Sweet Success! Hot Cocoa Classic Sustainability Report

How do you get several hundred people to show up on a cold, gray morning and climb a steep hill to begin a run? Promise them hot chocolate afterward! With a lot of food and drink being consumed in a short time, could the Zero Waste effort keep up? With a good process and thoughtful use of materials, the answer was Yes. Read on for how we did it.

Sustainability Report: Hot Cocoa Classic
Date: November 4, 2017
Event company: Epic Races, Ann Arbor MI
Location: Mt. Brighton
# Attendees: 450 runners + staff + spectators
Zero Waste Team volunteers: 3

Race Overview

The Hot Cocoa Classic takes place at Mt. Brighton, with the course partly in the ski area, partly on the golf course. While the races are short (one mile and 5K) the course is challenging, as both distances begin with a hard climb up the ski hill.


After the race, runners warm up in a dining room with a large picture-window view of the ski area and the remaining runners finishing. Refreshments were cups of hot cocoa with marshmallows and other toppings available, bananas, cookies, and peanut butter rollups.

Zero Waste Plan

We set up one set of compost/recycle/trash bins outside near the starting line, which proved sufficient. The starting area also got a bin for the plastic wrap from the boxes of finish medals and other plastic bags. After most runners had finished, we moved the bins from the start/finish area between the post-race building and the parking lot.

The post-race area was inside, so we used sets of bins there as well. We set up two stations and put one volunteer at each. The “Ground Zero” sorting table was set up near the exit, where we staged full bags before the event ended.

There was a single aid station serving only liquids in cups. Two bins were set out to collect the recyclables.

The food bowls and hot cups for cocoa were compostable, eliminating the need to rinse food-smeared items or throw them away. Cups and water bottles were recyclable. Snack bags of potato chips were also served, and enough were taken to justify collecting them for TerraCycle. We also collected the plastic wrap and a small amount of Styrofoam. Cardboard was also collected from boxes of T-shirts, medals, and water jugs.

Mt. Brighton has an onsite recycling dumpster, so we did not need to order a rolloff.


Thanks to the use of compostable bowls and hot cups, we didn’t have to throw away any materials with food waste on them. This helped achieved a terrific result of 98.6 percent landfill diversion!

Breakdown by waste stream (numbers rounded):

  • Compostables: 68 lbs. (44.7 %)
  • Recyclables: 82.1 lbs. (53.9 %)
  • Landfill: 2.1 lbs. (1.4 %)
ZW team member Sam with the event’s lone bag of trash!

What Went Right

Using compostable materials for post-race food and drinks made for easy disposal, as just about everything went into the compost bin. However, volunteers were still needed to assist the runners (see below).

Having a volunteer at each of the waste stations inside greatly helped with keeping compostables and recyclables properly sorted. The outside bins contained mainly recyclables, so extra sorting was controlled with periodic visits.

Also part of the job: cleaning the PB jars and emptying whipped cream cans so they can be recycled.

We had a “bad news, good news” situation regarding recycling. The recycle dumpster onsite was labeled “Cardboard Only” so I thought we’d have to take back the bags of paper cups and water bottles. But the Mt. Brighton manager showed up just in time to tell us we could put all recyclables in there. Yes!

Opportunities for Improvement

The first year of a Zero Waste program means extra attention is needed at the waste stations, as the runners are still being introduced to the process. Without active supervision, many people will toss their waste into anything that looks like a trash can, often before the volunteers can react.

So much was just being tossed into the “Trash” bins at each station that I eventually removed them and put a black bag behind the recycle bins for use only if needed.

The post-race food was all pre-set in bowls to help the line move faster. Unfortunately, this led to a lot of food being thrown away uneaten. Outside, many water bottles were discarded with a lot of water left in them, which wasted both materials and time (to empty them).


What We’ll Do Differently Next Time

Look for ways to reduce the amount of wasted food and water. For water, perhaps use cups instead of bottles at the finish line. For food, a well-designed buffet line could reduce food waste while keeping the lines moving at a reasonable speed.

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