Cold Turkey, Hot Chocolate, Zero Waste

A cold, blustery morning didn’t stop thousands of people from packing downtown Ann Arbor for the annual Turkey Trot. With a hot chocolate and coffee station for the runners, we promised to be awash in cups, as well as bananas, cookies, and cardboard from all the boxes.

We learned last year that making the race waste go where we wanted was not easy. But this year we came in with a new plan and a bigger team. Could we get everything cleaned up, sorted, and disposed of before the football games and the afternoon gorging?

Sustainability Report: Ann Arbor Turkey Trot
Date: November 23, 2017
Event company: RF Events, Ann Arbor MI
Location: Downtown Ann Arbor, MI
# Attendees: 4,000
Zero Waste Team members: 4

Race Overview

The Ann Arbor Turkey Trot takes place on Thanksgiving morning bright and early (or dark and really early as the case may be for setting up). The event takes over several city blocks downtown.

The main event is a 5K and there is also a 1K run for kids. It’s popular with both runners and walkers, and jogging strollers and dogs are permitted.

The Zero Waste team gets hit hardest as people finish and pick up their water bottles, bananas, and cookies. There’s also a hot chocolate and coffee station.

Zero Waste Plan

So, regarding last year…

AA Turkey Trot 2016 - Overflowing trash bin

Yes, the convenient City trash and recycling bins actually created a problem for us in 2016. At one key corner they were more popular than our tents, to the point of being ludicrously overfilled. Our ZW team rescued what we could, and we actually had an excellent diversion percentage, but it took a lot more effort than it should have.

This year we covered some of the City trash and recycling bins with contractor bags, and tipped others on their sides to show they were out of service. Tents were placed at Fourth and Liberty (the key corner), one near the food station at Fifth and Liberty, and one on Liberty between Fifth and Division next to the line for the porta-potties. We staffed each with a ZW team member.

ZW team member Leslie (left of tent) braving the chilly morning. (As for the runner in the foreground – I’m mystified too.)

Another significant change from last year was using compostable cups for the hot chocolate and coffee, eliminating worries about leftover liquid and food in the cups contaminating the recyclables. The aid stations also used compostable cups for water.

The tent were set up for compostables and standard recyclables, with the third slot for recyclable cups (e.g. Starbucks) which we needed to keep separate because the City doesn’t accept them. Any actual trash was put in a black bag behind the center bin in each tent.

The “Ground Zero” sorting station was placed near the registration area, which also had a tent nearby. We moved this tent next to the hot chocolate station after registration closed.

The City provided recycling dumpsters, but there was an odd miscommunication. We ordered eight 96-gallon bins but the City thought we wanted eight 4-yard recycling dumpsters, delivering three before the miscommunication was discovered.

Jeff (Zero Waste captain) took the recyclable cups to the containers at the Dexter Town Hall, which are serviced by WWRC and accept those types of waxed hot cups. Jeff also took the bags of plastic wrap from medals and water bottle cases to Recycle Ann Arbor.

The compostables were taken back to RF Events HQ, where Jeff picked them up and took them to Tuthill Farms.


Less than three pounds of trash, and 99 percent diversion!

The (now) traditional “single bag o’ trash” photo from a race serviced by Happy Planet Running! Made possible by the terrific volunteer crew shown here.

Breakdown by waste stream (amounts rounded):

  • Compostables: 121.5 lbs. (32.2 %)
  • Recyclables: 253.5 lbs. (67.1 %)
  • Landfill: 2.8 lbs. (0.7 %)

What Went Right

Tent locations seemed to be just right, although we could have used one more by the finish line medal handout area (see below).

Thanks to diligent work by our tent staffers, the bags of compostables required minimal sorting at the end (good, because the hot chocolate created a mess in those bags). The separate streams for Starbucks vs. compostable cups was a bit confusing to some, and some sorting was required, but not too much.

Several additional volunteers showed up at the end of the event to help with tent takedown, final sort, weighing, and disposal. They were much appreciated.

The aid station crew did a good job keeping compostable water cups (clear World Centric) separate from the recyclables.

We ended up not using any of the 4-yard recycling dumpsters the City delivered. There was one in the parking area that we used for registration, and it had enough room for all our recyclables, mainly cardboard and water bottles.

Opportunities for Improvement

Setting up tents in the cold and dark is difficult and unpleasant, especially attaching the interior Velcro straps with numb fingers. But there was no secure space (as with Scrumpy) for setting them up ahead of time. We could streamline the process by pre-threading the poles through the Velcro straps without attaching them to the grommets. Then at setup time they could be quickly expanded without removing gloves.

With so many people crowded into just a few blocks, it was perhaps inevitable that some waste was tossed onto the curb or in unusual places. In particular many cups and banana peels were tossed into a pile of empty cardboard boxes of medals waiting to be picked up.

What were they thinking? No clue.

We overlooked covering a couple of City blue recycling bins. As feared, people tossed all kinds of waste in there, including Starbucks cups (City does not accept), banana peels, cookies, and compostable cups. I retrieved that material and left the actual recyclables in them.

What We’ll Do Differently Next Time

For next year, one 4-yard recycling container from the City would be fine, instead of X number of 96-gallon bins.

The Starbucks holiday cups (red decorations on white background) looked a lot like the compostable hot cocoa cups. Perhaps next year we can use solid brown or some other clearly contrasting colors.

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