity is the mother of invention – if you must hydrate during a race, there are ways to do so without trashing the environment and impacting on the survival of our planet.
Winds of change are blowing strong…
The awareness campaign against single-use plastic at road running events is gathering traction. In September a very positive anti-sachet workshop was held in Cape Town, where race organisers, environmental activists and runners gathered to brainstorm alternatives to sachets at races.
Several road races in the Western Cape have already committed to becoming sachet-free events (the Milkwood 21km in February was the first road event in South Africa to be sachet-free, followed by the Festival of Running, the Camel Run and the Grape Run [road/trail]). The Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon are working hard to find a workable alternative to the use of sachets, and hopefully the World’s Most Beautiful Marathon can lead the way by becoming the world’s most environmentally-aware road running event.
I feel really strongly about protecting our beautiful environment. At the anti-sachet workshop last month, I pledged to do everything I can to reduce my single-use plastic footprint, and I’m trying to do that daily.
But from a road race point of view, I’m using this blog to publicly pledge to boycott any road race that uses plastic sachets.
That’s my way of saying NO to plastic sachets.
If you, as a runner, care about the environment, you’ll do the same.