Cupless Concerns

Thankfully, over the past few years there has been a movement in ultrarunning culture and in races themselves toward a more environmentally conscious approach. I’ve heard of more and more individuals deciding to race closer to home to minimize their environmental impact from burning fossil fuels to travel to far away races. Several races have ‘gone green’ by including recycling at start/finish areas, and in rare cases at aid stations. Other races have seemed to discourage waste by minimizing the amount of throwaways they put in race ‘goodie bags:’ flyers, stickers, and other advertisements. Some races have even stopped giving everyone a shirt, knowing that the majority of people end up just giving them away or throwing them in their closet under dozens of other race shirts.

This consciousness is of course a move in the right direction, and is very much preferable to the alternative of blindly promoting consumption, waste, and excess which modern culture has seemed to do to a shocking degree. There can come a point, though, where all this excitement about conservation and sustainability can go too far. Things which can have the best intentions, and make a lot of sense initially can, and often do, become so popular and trendy that they end up becoming an excessive and environmentally unfriendly practice in and of themselves. A great example of this would be the use of reusable canvas bags to replace plastic and paper grocery/shopping bags. If we all owned one or two of these bags and used them most every time we went to the store this would be an undisputed benefit. Instead, in our excitement over being as ‘green’ as possible we all now own dozens of these bags, and retailers push them on us by having them conveniently located at the checkout stand for 99 cents (or in some cases give them out for free). The prevalence of these bags makes it way too easy to assume that using one of them is ‘good’ and using a traditional paper or plastic grocery bag is ‘bad.’ The problem is that in our demand for these reusable bags, we have created a market for manufacturers to produce these things by the millions, and nowadays these ‘reusable’ bags have become a throwaway item of their own. However well intentioned it may have been at the beginning, the canvas-bag trend has become an extremely excessive and ecologically unfriendly consumer trends.

There is a trend starting in running races that I could also see going down this same path. I am referring to the reusable-cup trend. On the surface, this seems like a very good idea. The use of thousands of paper cups to serve runners their water, electrolyte drink (hopefully the new Clif electrolyte mix because that stuff rocks), and soda is extremely excessive and cannot be replaced soon enough. The idea of giving runners reusable cups so that they can carry just one with them and reuse it at each aid station is a great idea in theory, but now that’s it’s becoming so much of a trend it’s easy to see a future in which one can reasonably question whether this is a preferable alternative to the throwaway paper cups. How many foldable silicone cups does one person really have a use for? How many will we each need to have in our closets before they become as clearly misguided of an answer to a problem as the canvas bag has become?

The good thing is that, as racers and race organizers, we are at a point where we can still nip this excess in the bud before it happens. Currently the trend is to go ‘cupless’ by giving everyone one of these reusable cups to use to drink fluids at the aid stations. This is a great approach if you are the only (or one of a few) race doing this, but as this becomes more and more the norm, the last thing anyone (or any ecosystem) needs are more of these reusable cups. As a solution, I suggest we all shift our consciousness as soon as possible from looking at this trend as an undisputed benefit to this planet to something that has potential to be a large problem of excess in its own right. It’s only a benefit if we keep the amount of these things in circulation low enough that those that do exist are being regularly used, and not thrown in the back of a closet, and then a year or two later into a landfill.

Race organizers: many of us don’t need any more of these cups. Yes, some of us do, but not all of us. I can’t be the only one out there who has as many of these as I could ever possibly use. Especially considering that one is as many as you can ever use (I can’t recall a single time in my life in which I used more than one cup at a time). Going cupless is a great idea for your race, but you are not actually going cupless if you purchase hundreds of silicone cups to give to all the racers. If you’re going to go cupless, seriously go cupless. We can handle it. Consider allowing people who want to purchase a reusable cup as part of their race entry to do so. This way, those of us that already have them will just pass on that option, and instead of purchasing hundreds of these items, you will be purchasing a couple dozen.

