Hear Them Roar! Detroit Women’s Half Marathon Sustainability Report

What happens when you take 1,000 women, give them coffee and chocolate, and blast the Katy Perry music? A half marathon breaks out! Would the Zero Waste team pick up enough of that energy to stay on top of the trash? Read on to find out!

Sustainability Report: Detroit Women’s Half 2017
Date: September 17, 2017
Event company: Epic Races, Ann Arbor MI
Location: Belle Isle
# Attendees: 1,070 runners + staff + spectators
Zero Waste Team volunteers: 1

Race Overview

Belle Isle is the venue for the Detroit Women’s Half Marathon, sponsored by American Home Fitness. The half is the main race, although 5K and 10K distances are also offered. The course follows a loop around the park, which has views of the river and the Detroit and Canadian shorelines. Over 1,000 runners took advantage of a sunny, reasonably cool day to run and enjoy the atmosphere.

Race entertainment included a live band, and post-race food included Iorio’s gelato and Sanders salted caramel chocolates. Bearclaw Coffee brought a truck to keep those in need of caffeine well fueled.

Zero Waste Plan

The start/finish and post-race areas were long but somewhat narrow, so Zero Waste bins were set up at either end and a couple places in between. Two Zero Hero tents were deployed just past the finish line and food tables. And the HPR-designed eight-foot high “Zero Waste Station” signs made their debut at the event.

NOTE: Apologies for the smudged photos. Lesson learned: always clean the lens!

Detroit Womens Half - 3-bin setup with sign.jpg

Main waste streams collected included compostables, recycling and snack bag wrappers. Additionally, we collected plastic bags, Styrofoam, Gu wrappers, and the disposable plastic tablecloths (which TerraCycle will accept in a Zero Waste Box).

Waste Management provided a 20-yard recycling rolloff container. It was a pleasant surprise to find out they take plastic bags and Styrofoam in the rolloff, because most providers do not accept these materials and we have to recycle them separately.


Due to a shortage of volunteers, I was worried we’d have to sacrifice some recoverable materials, which would hurt our diversion numbers. But everything got looked at and sorted, and when all was over, we’d achieved a diversion rate of 99.4 percent – a result I would never have predicted for the first Zero Waste effort at a race this size.

Detroit Womens Half - single baq of trash
Epic Races owner Eva Solomon and race director Mary Culbertson holding the single bag of landfill trash.

Breakdown by waste stream (numbers rounded):

  • Compostables: 463.8 lbs. (51.9 %)
  • Recyclables: 424.8 lbs. (47.5 %)
  • Landfill: 5.7 lbs. (0.6 %)

What Went Right

A relatively small set of food and drink materials helped us keep on top of the waste by reducing sorting time and the need to change bags.

Initially we set up the runners-only area tents on the grass to the side. We later moved them onto the pavement directly in the exit path to improve their visibility and usage, which helped.

Detroit Womens Half - runners using tent

Overall, the runners paid good attention to the signage on the tents and bins, as the tents required less sorting than expected. (People in the spectator area were not quite as attentive, as I often found coffee and gelato cups tossed in the compostable bins, and banana peels in the recycling bins. Volunteers would have made a big difference here.)

We got many positive comments and thanks from the runners.

Opportunities for Improvement

The two people signed up to help with Zero Waste did not show up, so I worked solo for most of the event. Fortunately, the post-race area was small enough to cover, although I was pretty much continually in motion. At cleanup time a volunteer freed up to assist with sorting and weighing the collected recyclables, which helped a lot.

Detroit Womens Half - aid station waste
Recyclables from the aid stations awaiting final sort.

The aid stations could improve their waste bin supervising and sorting. I pulled a lot of Gu packets out of the bags of cups.

A lot of food waste was generated. In addition to runners discarding half-eaten bananas and other food, several boxes of bananas spoiled in the afternoon heat. They were composted, but perhaps a way can be found next time to keep them in good enough condition to donate.

Composting Bananas - entire load
Four hundred pounds of bananas….less one.

The recycling rolloff was mistakenly dropped off in the wrong location, farther away than was planned. But it was not in a high-traffic area, so it was not used as a trash dumpster by other park visitors, and we transported the recyclables over to it in vehicles.

The coffee truck supplied drinks in recyclable cups that had compostable lids, resulting in extra sorting since the two streams cannot mix and runners (reasonably) disposed of the cups and lids together. I talked with the company owner and suggested they go all one way or the other with the cups and lids.

The gelato station was another pleasant surprise, but the used plastic cups couldn’t be recycled without rinsing them (which was done, but took time). Jeff spoke with the vendor, who was very agreeable to the idea of using compostable cups next time.

What We’ll Do Differently Next Time

Improved communication with the third-party vendors to make sure we know what materials they will be using, and suggest heavier use of compostables.

Hopefully we can have more people help at race end, when all the aid station waste arrives and needs sorting. And we can better train the aid station workers.

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