Cook: How much Ironman trash is recycled?

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/  Sam Long pours water on himself after winning the Ironman.  The Little Debbie Ironman Chattanooga took place under hot conditions on September 29, 2019.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Sam Long pours water on himself after winning the Ironman. The Little Debbie Ironman Chattanooga took place under hot conditions on September 29, 2019.

More than 20,000 plastic water bottles and 150,000 aid station cups were used during last weekend's Ironman, according to race officials.

How many are recycled?

How many are dumped?

How much water is used? What happens to all that unused race-day food?

What's the carbon footprint of Chattanooga Ironman?

Is it possible for the race to be carbon neutral or carbon free?

It's time we ask these questions, not just of Ironman, but of our races, conferences and festivals. The 20th century is over; we face a climate crisis, and it's time for new ways of thinking.

Look at our Tennessee River; it's one of the most plastic-polluted rivers in the world.

If Ironman borrows our downtown for a weekend, with some 2,200 triathletes swimming through this river, shouldn't we ask that its race not contribute to the ongoing pollution of our river? (Plastic water bottles, especially 20,000 of them, find their way back to waterways.)

This isn't a charity 5k. Ironman is a money-making machine.

Can it also be a force for environmental stewardship?

The answer is yes.

Ironman Boulder's already doing it.

In 2016, the Colorado race became the first-ever to earn the coveted Evergreen Certification, rated by the Council for Responsible Sport.

Ironman Boulder (IMB) purchased carbon offsets for 100% of its greenhouse gas emissions.

IMB donated 5,600 pounds of unused food and 9,000 pounds of leftover bottled water.

IMB purchased water restoration certificates, returning 50,000 gallons back to the Colorado River Basin.

IMB and its vendors used environmentally sourced products: compostable packaging, recycled content and so on.

Aid station sponges - some 20,000 are used - were eliminated. (The race did other things, as well. Google the Ironman Boulder Sustainability Report.)

So if Boulder - our big brother in the outdoor world - can reach the highest standard, why can't we?

"We try to do as much as we can for recycling and environmental sustainability as we can," said Keats McGonigal, who oversees the Chattanooga race as regional director for Ironman.

For last weekend's race, Ironman's "environmental captains" and local volunteers sorted recyclables - water bottles, cardboard - from trash.

"A big thanks from us to all of them," he said. "Without their support knowing to do that, it becomes hard to separate the streams and get them to the right spot."

Triathletes I spoke with agreed.

"Ironman does a fantastic job," said one.

Race officials then pass responsibility to our city's Public Works Department.

"We pick up and transfer the collected and bagged material," said Colline Miller, the department's public relations coordinator.

Last weekend's race generated 4.92 tons of trash.

Yet, another 4.45 tons of trash was recycled.

That's roughly a 50% recycling rate.

The race also donated 308 cases of water, 22 cases of Gatorade, 23 cases of Coca-Cola and 1,900 pounds of produce to the Chattanooga Area Food Bank.

These are good numbers.

Imagine better.

Last week, our city made history, hosting its first net zero carbon conference. The International Placemaking Week bought enough solar energy through EPB's Solar Share program to equal or match 100% of the four-day conference's estimated energy costs. (The Solar Share is not just for conferences, but all of us. We recently bought in as a family, too.)

Thanks to help from green/spaces, the conference encouraged composting and emission-free travel options and, best of all, achieved net zero water and nearly net zero waste.

Last week's conference created a vision of what's possible for all future conferences.

Ironman Chattanooga could do the same.

It could become the first net zero carbon triathlon.

And net zero water.

And net zero waste.

Such leadership would influence other races - 7 Bridges Marathon, Head of the Hooch - and festivals - Three Sisters, Riverbend, Moon River and so on.

Chattanooga has built itself as an outdoor city; shouldn't we be the very stewards of the resources that sustain us?

After all, Boulder did it.

Can't we?


Every year on my birthday, I get a phone call from David Vining, longtime teacher, tennis coach, Young Life leader and camp counselor.

But many of you already knew that.

Because on your birthday, you get the same call or text.

Hundreds of you.

Thousands of you.

Every day of the year, Vining, 56, calls or texts people, wishing them - sometimes singing, sometimes even a cake - Happy Birthday.

How many calls does he make each day?

"At least five. Maybe 10," said his wife Beth. "He wants people to realize they are important and he remembers them."

He keeps names and dates on a calendar, but for many folks, he's got their birthday memorized.

Do the math: an average of seven calls a day, 365 days a year for, say, 25 years.

That's nearly 64,000 birthday wishes.

He's better than Hallmark.

"He does it to make people feel important," she said. "To help people realize they matter."

There is so much in the world today sending the opposite message: you aren't important. You don't matter.

Vining's birthday ministry is devotion to the inherent dignity in us all.

Let's return the favor.

This Wednesday, Oct 9, it's his birthday.

Call. Text. Email him. Let him know how much he matters, too.

photo David Cook

View other columns by David Cook

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at

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