Racers: Don’t be afraid to demand this foresight and consciousness from the races you run. Your voice will be heard. Also, consider that we’re all carrying water bottles most of the time. Shift your consciousness. Why can’t you pour a bit of Coke into your water bottle to drink at the aid station? If that doesn’t work for you, then simply bring one of your foldable cups with you that you already have in your closet. This might take four or five seconds longer at each aid station. In a 100-mile race this might cost us a full minute. In my opinion, this is a very small price to pay for the alternative of either using a couple dozen paper cups, or of blindly allowing the reusable-cup trend to become so popular that we are eventually filling up shoeboxes with these things, never to use them again.

I know I can’t be the only one who has a hook in my house for canvas bags that has nearly a dozen bags on it. Is this better than the alternative of the couple hundred paper/plastic bags I might have used instead? It’s a moot point to compare. The reality is that they are both very excessive, and the best answer would be to have one or two canvas bags that I used all the time. The way canvas bags have been forced on consumers in the past decade, though, it would be nearly impossible to only own one or two of them. Hopefully as racers and race organizers, we can avoid the same being true of reusable silicone cups a decade from now.

Call for Comments (from Meghan & Bryon)

  • Tell the truth, do you have too many reusable grocery bags and reusable race cups?
  • In addition to Geoff’s suggestions, what else can the running community do to ensure that reusable cups don’t follow the same trend as reusable grocery bags?
  • While Geoff suggests using your own water bottles, are there any other options you can think of for drinking at aid stations that don’t require obtaining another piece of gear?

There are 101 comments

  1. Ellie

    I recently ran a road marathon in the UK. Water on the course was in plastic bottles which was pretty horrendous but other aspects were great; no gels or anything other than water on course, a t-shirt and medal but no bag and no flyers. Post race food was a carton of juice and a banana. The whole lack of 'stuff' was refreshing, better for the environment (bar the plastic bottles) and made the entry fee much lower than a similar race in North America.

  2. Scott

    About just putting a horse trough at the aid stations for runners to just dunk their heads into for a drink. One filled with coke, one filled with some electro drink, one with water. It would be way more communal and badass

  3. Andrea

    BYOC. Bring Your Own Cup.

    P.S. I have about 8 reuseable grocery bags and use them all in rotation but could live with just a few of those, and 2 reuseable race cups of which I like neither, so I am on the hunt for something light & packable.

  4. Ddog

    Not meant as a downer comment by the way…but a couple of reasons that people maybe don't wear the race shirts is that some shirts used for races either were constructed so poorly (ie always feel like the shirt is on backwards or the proportions are wrong) or the race logos/design/color are just plain silly. If we're going to keep doing race shirts…which I support…make them cool otherwise don't make them at all.

    On the cup issue…all the races I know that were cupless just had reuseable cups at the aid stations…if you didn't like that then you used your own waterbottle. common sense.

    1. Lstomsl

      The reason I don't wear the shirts is that the new tech Ts all smell like ass after one or two runs. Give me a cotton T or nothing at all. But yeah some are just ugly,mic you have to give out a shirt at least keep it to subtle earth tones.

      And runners we don't have to wait for race directors to solve this problem fr us. Bring your own cup and don't use the ones provided whether its a cup less race or not. If we all do that they won't be able to waste all that plastic even if they wanted to.

  5. whatisultra

    What I'm reading here are great suggestions- less trash, reusable containers, less travel, composting toilets, less race junk, etc. The common denominator, however, are RDs and volunteers who are willing to do a little more work. I think ultimately it comes down to RDs implementing these changes and suggestions (and they have!) and runners committing to volunteering more to make it happen.

  6. Sniffer

    I'm down with the whole less provided more responsibility on the runner. Less aid stations, farther apart. Carry your water, poles, food/gels. Drop bags at half way…Just sounds tough…not that it needs to be ay tougher…imho

  7. RunDC

    The efforts by Karl and others to reduce cup waste is fantastic! I find some runners' flippant attitude towards the impact of air travel concerning though. People tend to focus on what they can see (cups) and disregard the much more substantial impacts that are invisible (air travel).

    In terms of carbon tonnage, flying to three races in a year would have about the same impact as the average american household's electricity usage for an ENTIRE YEAR:

    The efforts by race directors to lessen their impact thus far is substantial and deserves the praise it has gotten in comments here and elsewhere. But I would challenge them to think bigger.

