Down and Dirty: Dances with Dirt – Hell 2017

Dances with Dirt – Hell is an excuse for several thousand people to dress up in wild costumes, run a few miles on trails, get dirty, and then consume a lot of beer. Hundreds of relay teams and a few brave solo ultrarunners carve their way through the Pinckney recreation area – some of it actually intended to be trail, some perhaps not.

Last year the Zero Waste team had a “hell” of a time when the exit rush occurred, getting “swamped” with pizza boxes and beer bottles. We managed a diversion percentage in the 80s but quite a bit of recoverable material ended up in the trash dumpster when we ran out of time to properly sort the recyclables, and out of bins for the food waste. Could we do better this year?

Sustainability Report: Dances with Dirt – Hell
Date: September 23, 2017
Event company: RF Events, Ann Arbor MI
Location: Half Moon Beach, Pinckney Recreation Area
# Attendees: approx. 2,000
Zero Waste Team volunteers: Varied

Race Overview

The Hell edition of Dances with Dirt is the final, and most popular, of the DWD series of the year. There are 50K and 50-mile solo distances, but the largest option is the 100K relay, with teams showing up in all kinds of costumes and choosing “clever” names for their teams.

DWD Hell 2017 - sample team names

DWD Hell 2017 - womens team 2

The relay course legs range from fairly tame to quite gnarly, with swamps, river wading, and lots of rocks and roots involved. Names like “Buttslider,” “Vertigo,” “This Sucks,” and “Styx, River of Death” provide some clues as to their nature.

The biggest challenge for Zero Waste is the period from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m., when everyone has finished and begins to leave the park, generating a “rush” where a lot of waste is disposed of in a short time. Much of this is empty beer bottles and cans, and pizza boxes handed out by the staff.

DWD Hell 2017 - Pizza station

Zero Waste Plan

In 2016 the tents were deployed in a rough “ring” around the park where the runners congregated. This led to a lot of walking to service some tents that were not heavily used. This year we set up two large stations near the parking lot. Each had two tents, plus bins for discarded shoes and clothing, deposit cans and bottles, and pizza boxes. With concentrated stations we hoped to handle the “rush” better than with scattered tents.

DWD Hell 2017 - Me at Zero Waste station

One tent was set up between registration and the start/finish area, and a set of bins (compost, recycle, trash, cans) was placed at one end of the covered pavilion, designed mainly for use by the staff and volunteers.

The “Ground Zero” sorting station was placed between the pavilion and the recycling rolloff in the parking lot to make it visible and convenient, but also out of the main runner traffic area.

We ordered a 20-yard recycling rolloff from Advanced Disposal. As they could provide a tonnage report, we did not weigh the recyclables before tossing them in. Due to our success this year in minimizing landfill trash, we did not order a trash dumpster.

We had four 96-gallon bins for compost collection, as well as four large cardboard boxes specifically for the large number of pizza boxes generated at this event. My Green Michigan picked up the collected compostables.

We had one vendor (a coffee truck) whose main waste was cups, which could be recycled.

Jeff (Zero Waste Captain) did setup and was the sole Zero Waste team member until the evening rush began, at which point some additional volunteers staffed the two large aid stations and assisted with hauling full bags to the sorting station.


Despite some challenges, and that we gave up collecting wrappers as a separate stream, we achieved 97.5 percent diversion!

Breakdown by waste stream (amounts rounded):

  • Compostables: 543 lbs. (24.6 %)
  • Recyclables: 1,493 lbs. (67.4 %)
  • Donated food and clothes: 121 lbs. (5.5 %)
  • Landfill: 54 lbs. (2.5 %)

Recyclables included 154 lbs. of deposit cans and bottles, collected by a staff member for a local soccer team.

What Went Right

The stations worked well, although some people were confused by all the different waste streams. Very little “litter” was found on the ground, although some was scattered throughout the parking lot.

DWD Hell 2017 - People using the Zero Waste station

Not weighing the recyclables saved time at the end, when the rush created a lot of waste in a short time. The “boxes for pizza boxes” also worked well, saving space in the 96-gallon bins for food waste.

Last year we recovered about 20 pairs of shoes from the trash, plus socks and towels. This year, with the labeled bins, 75 pairs of shoes were collected. They went to The North Face for their “Clothes the Loop” donation/recycling program.

The aid station waste required very little additional sorting, a big relief because much of it arrived at rush time.

The runners were very supportive of the Zero Waste effort, including one person who took a photo of a station and posted it on Instagram with a comment on how much she liked what we did.

Instagram of ZW station

Opportunities for Improvement

The amount of waste during the rush was high enough that it was not all sorted when darkness fell. Jeff went back Sunday morning to complete the sorting and pick up miscellaneous discards in the parking lot.

As with last year, a lot of the pizza handed out to runners was not eaten. Giving out full boxes is convenient and quick, but it results in a lot of boxes piling up at the stations, many with pizza still in them.

DWD Hell 2017 - Lots of uneaten wasted pizza

As with Run Woodstock, many runners had bags full of unsorted waste that they expected to throw away as such. We did our best to help them sort out recyclables and food waste, but it took time.

The park’s dumpsters at the far end of the parking lot were used by some runners. Much recoverable material was likely thrown in there, but we didn’t have the resources to staff that area and divert any of it.

What We’ll Do Differently Next Time

Work harder to recruit Zero Waste team members for the 5:00-9:00 p.m. shift, to better manage the rush. Perhaps we can have enough to set up a station at the park dumpster and capture more waste.

More education of the runners – please separate your waste, and try to pack out what you packed in.

Published by RunBikeThrow

By day, I'm a mild-mannered Director of Training at a software company in Ann Arbor, MI. By night - I sleep, mostly. In between, I do other things I feel the need to write about. Check out to view my thoughts on running, cycling, Aikido, and other things that keep me going.

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