Providence Left Trashed by Runners

By FRANK CARINI

PROVIDENCE — They ran over 13.1 miles of city streets, and when they were finished, they helped trample the environment. The nearly 6,500 runners who participated in Sunday’s Rock ’n’ Roll Half-Marathon had plenty of help trashing the area around the Statehouse, Providence Place Mall and the train station.

Self-absorbed runners, their friends and family, vendors, volunteers and the race crew treated this downtown area as their own giant outdoor Dumpster. The mess and waste — in terms of food and water — they left behind was in a word disgusting.

Local officials let it happen, because lawmakers don’t care if such events recycle, compost or otherwise trash the city. They don't even require race officials to make Dumpsters available for recyclables, and they apparently don’t care if out-of-town race organizers and out-of-town runners help fill the ever-shrinking Central Landfill with plastic bottles, useable wood pallets, thousands of medals made of metal, food scraps, and perfectly edible bagels, cookies, granola bars, potato chips, bananas and oranges.

After all, the state landfill is in Johnston and they’re not running for re-election there.

Mayor Angel Taveras helped kick-off this inaugural race, but we could have used his help cleaning up the city afterward. In fact, next time one of these waste-producing, bay-polluting events comes to Providence, he and other officials should make time to see firsthand the lack of respect afforded their city.

Two weeks before the event, the ecoRI Green Team was brought aboard to “green” the race for a modest donation that was less than we suggested and far below market value. It was obvious once we arrived before 5 a.m. on race day that only a few associated with the event — basically, the race manager — had given the race’s excesses much thought. In fact, race organizer, California-based Competitor Group Inc., didn’t want any of its volunteers hauling trash, lifting trash or getting “dirty” in anyway, we repeatedly were told.

Race officials apparently also didn’t require their volunteers to recycle or even remotely dispose of anything with any care. Volunteers assigned to give the pampered runners towels cooled down with ice water — on a waterlogged day, no less — opened the many plastic bags containing these made in India, 11-inch-by-17-inch pieces of cloth the same way a 5-year-old would rip open a Christmas present.

Pieces of paper noting the contents of each plastic bag stuck to parts of rain-soaked Francis Street. Many of the ripped-open bags blew in the wind, even though a trash bin was an arm’s length away.

The volunteers in charge of cooling down these white towels and the thousands of plastic bottles of Poland Spring water and some purported performance-enhanced drink called Cytomax left ripped-opened bags of ice and full bags lying around or blowing about.

They walked past and stepped over sipped-from plastic bottles, and when they did actually place something in a bin, race volunteers often didn’t bother to notice they were putting plastic in a bin marked compost or a banana peel in a bin marked trash.

They weren’t alone, and they were hardly the only ones allowing others to clean up after them. Competitor Group employees and contractors who secured fences and equipment with black or white zip ties made no attempt at proper disposal. Thousands of 10-inch pieces of plastic were left on the street, sidewalks and on the lawn across from the Statehouse.

Many of these ties that the four Green Team members and our five volunteers couldn’t pick up were washed into storm drains. They’ll soon be choking marine life and polluting Narragansett Bay.

Vendors passing out such post-race treats as Marathon bars by Snickers hadn’t been told or couldn’t be bothered to separate plastic wrap from cardboard boxes before shoving them into trash bags. Subway graciously left behind a trash bag filled with plastic utensils still wrapped in unopened plastic packaging. The bag also contained unopened packets of Subway dressing, an open plastic container of cookies and some miscellaneous trash.

Cases of unopened popsicles were left to melt in the summer rain.

Every can of Miller Genuine Draft was served in a foam koozie. We removed each koozie — whether the can had been placed in nearby bins, thrown on the ground or left on a table — before depositing the recyclable cans in the proper Dumpster. MGD staffers left cardboard boxes, bags of ice and professionally designed/printed promotional banners strewn about where their tent once stood — the field across from the mall.

Those who worked the Degree tent jammed perfectly good white canvass bags with the deodorant’s logo into a city-owned trash bin.

