An iconic running event in the Ann Arbor area gets a big boost to its Zero Waste efforts. With several thousand runners, thousands of discarded cups, and nearly 2,000 pounds of total event waste, how did they achieve over 98 percent landfill diversion and leave their trash dumpsters nearly empty? Read on to find out!
Sustainability Report: Dexter-Ann Arbor Run
Date: June 3, 2018
Event company: Ann Arbor Track Club, Ann Arbor MI
Location: Downtown Ann Arbor (finish line)
# Attendees: 3,500 runners, plus staff and spectators
Zero Waste Team volunteers: Varied
The Dexter-Ann Arbor Run is a local tradition in running that goes back 45 years and attracts several thousand runners from the Midwest region and beyond. It’s put on and managed by the Ann Arbor Track Club.
The main event is the half marathon that begins in Dexter and follows the Huron River into downtown Ann Arbor. The race is known for some great views of the river, gently rolling hills, and a notorious long uphill climb on Main Street for the final half mile. 5K and 10K options are also offered.
The waste management effort was led by finish line and trash and recycling manager Michael Linkevich. The event has recycled and composted race waste for several years, but still had a considerable amount going into the trash. I offered Michael the services of Happy Planet Running to help with increasing their landfill diversion. He accepted, with the full support of race director Doug Goodhue, downtown operations manager Ken Castle, and AATC President Mitch Garner. The AATC provided volunteers and the necessary resources to carry out the effort.
Zero Waste Plan
Most race waste would come from the finish area on Main Street, where medals, water, and post-race food and beer were offered. We also expected some items from the coffee shops and restaurants in the area. The 13 aid stations would be another major source of waste, primarily from cups used to serve water and Gatorade.
We reviewed the race’s existing composting and recycling practices and identified three areas in which we could make immediate improvements:
- Pizza boxes. The race orders over 300 boxes of pizza to serve to runners, and past practice was to recycle the boxes. But many boxes are greasy and unsuitable for recycling, and the little plastic tripods are too small for standard recycling. We decided to put all boxes into the compost carts, and to collect the tripods for TerraCycle with other small plastics.
- Waxed paper cups. The aid stations go through about 15,000 water and Gatorade cups. In the past, the cups went into the trash dumpsters, as the City of Ann Arbor does not recycle them. But Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority does, so we made arrangements to transport them to a WWRA facility after the race. Disposable coffee cups, e.g. Starbucks cups, also went into the WWRA bags.
- Small plastics and difficult-to-recycle items. Thanks to TerraCycle, it’s possible to recycle items such as plastic strapping, disposable gloves, and the pizza tripods. We asked the food tent volunteers to keep those items separate from the other recycling, and sorted them out of recycling bags when we found them there.
Three recycling dumpsters and fifteen 96-gallon compost carts were ordered from the City of Ann Arbor. Two trash dumpsters were also ordered just in case, although we were fairly confident they would not be needed. Everything was dropped off on Ann Street near Main Street, close to the action but out of sight. We set up the collection and sorting station in a covered parking lot, which offered shelter from the expected rain.
In order for things to run smoothly, we needed a lot of volunteers. We had two large teams of high school students scheduled, one for early morning to help with setup and early station staffing, and one for late morning, which would help sort the aid station bags.
Waste Station Deployment
We set up six waste stations along Main Street where the runners got their post-race food and congregated. Each consisted of a compost cart, bin for recycling, and bin for landfill trash. They were staffed by volunteers when available.
The corner of Main Street and Ann Street had high foot traffic. We covered the City trash and recycle cans there and put in a waste station. It was not staffed, but I checked it regularly and kept it sorted.
The finish line got a bin for plastic bags/wrap behind the stacks of water bottles. We also collected the plastic wrapping from the finisher medals.
Compostables were pizza boxes,paper plates, and food waste (pizza, bananas, bagels, watermelon). Fifteen compost carts turned out to be a good number. There were enough for all the waste stations and the pizza area.