    1. adam

      Great point!

      In the climate game small fish are just small and big fish are getting away with murder because we're all stuck in the muddy shallows patting ourselves on the back and pontificating about vegan local vs. organic..bla bla bla.

      Think about some dude in Arkansas who works at walmart, eats Mc d's every day, doesn't have a smart phone, 50 pairs of running shoes and all the other latest light/high tech gear, shops at walmart, drives an old truck 3 miles to and from work every day….never flys, hardly has time to take a weekend getaway, let alone travel very far for a real vacation with his family….this guy is greener than any of us!

    2. t dog

      Great point, RunDC. Thank god I (now) live in Utah, with races nearby aplenty!

      Extending outside the realm of races, another way to reduce one's running-related carbon footprint is pretty obvious: stop driving to trails. This isn't possible for a lot of people, unfortunately, but a major factor in my decision to move to Salt Lake was my ability to bike from my house to trailheads. I think it's very easy to ignore the greenhouse costs of a daily drive to one's favorite trails, or a weekly drive to a mountain range on the other side of the state for a longer adventure (especially if such an adventure necessitates bringing two cars!), because wilderness is a necessity, after all! But it is because of this necessity that we need to consider these impacts.

      In my opinion, no outdoor enthusiast should ever stop asking the question, "What are the environmental impacts of my interactions with the environment?" because they are often so great, varied, avoidable, and minimizable if one is conscious enough!

      Additionally: Bryon, I think more articles of this flavor would be a spectacular and welcome addition to iRF. I believe there are a wide variety of "green" topics related to trail running and racing; I hope to see more in the future.

  8. Mark M.

    Perhaps I'm unsophisticated – but this discussion seems a bit esoteric and utopian to me.

    I just can't get worked-up over paper cups (properly disposed of after use); or the carbon footprint associated with trail ultra race event; or the greenhouse gas emissions of trail-runners with bad stomachs.

    My eco-angst is much more fueled by bottle-strewn and pizza-box-littered trails (I will pick these up along the way); dirty diapers in stream beds (Forgive me, but these I do NOT pick up); and confrontations with paint/beer can wielding taggers who say "it's ok, someone washes it off anyway."

    So my rudimentary environmental conscience says:

    "If you encounter any kind of cup with a refreshing liquid at an aid table – Drink!" (just reuse that cup for a second/third serving).

    "If nature calls while out in the woods and no composting toilet is handy, make like a bear and – DO!"

    "If you have the opportunity to drive/fly to the most gorgeous locations in the world to hike/run the trails – GO!" (*sigh*…if only).

    As long as you are courteous to those you encounter and are respectful of the natural surroundings you enjoy…I suspect we will all be in a pretty good place.


  9. ken michal

    Great dialogue!! I've found that the collapsible cups are great for holding salt tabs (reduce, reuse, recycle, right?)! This way, I have a back up if I accidentally drop my cup too!

    I've noticed that for the collapsible cups to be more effective, there must be more volunteers at AS's during peak times to simply pour soda. Even if volunteers car-pooled, would the cup waste be any worse than fossil fuel burning cars transporting volunteers? I don't think cupless events are doing so much for the environment at the time… Instead, they help to remind us that we are ALL environmental stewards and the forests and parks we race through a precious resource! I would prefer races had compostable cups (and did the work to make sure they ended up in the compost pile…)!

    Here are a couple more things I would love to see at events (we even did a couple of these things we did to help green our races when I was an RD) and ideas for runners as well:

    -Buy in bulk! I'm sure every RD out there already shops at Costco for supplies… Instead of buying five, one pound bags of trail mix, buy one fiver and take the time to split it up! Sure, it's a couple minutes more work but it's even cheaper to in bulk!! The same can be said for energy gels as runners! Gu wrappers suck! We should all carry flasks and buy larger quantity (I've been carrying flasks for years)! I know Hammer and Carb Boom sell jugs… I wish Clif did!!! I dream of a world without those foil wrappers… As a matter of fact, I'm sure that "packetless" races would have much more of an environmental (an aesthetic!!) impact than "cupless"!!