Tables under the hospitality tents were left covered with uneaten sandwiches, bagels and cookies and opened and unopened bottles of water and cans of soda. One table displayed a full aluminum tin of uncovered fruit salad covered in flies.

Those who worked the tables for the event’s official charities left coffee cups, water bottles, wrappers and pens on the Statehouse lawn for someone else to pick up.

One of the event's corporate sponsors, Bear Naked, left a deteriorating cardboard bin wrapped in its logo by a trash bin on the Statehouse lawn. Inside the 4-foot-high or so bin was a trash bag filled with unopened 1.35-ounce packets of fruit and nut granola. The trash bag was at the bottom of the bin, covered by wet packaging and other waste plastics.

On its website, Bear Naked encourages upcycling and mailing it empty bags of its products to earn points toward upcycled T-shirts and grocery bags. Apparently, unopened packets of granola aren’t worth saving. In fact, company representatives couldn’t even be bothered to take out what they brought in — food.

We delivered the thoughtlessly disposed of unopened bags of granola to the McAuley House on Monday, along with three boxes of bagels and other wrapped food left abandoned. After the runners and volunteers finished dining, cardboard boxes of opened and unopened Always Bagels were left unprotected in the pouring rain.

We delivered some of the drier boxes to the McAuley House, composted several others and watched the rest get dumped by forklift into the trash Dumpster.

Sadly, too much recyclable material, compostables and edible food was thrown into that Dumpster, because most people associated with the event or those who participated in it couldn’t be bothered to put trash, food scraps, bottles and cans into their appropriately marked bins — if they weren’t leaving them on the sidewalk, in the grass, on the street or on top of walls.

Admittedly, we could have done a better job, but it’s difficult when environmentally friendly practices aren’t a priority for this for-profit traveling road race or local lawmakers.

The event’s announcer’s book was picked up out of a puddle at the finish line, and you’ll likely see many of the race’s trash bags — hundreds left in drenched cardboard boxes or as singles scattered everywhere — lining trash bins at upcoming Lippitt Park farmers’ markets.

Competitor Group did nothing to curtail the event’s waste stream. Prior to the event, it’s website made no mention of recycling or composting. It never encouraged waste reduction, and despite the bevy of announcements made throughout the event, none came close to addressing the fact we were trying to separate trash, recyclables and compostables.

It failed to educate vendors, staff and volunteers on taking proper care of waste — i.e., don't throw stuff on the ground, ask for bins and clean up after yourself. Simple tasks that would have saved countless hours and money — and wouldn't have trashed our city. Besides providing flimsy cardboard boxes and black trash bags, race organizers offered little else to deal with the immense task.

Many runners and their fans hardly helped. Runners rudely tossed banana and orange peels into marked bins for trash, even as we had our heads in them pulling out ill-placed food scraps and water bottles. We came close to filling eight composting bins, but there was so much more compostable material wasted. Most of the event's plastic bottles and much of the cardboard, however, were kept out of the landfill.

Besides throwing away food, amateur runners tossed T-shirts, sweatshirts, windbreakers and raincoats onto Gaspee Street. We had been warned prior to the race that some runners would leave perfectly fine clothing behind when the gun sounded and they needed to run unrestricted in a race that offered no prize money.

Those who borrowed trash bags or brought their own to use as rain gear ripped their plastic tops away when the race started and tossed them into the stormwater rushing down Gaspee Street toward storm drains.

I guess paying an $85 entry fee entitles you to waste food, ignore signs and make a mess. Forget about asking them to drink water from a multi-bubbler fountain.

The race is already scheduled to return in summer 2012. Local officials should stick around after next year’s starting gun is fired.

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News. The Green Team and its five volunteers worked 42 hours Sunday, plus several more in the two weeks leading up to the race coordinating the delivery of four Dumpsters to the site (for wood, cardboard, trash, and bottles and cans), locating someone to take the compost and getting eight such bins onsite, and finding someone willing to accept carelessly discarded food and clothing (McAuley House) and used towels (New Urban Farmers). The Green Team washed and dried the clothes before delivering them and the food to McAuley House on Monday.