Running: Not just hard on the joints, hard on the planet too

Running: Not just hard on the joints, hard on the planet too

There’s something so simplistic and pure about running -- just lace up a pair of shoes and go, pretty much anywhere, anytime. But behind this low maintenance façade, the sport of running has developed a pretty hefty eco-footprint.

Unlike a lot of sports, runners don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to hit the road. But we do require shoes. Lots of shoes. (Confession: I’m breaking in my third pair this year.)

Running shoes have become advanced pieces of technology that enable the pronators, supinators, pounders, and diehards among us to run pain-free. Our shoes propel us, stabilize us and dampen our shocks, all at once. These advancements though, come with an ecological cost.

Almost all components, in all running shoes, are made from plastics. Evaluating common shoe components sends you down a rabbit hole of inputs. Were the dyes used to make your shoe hot pink (which of course makes you faster) made with heavy metals? Were the laces made from virgin or recycled polyester? Did the workers who made the midsole wear adequate dust masks when they mixed the chemical inputs?

And runners buy a lot of other gear too. Check out this 2008 audit from Runner’s World which measured the amount of gear the average runner buys annually and the carbon footprint it creates (yes, the list is 4 years old, but my guess is, it’s only become longer rather than shorter):

  • 3 pairs of running shoes: 430 lbs CO2
  • 3 pairs of synthetic socks: 89 lbs CO2
  • 2 pairs of shorts: 99 lbs CO2
  • 1 pair of running tights: 79 lbs CO2
  • 1 technical shirt: 48 lbs CO2
  • Washing and drying one load of running gear per week, for a year: 225 lbs CO2

That’s 970 lbs of CO2 per year. To put this in perspective: the average American SUV owner commutes 580 miles to and from work in a month, emitting 700 lbs of CO2 over the course of that month. That’s about 8400 lbs per year, a mere 8.7 times more than the runner.

Looking through my own running gear, I found about a dozen more things Runner’s World didn’t even list: a heart rate monitor, GPS watch, MP3 player, hat, sunglasses, sports bras, glide, water bottles, gloves, arm warmers, toque, snow treads...

Suddenly my low maintenance sport doesn’t look so low maintenance.

All that said, I have no intention of calling it quits, nor am I advocating that becoming a couch potato is the greener choice. But you can do your part to green the sport.

  1. Buy Simpler Kicks. Always look for minimalist shoes—the fewer the components, the less processing likely went into making them. A number of major shoe companies are also developing greener options, such as shoes made from recycled components, biodegradable midsoles, etc.
  2. Recycle your old shoes. Only one percent of runners recycle their shoes when they’re done with them, meaning 99 percent are ending up in landfills. Check out Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe Program, which puts your old shoes to good use by turning them into sports surfaces, such as new running tracks. So far they’ve collected 28,000,000 pairs of shoes for their program.
  3. Gear up in green. While running gear will always take an ecological toll, some brands are working hard to develop more sustainable inputs and manufacturing processes. One of my new faves is Modrobes’ Eucalyptex line of eucalyptus based technical clothes—which wick sweat, regulate your temperature beautifully, and feel amazing (here’s my review of their shirts).
  4. Buy less. In a sport where there are constantly new advancements in gear and gadgets that promise to make you faster, it’s tempting to buy far more than you need. Skip the new fangled monitor or the latest in tech fabrics, at least until what you already have has worn out.

If someone calls you low maintenance, it’s a compliment, right? So be a low maintenance runner, too. It’s good for the body, good for the planet, and good for your conscience.

December 4, 2012