    -Use reusable (tupperware) dishes at AS's! Once again, a little more work but more cost effective and less wasteful! As runners, take a second to reuse the paper cups that are there instead of reaching for another! Trust me, I've logged some serious volunteer time and have seen a ton of people use a ton of cups because it's convenient! Heck, it would cut down tremendously on cup use if everyone carried a water bottle in the first place!! Short distance folks (and newbies) are notorious for this and grabbing 5 cups in an AS… Maybe we could hand out hand held water bottles instead of shirts?? (Ok, a lot more expensive…)

    -Recycle bottles and cans, especially those post race beers! ;) It's a little harder at AS's but it can be done! All it takes is a little communication from the RD to the AS Captains, a separate bag and a couple seconds more work! We've done it at ITR…

    Thanks for the great topic, Geoff!! We're blessed with some amazing places to run and it's up to us to keep them beautiful!!

    All Day!


  10. Nicole


    On the topic of races, I've seen a handful of events that make an effort to be "green", but I'm curious whether any race management organizations have actually measured their races' impact, and maybe then the impact of these "green" efforts. And I'd go gaga if there was any efforts to standardize some type of green indicators for races. I vaguely recall Clifbar supporting some type of system, but please let me know if anyone knows of others.

  11. Jon Allen

    I was starting to think I'm the only one who isn't too worked up over disposable cups given how cheap they are, the relatively low amount of energy to make them, and how well they compact in the garbage. Glad to see there's a little science saying that, for the most part, the impact is about the same for disposable vs reusable. I'm not trolling, I'm just being honest about my feelings.

    I like races where I can fill my handheld with water to drink, but then also have disposable paper cups pre-filled with soda sitting on a table.

    I'm all for minimizing waste where possible, but I hope we don't lose sight of the big picture. Like others have said, just driving or especially flying to a race uses FAR more energy than a few cups. And while we use re-usable grocery sacks, the amount of packaging material (paper, cardboard, plastic, saran wrap, etc) enclosing the food we carry home is much greater than the handful of plastic bags we don't use. I guess I'm saying I hope we don't focus so much on a small item that represents .01% of our energy use (paper cups) that we ignore the rest of the 99.99%.

    I'd say the trend of buying 100 calories of sugar in a pre-packaged foil gu pack that is shipped around the world and never decomposes is a much bigger energy waste than a one cent paper cup that will decompose. Yet I still use gu's for all my calories at races cause it is what I prefer. Along with my apples flown in from New Zealand and my bananas from Nicaragua. :)

  12. ColombiaCorre

    Water station logistics can be especially challenging for events with a lot of people like the Bogota half marathon with 45,000 runners. The Bogota Water Company runs 20 hydration points with 200,000+ bags of drinking water. There are also cups of water available to runners but huge piles of bags of water are stacked on tables for runners to grab and handed out quickly/efficiently by event support to runners as they run by. It works really well. Runners can keep going full speed while drinking; no stopping at a table and waiting for a cup or trying to drink out of a cup while running. Bags of water are the best. The bags can be stuffed in pockets, don't fill up trash cans quickly and are all vacuumed up and recycled.

  13. Duane VanderGriend

    I like disposable cups filled and ready for me at aid stations. After the countless hours of training and the cost of shoes, gear, and travel, I appreciate that service from the RD and the volunteers.

  14. Adam

    Spot on. I ran at the Chester Marathon on Sunday and the sheer number of bottles just thrown into the verge or people's gardens was awful. Same goes for trail races – who simply discards gel packets in the middle of nowhere in the Lake District?

    1. Bryon Powell

      You mean all the stuff in these boxes?!… Yeah, I dread figuring out how to effectively share all that with the world.

      Did drop three boxes of very lightly worn men's size 9 running shoes off at the Park City Christian Center before we left. Got some classics in there like Fireblades, Raceblades, old Cascadias, Hardrock 07s… but I did snag the only pair of functional Montrail Hardrocks! ;-)

  15. AnyTrail Ultra

    The PbTenOneFifty2 in Leadville June 27-29 will be completely cup less. Runners will need to bring a water bottle or prepared to "cup" their hands. :) #PbTenOneFifty2

  16. Dan'l

    Shhhh: I'm an aid station captain for a 100-miler. We use 40 paper cups for the entire race. When we have a free moment, we wash them with the extra water we drive into the A.S. It's our approach to "reducing our footprint."

