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From the highest mountains to the deepest parts of the ocean, plastic has infiltrated every ecosystem on the planet, including our own trail running bodies.
Research shows that humans come into contact with micro-sized plastic particles on a daily basis from ingestion, inhalation, and skin contact. In some cases, people are consuming up to five grams of plastics (the weight of a nickel) per week depending on lifestyles and habits. A study in Italy also detected plastic particles in placental tissue.
The sources of plastic that are making their way out of human hands into the wider world include single-use plastics, which by definition are articles of plastic designed for one use before being discarded. Goods that are typically made from single-use plastics include packaging and food or service-related products such as straws, wrappers, and bags.
What’s the Problem with Plastic?
As a material with limited biodegradability, plastic breaks down into consecutively smaller and smaller pieces in the environment (unless it is intercepted from waterways by devices such as Mr. Trash Wheel in Maryland). There have been discoveries of certain bacteria that digest plastic, but the scale and complexity of the problem remains:
Plastic is everywhere and quietly accumulating.
While the core components of plastic are biochemically inert, the larger risk is that chemical additives are released into the environment. As revealed in a 2020 study, these additions may pose serious risks to human health, such as chronic inflammation and endocrine system disruption. Additionally, plastic pieces can also carry pathogens on their surfaces. The study of plastics as related to public health is a rapidly developing field of research with urgent questions that need answers.
Out in the wild, abandoned plastic packaging (such as the aluminized PET [Polyethylene Terephthalate] film that most energy gel packets are made of) slowly breaks down into small pieces known as microplastics. Aside from gel packets, microplastics come from a variety of sources, including shoe soles. A study in Germany found that the seventh highest source of microplastics in the environment was from the abrasion of shoe soles.
Left to disintegrate even further, microplastics form nano-sized plastics, usually too small to be seen with the human eye. These tiny particles are the most insidious and make their way into our soils and waterways, where they are ingested by a range of organisms and begin their journey up the food chain toward apex predators and humans.
An additional complication is the release of greenhouse gases from plastic production, with 98 percent of single-use plastic made from fossil fuels. Research shows that in the United States, “the plastics industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of CO2e gas emissions per year.” And 116 average-sized coal-fired power plants release the same amount of CO2 in one year. Not only is plastic a pernicious force behind the scenes, but it is also indirectly contributing to climate change.
Recently, the Minderoo Foundation, an Australian non-governmental organization, published a report that traced plastic production to a few major oil-producing companies, the three largest being ExxonMobil, Dow, and Sinopec. With no “producer pays” principle in action, the true economic and environmental costs of plastic production are still unknown.
Just as runners often ask questions about the ethical and environmental footprint of running shoe production, Minderoo recommends that consumers start asking for less investment in virgin plastic production and instead demand that more plastic stays in circulation, and that all industries utilize higher amounts of recycled plastic content in their production lines.
As the level of global plastic production booms, so does the amount of plastic disposal. According to figures from the United Nations, “7 billion of the 9.2 billion [tons] of plastic produced from 1950–2017 became waste, ending up in landfills or being dumped.” In the US, data published by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that in 2018 out of 35.7 million tons of plastic that was produced, 27 million tons went to landfill, and 3 million tons were recycled. Sure, landfills are one solution for locking away waste, but they are not limitless.
The problem is being addressed at higher governmental levels. Two bills have been introduced to Congress to address plastic pollution and recycling. On a global scale, there has been a call to create a circular economy for plastics, initiated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the UN Environment Programme. The fifth meeting of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, created an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee that will begin drafting a globally binding agreement to end plastic pollution. With 175 countries attending, the signs of addressing plastic production and reduction around the world are promising.
Reducing Single-Use on an Industry Level
Seeing plastic as a resource, not a waste, could affect real change, just as runners might see a steep hill as a training opportunity rather than an obstacle. So far, a number of companies who produce many everyday products (L’Oreal, Nestlé, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, and Unilever, for example) have started to make some encouraging changes to the composition of their packaging. Industrial changes like that can kickstart a global movement toward less single-use plastic.
