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Q&A: The sustainability director for the New York Marathon
What does it mean for a 50,000-person race to work towards net zero?
This week, for our Q&A, we chatted with the head of sustainability for New York Road Runners—which (among other events) puts on the New York Marathon, one of the largest races in the world. How do you mitigate the environmental impact of something like that? And what can we do, as athletes?
Aly Criscuolo is someone I’ve talked with before as a source for stories on sustainability and what race directors should know. She’s also someone at the forefront of this relatively burgeoning field—having done her MBA in sports sustainability—as more and more athletes and organizations realize they need to grapple with the environmental impact of their events.
The New York Road Runners have committed to “net zero” by 2040 and you can see some of their sustainability initiatives here. But what will it take to get there?
What is your job and what does that actually mean?
Aly Criscuolo: My official title is Director of Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility. The role is basically to develop and implement the sustainability strategy for New York Road Runners—so that includes all of our races and events, including the TCS New York Marathon, as well as our three facilities. We have an office headquarters in New York City, a warehouse, and a run center. And then we also have nonprofit programming in New York and across the country. As you can imagine a lot of that comes with an environmental footprint, right? So my job is basically to reduce that environmental footprint on the sustainability side. For the corporate social responsibility side it’s more engaging staff and activities that give back to the local community.
And how does somebody get into that? I know you did an MBA in sustainability, but how many schools offer a degree in that? Is it growing?
Criscuolo: Yeah, it’s definitely growing, which is really exciting. There are a lot of different schools adding all kinds of programming, but there’s only two that I know of that are an MBA in sustainability, which specifically means incorporating it into your traditional MBA curriculum so that it’s embedded into classes, your professors work in the field—which was just super helpful for me. It all kind of set me up to be prepared to walk into New York Road Runners and know how to set a strategy and implement it.
How did you get interested in that?
Criscuolo: A story that I always tell. I literally remember sitting in Miss Shield’s 6th grade science class watching a documentary on climate change and it really terrified me. Probably had some bad dreams from it. But it motivated me to want to do something. Ever since then I’ve studied sustainability, started my career in it. And at the same time, I grew up swimming, swam in college. So my capstone for my MBA was on swimming, triathlon, and running sustainability—and that kind of kicked off this sports sustainability interest.
You explained what your job covers, but what does the day-to-day look like?
Criscuolo: It’s a mix. Prioritization is key because there’s so many issue areas to tackle. So it’s always a balance between setting long-term strategy and implementing things right now today. Long-term strategy might mean things like measuring our environmental footprint as an organization, embedding sustainability into our organizational goals, communicating progress, applying for certifications or maintaining our signatory status with the U.N. Sports for Climate Action framework. And then in terms of implementation that can mean things like prepping our waste diversion stations for an event, researching the best place to recycle our surplus race bibs that have been left over from previous events, or educating our runners on how to be more sustainable in their training runs or when they race.
How do you quantify the footprint?
Criscuolo: We measure in terms of emissions, we measure waste, we measure water use. We measure a variety of different categories—energy usage, too. And we’ve set these goals and targets that we’re working towards. For example, we’re talking about everyone traveling from around the world to our marathon and we understand how much carbon emissions that entails and we’re working to figure out how we can reduce that number.
People will often get really focused on, you know, medals or wrappers, but the biggest issues are often actually the driving or flying to training and races. What are the biggest sustainability issues when we talk about a major marathon like New York?
Criscuolo: Yeah, I always get the question: ‘What do you do about the cups? Like they’re all over the road and it’s so much waste.’ But that’s the misconception. We now compost, we have compostable cups for events.
When you think of the overall environmental impact, one of the biggest impacts is travel to events. Our biggest footprint is definitely everyone traveling to New York City from around the world. So we’re really working to educate them on how to be sustainable, and we have set goals and targets to work on that.
How do you guys tackle the travel issue? I mean, you still want people to come, right.
Criscuolo: Yeah, we don’t expect people to swim to New York City. Stay tuned, we have some exciting things that we’ll be sharing shortly.
What are some of the biggest programs you guys run?
Criscuolo: Coming up in our marathon, we have a list of focus areas and we work year-round with vendors and city agencies to do things like divert waste. We use single-stream recycling, and leftover heat sheets are either reused or recycled. We donate leftover post-race finish line food to City Harvest. We donate extra race gear—t-shirts, hats, things like that—to several local organizations. We have waste diversion stations at the start and finish, where we have teams of volunteers helping to sort different streams.
Our electric lead vehicles and operational vehicles are hybrid. All of our cups on course are compostable and are composted at a farm upstate. The race t-shirt for the runners was 100% recycled polyester from New Balance this last year. We donate all the clothing from the start that runners shed.
And then another fun one is we recently started to provide staff with eco-friendly ponchos from a company called Green Gear Supply—it’s a women owned business and they’re sustainable recyclable ponchos that are made from sugarcane.
