2017 Ann Arbor Marathon Achieves 96% Landfill Diversion

Date: March 26, 2017
Event company: Epic Races, Ann Arbor MI
Location: Downtown Ann Arbor, MI
# Attendees: 2,500 runners + staff + spectators
Zero Waste Team volunteers: 4

Race Overview

The Ann Arbor Marathon is a 5K, 10K, half marathon, and full marathon that takes place in downtown Ann Arbor and surrounding neighborhoods. Despite a chilly and rainy forecast, a large number of enthusiastic runners showed up and sprinted past Happy Planet Running’s “Ground Zero” sorting station on Main Street about one mile into their various races.

The rain held off until about 10:30, but conditions deteriorated steadily afterwards. By early afternoon, everything and everyone was wet and cold. And the Zero Waste effort was short by two key volunteers. Final cleanup promised to be no fun whatever – but it was a walk on the beach compared to what I found the next day!

Zero Waste Plan

The decision to go Zero Waste for the 2017 marathon was made just two weeks before the event, so we did what we could in the time available. But anything would be an improvement over all the waste going to landfill, and it would be a valuable learning experience.

The City of Ann Arbor provided an eight-yard recycling dumpster, and Zero Waste Washtenaw collected the compostables. We had intended to cover up the city’s trash bins in the finish area, but did not (which turned out to be one of those valuable learning experiences).

HPR set up a Zero Hero tent at the race Expo the day before to give the runners a heads-up on what to expect, and received much positive feedback (and some recyclables too).

A2 Marathon Expo - Zero Hero Tent

Race Day

We set up one tent at the starting line at Michigan Stadium. Due to a shortage of volunteers we left it unsupervised, at the risk of a lot of sorting afterward. Five tents were deployed in the finish area, a block of Main Street closed off for the occasion.

Post-race food was pizza, bananas, brownies, and potato chips. The paper plates and napkins were compostable, and the pizza boxes were either recycled or composted. One troublesome point was the individual potato chip bags, which can be recycled through TerraCycle, but had to be collected separately.

The biggest challenge turned out to be the aid stations. They served water and Gatorade, with just a few offering Gu packets. However, their volume of waste generated, combined with the bad weather, made for a very unpleasant situation afterward.

As the race promised to be wet and cold, Mylar “space blankets” were given out to finishers of the longer races. A good idea, but it was another waste stream to have to collect separately.

Being a cold day, a number of runners discarded their outer layers of clothing near the starting line – a standard practice with morning marathons. The race staff later collected the clothing (four large garbage bags worth) for donation.

What Went Right

All went well on Main Street. The volunteers did a great job supervising the tents and assisting the runners with how to dispose of their waste. They also pitched in to help with the stacks of pizza boxes (dry to recycle, greasy to compost). Staff and volunteers were all supportive and positive about the Zero Waste effort, and we received many thanks and compliments from the runners.

A2 Marathon 2017 - Pre-sorting

The tent at the starting line, although unsupervised, held mostly the right things in the right places. Some plastic bottles and cups were discarded on the ground near the line of porta-potties, which took a few minutes to collect.

I’d brought along a pop-up canopy in a attempt to keep the sorting area dry. It was a lifesaver, keeping the cardboard stacks dry enough to put in the recycle dumpster, and providing a shelter for those doing final sort with the collected bags from the tents.

Opportunities for Improvement

Zero Waste remains a very labor intensive effort. Having enough people to staff the tents and sort the waste is key to a high diversion rate. Thus when one volunteer called in sick and another never showed, things got a bit challenging. With assistance from the finish line crew we stayed on top of things on Main Street, but the potential was there to fall too far behind to recover.

Not covering the city trash bins led, not surprisingly, to people using them. One in particular, right across from the sorting station, overflowed with food waste, water bottles, and discarded heat blankets. But the volunteers dove in and retrieved a lot of material that would have otherwise gone to landfill.

A2 Marathon 2017 - Blankets and Overflowing Bin

The aid station crews were all new to the idea of Zero Waste, and we had to make do with basic instructions on keeping the bins of cups as “clean” as possible (e.g. pulling out the used Gu wrappers, which can’t go to standard recycling). Predictably the results were mixed, and that combined with the bad weather led to a nasty surprise back at HQ.

The Nasty Surprise

The entire event had to be packed up and off Main Street by 2:30, and all the finish area waste was collected and processed on time. But the final aid station waste had not arrived, so it went back to Epic Races HQ for final sort there. I expected a small hill of cardboard and bags of cups that would take a couple of hours to sort through the next day.


A2 Marathon 2017 - Mountain o Trash

I don’t blame anyone one bit for this – everyone, including me, just wanted to get warm and dry.

On Monday we tore down the mountain, bagged the loose stuff, and moved the recyclables into a truck.  Zero Waste Washtenaw collected the wettest cardboard for composting. On Tuesday we took the truck to Recycle Ann Arbor and did final sort, pulling out Gu wrappers, articles of clothing, and other non-recyclables from the bags of cups. Later on I bagged the Gu wrappers to send to TerraCycle.

A2 Marathon 2017 - Sorting Aid Station Trash


Despite all the challenges and surprises, we achieved an incredible 96 percent landfill diversion, far exceeding my expectations. The total trash in the finish area was just 15 lbs., which fit comfortably into a city trash bin – the same bin we’d emptied of the overflow!

A2 Marathon 2017 - One Trash Bag

Breakdown by waste stream:

  • Compostables: 428.9 lbs. (31.0 %)
  • Recyclables: 853.9 lbs. (61.7 %)
  • Donated clothes: 50 lbs. (3.6%)
  • Landfill: 51.5 lbs. (3.7 %)

What We’ll Do Differently Next Time

More planning and farther ahead of time, applying the lessons learned from this year’s race.

Ensure every aid station has a trained volunteer to assist the runners with proper disposal of their waste.

Overall, though, couldn’t be happier with the results!

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