Big Win in A2! Ann Arbor Marathon Sustainability Report

A beautiful run through “Tree Town” should include good environmental practices. And so it did! Read on to see how despite some challenges, the total landfill waste could be lifted with one finger!

Sustainability Report: Ann Arbor Marathon
Date: May 20, 2018
Event company: Epic Races, Ann Arbor MI
Location: Downtown Ann Arbor
# Attendees: approx. 1,400 runners, plus staff and spectators
Zero Waste Team volunteers: 8 (varied shifts)

Race Overview

The Ann Arbor Marathon takes runners along some of the most beautiful parts of Ann Arbor, including the University of Michigan campus, Nichols Arboretum, Gallup Park, and a long stretch along the Huron River on the Border-to-Border Trail.

Race options included 5K, 10K, half marathon, and full marathon. This year all the races started together.

The runners take off in the collective start.

This was the second year the Ann Arbor Marathon implemented Zero Waste practices. Last year, separate start and finish areas and a chilly rain resulted in a scramble to stay on top of managing the waste. This year, start and finish were both at Elbel Field, and the aid station waste was delivered there as well, greatly simplifying the logistics.

Zero Waste Plan

The runners finished on the artificial turf of Elbel Field, then walked to the grassy area for post-race food and the gear vendors. We set up the “Ground Zero” collection station at the entrance to the grassy area.

The morning Zero Waste team prepares for the onslaught.

We set up a Zero Hero tent by the registration table, one by the Ground Zero Station, a pair at the end of the food tables, and a pair among the gear vendors near the porta-potties. The finish line got a bin for plastic bags/wrap. Later we added a tent near the road along the path people took to return to their cars. We covered the trash bins in the area with contractor bags.

After race start, an aid station was set up along the road by Elbel Field to service marathoners between loops one and two of the course. We set up a bin for the cups, and extra bins for compostables and other recyclables.

Getting the second loop aid station under control.

The University made their recycling dumpsters available, and had students with a small truck to carry the cardboard and bags of recyclables to them. However, they could not accept the wax-coated cups, so we took those bags to Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority after the event.

Compostables were taken back to Epic and picked up by Zero Waste Washtenaw the following morning.

Post-race food was bananas, Domino’s pizza and cookies, and Popsicles. We treated the pizza boxes as compostables regardless of how soiled they were, and placed some large cardboard boxes by the food tables to hold them.


Over 99 percent diversion, with less than four pounds of trash – a big improvement over last year, and far less trouble!


Breakdown by waste stream (numbers rounded):

  • Compostables: 77.3 lbs. (11.6 %)
  • Recyclables: 586.1 lbs. (87.9 %)
  • Landfill: 3.6 lbs. (0.5 %)

What Went Well

Last year we had to set up and monitor stations at Michigan Stadium (start) and Main Street (finish), and the aid station waste was all dropped off at Epic because the other two locations had to be vacated by noon. This year, Elbel Field was the only location we needed to service, making waste management much easier.

The Zero Waste Team volunteers pitched in like troopers to keep the tents in order, and to sort through a massive amount of waste from the 13 aid stations.

Volunteer assisting a runner.
The first load of aid station waste gets final sort. (More was to come.)

Using large cardboard boxes to hold the used pizza boxes worked well, except for one where the bottom wasn’t properly secured.

We gave out space blankets again this year. In 2017 they were stuffed into City trash bins, creating a messy overflow problem. This year, with trash containers covered and special bins set out for the blankets, they were collected without trouble.


We were able to collect most of the small plastic items and disposable gloves for sending to TerraCycle.


The yogurt vendor who showed up at Ann Arbor Goddess 5K also appeared at this event. The impact was greater this time, with over one hundred cups were put in our waste stream, all with yogurt residue that required rinsing afterward. (Rinsing at the event was not effective. Scrubbing with warm water and soap was needed to get them acceptably clean.)

Food area, with our unexpected extra yogurt vendor.
And the aftermath.

The coffee truck usually packs out their coffee grounds. But this time they tossed a large bag of mixed coffee grounds, utensils, and containers into a bin we had set out for marathon aid station cups. I sorted that bag, then gave them a green bag to use for future grounds and asked them to please separate the compostables from the other stuff.

Maker:L,Date:2017-9-7,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-YAs with last year, the aid station bags of cups contained a significant amount of Gu packets and other materials that needed to be sorted out at the end of the event. We put together a team, but there were a lot of bags to go through and a lot of collecting the other material and putting it in the right box.

Opportunities for Improvement

If the yogurt folks want to be part of the event next year, they should provide a volunteer to rinse the cups.

Always check what outside vendors are going to do with their waste, even if their past practice has been consistent.

More education of the runners to not toss Gu packets in cup bins. Larger signage would probably improve things too.

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