There’s a lot of things we do, but those are just a few examples.
What’s the hardest thing left for you, as an organization, to solve?
Criscuolo: Honestly, the hardest thing is just prioritization and then having the resources to accomplish all the things we want to work on. I wouldn’t necessarily call it one thing. Like, we’re looking for biodegradable zip ties, things like that. But you could talk about all those little things.
If you had asked me that in 2019, I’d have a lot more things to say, but we’ve come really far with solutions. The solutions were there—whether re-usable bib magnets, electric generators, compostable cups—it’s just trying to figure out how to get it all done in a timely manner.
The best thing, of course, would be if we could find a completely carbon emission-free way to travel, right? Even if you’re taking electric vehicles or walking or carbon off-setting. There are some things, though, where you kind of just have to wait for the industry to come along with you at the same time. There are a lot of solutions out there and it's just a matter of figuring out the budget, the resources, and always making sure that the quality and safety is there for the athletes as well.
Are there different issues when we talk about triathlon? Of course, it’s much smaller than a major marathon.
Criscuolo: Honestly, each race is so different, it’s hard to compare, but generally speaking a triathlon has many of the same areas: waste, water usage, materials people are throwing away when they’re done. So it really boils down to the same kind of recommendations overall, but each race can be so different when you dig into the details.
What are some of the recommendations you give people, when they come and want to make their events more sustainable?
Criscuolo: I have a favorite quote, based off that quote from Anne-Marie Bonneau, which is loosely: We don’t need a handful of people doing sustainability perfectly, we need everyone doing it imperfectly.
I find that depending on the size of the event, the resources, the budget, sustainability can be a challenge, right? So I always encourage an organization to find something that’s really authentic to them. A mass participation event, you’re racing outside, so maybe there’s something to do with trees or nature—not necessarily like clean tech. Find something that’s really authentic and easy to incorporate. It’s not going to be something that completely changes your organization and you need 500 people to implement it. Start with things that are easy to implement. For us, we’ve always had a history of donating clothing from the start of the marathon, the clothes that people leave behind. So it’s kind of easy to continue that and build on it. Find things that are authentic to you.
You always want to think of it in a certain order: You want to re-use first as much as possible. That creates the least environmental impact. Sometimes it’s hard to make something as generic as possible, but trying to keep dates off things or maintain colors and logos—things like that so you can re-use them year after year, or weekend after weekend. If you can’t re-use something, then the next step would be to recycle. You don’t want to just immediately jump to that recycle phase because it does take a lot of energy. Donate or re-use, and then kind of the last resort is recycle. And, of course, the last last resort is to keep it out of the landfill.
On that note, are there common misunderstandings or mistakes people make? Like, I see people drive their Clif bar wrappers to the store to recycle, and it’s sort of like ‘is that really better.’
Criscuolo: That’s a good example. Just another smaller example, as well: when in doubt, throw it out. If you don’t know, if you can’t find information on how to recycle, it’s actually better sometimes to throw it out because it might be contaminating the recycling and then the whole batch of recycling would have to be thrown out as opposed to just one thing.
But overall, I’d say it’s more that people are nervous to talk about sustainability. Runners, athletes, they’re nervous to talk about it because they do travel to races, they do want their medals, they do go through a lot of gear. But I just kind of go back to that quote that we don’t need everyone doing it perfectly. So find what’s easy for you and that you’re really passionate about—like, if you’re worried about carbon emissions, try air drying your clothes or start a group run in your neighborhood that you don’t need to drive to.
I always invite people out to volunteer with our green team at events, too, which sort waste into different categories. You can also go and volunteer and help with your local triathlon or 5K, ask them: Can I help collect compost? How can I help you all be more sustainable?
You can also in your daily life to be more sustainable as an athlete. Bring your own reusable clear bag for bag check instead of taking a new single-use plastic one. Take public transportation when possible, use re-usable water bottles of course, air drying clothing, donating old shoes. Those are all things you can easily implement.
Athletes spend a lot of time outside and I think they’re increasingly aware climate change is an issue they’re going to have to deal with. And I think one of the things they’re struggling with is: Is it possible to do a triathlon or a marathon in a completely sustainable way? Is that possible?
Criscuolo: I’ve heard people say that you go either way with it. The most sustainable way to have a run or a triathlon is probably just to do it in your own backyard. And we do have a lot of virtual offerings, virtual races.
For all of our events, net zero is our goal and it’s a big challenge—definitely more challenging than racing a virtual event in your backyard—but we will get there, we’re working to reduce everything first and then take the next steps. You always want to reduce before you offset, so we’re working on it.
And the industry is coming along. For example, another issue is medical: We need medical at our events for safety and that’s something you kind of work with the industry and they come along with you. You can’t really say, ‘Sorry, no latex gloves.’ We need those. So there are great examples of industries all working together to get there.