  17. Brad

    That's all well and good, but there are some if us that live in the most boring places to run ultras. Great and scenic areas are for everyone to enjoy, not just those who live nearby.

  18. rkmk

    Thanks Geoff for verbalizing a common thought among trail runners.

    Commenting is a little overdue, I'm catching up on the best articles of the year :-)

    A lot of the comments lead to consider how we actually measure and influence the environmental impact of our racing (@Nicole) with each and every one of us having their own sensibility. I'd be interested in having readily available environmental impact information about the races that I do, to know where should i put my efforts, e.g. for a provocative example: if I cancel one race at the other side of the world per year, can I not worry about going cupless?

    Off the top of my head, I would assume that on a global scale, travel is by far the most damaging impact on the environment, but I'm curious to see the list of the main environmental issues that we generate. Probably a lot of it is not running-specific. It'd be great to get your thoughts on this.

    1. Global environment:
    – Travel (air + car)
    – Gear requirements
    – Race marketing (flyers etc)
    2. Local environment:
    – Littering (e.g. cups)
    – Overuse of trails (impact on fauna, excrements leading to diseases, wild camping etc)
    3. Societal impact:
    – Economic impact for local communities (both good and bad)
    – Cultural impact (raising awareness/promoting a particular region while using it

    Not all of these are quantifiable, and most of these are definitely not comparable, but as a race participant I'd love to have a sense of where these stand. For instance, I think UTMB has a lot of great initiatives (e.g. going cupless, not too many aid stations, and generally a good sense of what works in the mountains) but the sheer number of participants may make it a huge negative impact for the environment (and frankly, totally killed the race experience for me – try racing on a technical single track as packed as subway car!)

    Like I said, each of us will have their own sensibility when it comes to what to do with such a list, as some people will travel to another continent but make sure they won't leave too much behind (the most common preference, because of the cultural gains) while others will only race locally but leave the occasional gel out on the trail (which might end up to be a lot more eco-friendly)

    Here's an example of one rule I have when it comes to travelling: if the race is going to take less time than the (one-way) trip, then I simply don't do it. Crossing the world for a 5K, doesn't really do it for me – the environmental impact has to be justified by the personal impact. I do realize that crossing the world for a 500K is not more sustainable than crossing it for a 5K, it's just that the trade off makes it worth it for me and that it limits my travels overall (@Ian: I do have kids, so maybe that's why :-)

    Another example of what we could learn from this is that on particular trails, people are littering more, or that this has a bigger impact there. You could imagine having a cleaning team that goes on the trail to pick up the remaining litter after the race (does that ever happen? I've always wondered). This could be made of volunteers, or financed by racers (through fines or fees etc). Probably the wrong incentive but maybe more environmentally friendly. Or maybe we could give benefits (e.g. guaranteed entry for next year) to those who clean up enough litter on the trail while racing?

    I don't even know whether smaller races are more eco-friendly (because of limited travel and trail use) or the large ones are (because of more volunteers who can help clean up and potential funding for eco–friendly activities)

    Or maybe we come to the conclusion that apart from the local impact of littering, trail running is a rather eco-friendly activity, that we should enjoy it with a free conscience (@Mark M) and that to have a better environmental impact we should put our efforts elsewhere.

    Surely many race organizers and participants have thought about this before, it'd be great to have a place to exchange ideas on this topic.

    What do you think has the biggest impact on the environment?
    What can we do about it?
    What are your rules when it comes to choosing races according to their environmental impact?
    Is there a place where this is discussed? on iRunfar?

  19. Lucy Scrase

    This is commenting sometime after the previous comments. With the topic of plastic and reusable products very much in the public eye at the moment. Are there many cupless events in the UK now? The more I think about the races that I have been too and the amount of waste, there has to be some positive actions moving forward by RDs. The reusable cup sounds like a great thing to have in my bag, which cups are the best on the market?

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