Empowering Sustainability! Girls on the Run SE Michigan Sustainability Report

An organization dedicated to empowering girls and encouraging them to run decides to go Zero Waste for its annual 5K events. Happy Planet Running and Zero Waste Washtenaw were happy to step up to help. How well did we succeed, given some nasty weather and so many runners? Really well! See below.

Sustainability Report: Girls on the Run SE Michigan 5K Events
Date: May 11-12, 2018
Event held by: Girls on the Run, SE Michigan
Location: Rolling Hills Park, Ypsilanti MI
# Attendees: 3,000+ runners, plus coaches and spectators
Zero Waste Team volunteers: Varied

Race Overview

Girls on the Run is an after-school program for elementary and middle school girls which provides activities to support positive emotional, social, mental and physical development. Their mission is to, “inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running.”

Photo from website
From the GotR website.

The programs culminate in a 5K with parents and coaches watching and even participating. The events are organized like races but are untimed and non-competitive, the emphasis being on completing the 5K and celebrating the accomplishment.

The events at Rolling Hills brought in thousands of girls from all over southeast Michigan – so many that three separate 5K events were scheduled. Despite the poor weather, it was evident the girls were happy and excited to be there.

5K finishers on Friday.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature decided to bring rain on both days. The Friday evening 5K went on as scheduled, although people left quickly afterward. The Saturday morning 5K started, but was cut short by lightning warnings in the area. For that reason, and the continuing rain, the Saturday afternoon 5K was cancelled. I’m sure many girls were disappointed, but it was most likely the right decision.

Zero Waste Plan

For this event, Happy Planet Running partnered with Zero Waste Washtenaw, who provided ClearStream stations for collecting compostables and recyclables, and five-gallon pails to collect landfill waste. We set up eight stations around the race area.

As this was the event’s first year of pursuing Zero Waste, we guessed at appropriate locations for Friday, learned from that, and adjusted for the Saturday events. Busy areas were just past the finish & food area, near the big shelter (due in large part to all the rain) and on the way to the parking lot. On Saturday we added a station at the craft tent.

The Zero Waste team keeps a station in order.

Post-race food was bananas and bags of popcorn. The volunteer tent had some snacks as well, mainly bananas, cookies, and energy bars. The bag and bar wrappers were collected separately in a couple of locations, using lined cardboard bins next to the ClearStream stations.

A Bearclaw Coffee truck was at the event Saturday morning. See below for a couple of challenges with their waste stream.

The park does not have a recycling program, so Zero Waste Washtenaw took the standard recyclables, as well as the collected compostables. Jeff (Happy Planet Running) took PE-lined cups to Western Washtenaw Recycling, and collected several difficult-to-recycle materials (such as wrappers and party decorations) to send to TerraCycle.

Some of the collected waste. Thanks to TerraCycle, the party disposables can be recycled!


We achieved over 97 percent landfill diversion, and a single bag of trash, which was a great result for the first year of a Zero Waste program.

Breakdown by waste stream (numbers rounded):

  • Compostables: 235.7 lbs. (59.8 %)
  • Recyclables: 147.3 lbs. (37.3 %)
  • Landfill: 11.3 lbs. (2.9 %)
The single bag of trash – from two days of events.

What Went Right

Having extra stations worked out well, given the size of the area used and the number of participants.

The ClearStream stations took little time to set up, and were easy to move to the shelter Friday evening and back out Saturday morning.

The volunteers on both days did a good job policing the stations and helping out with final sort and data collection on Saturday.

Having Zero Waste Washtenaw provide the stations and pick up the compostables directly at the park was a big help.

Taking the food waste and compostable cups to the Ann Arbor composting facility.


While the Bearclaw Coffee truck doubtless saved many lives, they were using non-compostable cups with compostable lids, so we had to pull them out of the bins and separate them. I mentioned the issue to the people in the truck.

The non-compostable cups from the coffee truck and those brought in by participants needed special handling, as Recycle Ann Arbor does not accept them. So HPR took the bags containing those cups to a Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority dropoff station.

The temporary tattoos handed out to the girls resulted in a lot of small plastic waste being left on the park’s grass. They were difficult to see and time-consuming to pick up.

Some parents and coaches tried to throw away entire bags of mixed waste thinking it was all just trash, which resulted in extra effort by the volunteers to sort.

Opportunities for Improvement

More education for the participants about the event’s Zero Waste focus. Possibilities include a special email with information, more signs at event registration, and an announcement by the emcee before each event.

The coach’s bags contained pens, which were often thrown away with the bags. If the pens were on the table instead, there would be less likelihood of them ending up in the waste bins to be sorted out later.

Consider replacing the temporary tattoos with something fully recyclable or that doesn’t generate a lot of small, hard to see waste.

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