Reducing our dependence on neatly packaged products is part of the solution, but it’s often easier said than done. One remedy is to recycle with programs like TerraCycle’s Performance Nutrition Recycling Program, in which athletes can mail in packaging from products such as energy chews and gels, hydration, recovery, and energy drink mix stick packs and packets. After collecting packaging, runners need to clean, wash, and dry the empty packets before boxing up their waste in any reused cardboard shipping box, downloading a free shipping label, and sending it to TerraCycle for processing.
After the waste is processed and recycled into raw material, it is then sold to manufacturing companies who produce the final product and complete the journey of recycling. Products may include outdoor furniture and decking, plastic shipping pallets, watering cans, storage containers and bins, tubes for construction applications, flooring tiles, playground surface covers and athletic fields, and more.
The carbon footprint of the recycling process is certainly not zero, but it does provide a starting point for giving plastic a longer life, as opposed to it going straight into the trash.
The work of the One Step Closer Packaging Collaborative is taking a different approach. They seek to reduce the amount of single-use plastic packaging created in the first place, rather than recycling what already exists. One Step Closer aims to meet standards for food safety while lowering the footprint of new packaging by creating compostable options. The challenge presented here is that facilities capable of composting that type of packaging are less common than conventional composting facilities. Large-scale composting also releases methane gas, a highly potent greenhouse gas.
Some running events are testing single-use plastic alternatives, such as the adoption of seaweed pouches to distribute drinks at aid stations at the 2019 London Marathon. Notpla creates biodegradable, lightweight packaging from seaweed that can be composted, disposed of with food waste or even, in some cases, eaten.
At the shoe level, Adidas has partnered with Parley for the Oceans to produce a number of products, including trail shoes that are in part composed of yarn made from plastic waste collected from the ocean. Allbirds has launched a trail running shoe with numerous plastic-free components and more renewable materials including a natural rubber outsole and an insole constructed from castor bean oil. To address the issue of micro-sized polluting materials reaching the ground from the tread of shoes, Solum has engineered a solution that deposits nutrients into the soil directly from the shoe’s outsole. While still in the early stages of development, it is a promising sign of innovation addressing the predicament.
Reducing Single-Use at Home
As Katherine Martinko writes, “We need to totally rethink how we buy our food and carry it around.” Readers of Born to Run might recall the infamous, homemade Pinole snack that fueled the Tarahumara trail runners, indigenous to the Copper Canyon in Mexico. Making your own fuel for trail adventures is a great option to cut back on plastic packaging but something that does require time, energy, and resources, which are all factors to consider.
To avoid plastic, beeswax wraps are an option for enveloping food. Silicone packaging is also an available alternative, but whether it is actually non-plastic is highly debated due to its composition. Pure maple syrup, when purchased in a glass bottle, is one plastic-free fueling option worth exploring, as discussed by South Dakota-based runner and coach Kyle Kranz. Nancy Clark has a recipe for a maple syrup sports drink in her Sports Nutrition Guidebook.
UK ultrarunner Damian Hall successfully completed his FKT run of the Pennine Way without creating any plastic waste. As outlined in his book, In It for the Long Run, Damian ate lots of banana sandwiches, homemade vegan brownies, salty trail mix, and energy bars wrapped in compostable material.
Ten Ways Runners Can Reduce Plastic Reliance
- Buy bulk goods.
- Look for packaging that contains recycled content.
- Switch to beeswax wrappers for homemade energy bars.
- Check How2Recycle for information about where to recycle different types of packaging.
- Support brands making an effort to reduce plastic packaging.
- Check to see if your cosmetics contain microplastic beads using this app.
- Make your own trail mix and take a reusable bag on long runs to carry snacks.
- Use grocery bags made from natural fabrics.
- Go plogging and tag Take 3 for the Trail if you use social media.
- Organize a trail clean-up event.
Looking to the Future
Divesting from plastic convenience may lie in the word “plastic” itself, as noted in Life Without Plastic, a book by Chantal Plamondon and Jay Shinha. The root of the word plastic comes from the Greek verb plassein, to mold. One feature of the human brain is its remarkable plasticity and an ability to form new habits. While we can’t recycle our way out of our dependence on single-use plastics, or rely on seaweed cups for answers, the very adaptability of runners, as natural problem solvers, can indeed help us make meaningful steps in reducing the impact of single-use packaging in our community.