Full bags and compost carts were taken to the sorting station, where contaminants and non-standard items were removed and cups sorted into separate bags to go to WWRA. Cardboard and other standard recyclables (water bottles and jugs, hard plastic beer cups) were put into the City recycling dumpsters.
Special items, including Gu wrappers, disposable gloves, and yogurt cups (see the Challenges section) were taken by Happy Planet Running for post-race processing. Clean plastic bags and wrap were recycled, but those contaminated by mud and food waste had to be put in the trash.
The aid station bags contained mostly cups, but they required some special handling (see the Challenges section). Materials sorted out included Gu wrappers, plastic strapping, and discarded clothing.
All the collected waste was weighed either at the station or post-race.
This was the first year the event waste had been measured. Based on the numbers, we estimated that in previous years the landfill diversion rate had been about 70-75 percent at best. We improved it to over 98 percent, with just a single bag of trash, and no greasy pizza boxes mixed in with the recycling.
The compost carts ranged from nearly empty to very full. We filled two of the recycling dumpsters. The trash dumpsters got one or two small bags from passersby and our single bag from the race.
Breakdown by waste stream (numbers rounded):
- Compostables: 936.5 lbs. (52 %)
- Recyclables: 837.5 lbs. (46.4 %)
- Landfill: 28.3 lbs. (1.6 %)
The trash was mainly contaminated wrappers and plastic bags, with a few diapers/dog poop bags and other non-recyclable items. Due to the wet conditions, it was likely much heavier than it would have been on a dry day.
What Went Well
The number and location of the waste stations seemed to be appropriate. There was very little trash on the streets or sidewalks. The food tent volunteers did a good job keeping their area clean and their waste sorted, although they were confused at first about which materials should go where.
The volunteers at our sorting station were amazing, sorting a large number of wet and dirty bags without complaint. Kudos also to the Skyline High School football team volunteers, who staffed the Main Street stations in the late morning and then sorted most of the aid station bags.
We were able to retrieve for TerraCycle over 32 pounds of wrappers, disposable gloves, and small plastic items that would otherwise have been part of the landfill trash.
A yogurt vendor handing out free cups posed several challenges to our Zero Waste effort. While the cups were recyclable plastic, the residual yogurt made them and their foil lids non-recyclable unless rinsed clean. And when runners disposed of them, the yogurt contaminated our recycling bags and materials in them.
I decided not to trash the cups and put them into a large bin I had brought along. After the race I tossed them into my washing machine and hoped for the best. Two rinse cycles per load got them clean. I counted 360 cups in all. The five pounds of clean, dry cups would have translated to at least 15 pounds of yogurt-laden trash.
The first team of volunteers unexpectedly disappeared around 8:30 due to other commitments. The Main Street waste stations were thus unstaffed for about two hours. A finish line volunteer and I monitored them and kept them sorted. I also regularly checked and tidied the waste from the food area (disposable gloves, pizza tripods, plastic bags, cardboard) and the plastic bags/wrap bin near the water bottles.
The bins and compost cart in the beer area suffered from cross-contamination as they were not staffed. We sorted them all after collection, but it took extra time.
Due to a miscommunication, the aid stations used black bags instead of clear bags to collect the cups and other waste. In order to sort them properly, and to meet WWRA requirements, we had to transfer them into clear bags. Not a particularly difficult activity, but it consumed extra time and effort.
Opportunities for Improvement
Figure out how to minimize impact of the yogurt truck if they come back next year. Even if we trash the used containers, they still create a mess in our recycling bins.
More consistent volunteer staffing of the waste stations. Also staff the waste bins in the beer area, where the bags fill quickly and require a lot of sorting.
Consider repurposing the “trash” bin at the waste stations for waxed cups. 5-gallon pails could be used for landfill, as we get very little actual trash.
Make sure the aid stations use clear bags for their cups. Also encourage them to put discarded clothing and other non-cup waste into separate bags.
Improved instruction next year for the food area volunteers on what waste streams to collect and where to put them.