Greening Up in March! Ann Arbor Marathon Sustainability Report

What’s one way to clean up Ann Arbor? Hold a marathon!

For this year’s Ann Arbor Marathon, the Zero Waste effort not only left the start/finish area cleaner than we found it, we did the same with the course! From a Saturday plog to a true team effort on Sunday, we “greened up” our fair city, taking trash off the streets and parks, and recycling and composting race waste– a total of over 900 pounds! Read on to see the photos and learn how we did it.

Sustainability Report: Ann Arbor Marathon 2019
Date: March 24, 2019
Event company: Epic Races, Ann Arbor MI
Location: Ann Arbor, MI
# Attendees: 1,700 runners + staff + spectators
Zero Waste Team size: 3, with variations

Results: 98.6 percent landfill diversion
Compostables: 183.9 lbs.     Recycling: 725.4 lbs.     Trash: 12.8 lbs.

A2 Marathon 2019 - Pie and trend chart

Landfill waste was up quite a bit from last year, likely due to the colder weather and the addition of relay teams supplying their own food. But composting and recycling totals were up as well, so landfill diversion dipped only slightly from 2018’s 99 percent.

Trash consisted of contaminated plastic, non-recyclable wrappers, wet wipes, fast food wrappers, two broken drinking glasses, several bags of dog poop, and the ever-present diaper.

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, and Gallup Park, including a long stretch along the Huron River on the Border-to-Border Trail.

A2 Marathon 2019 - Race start
The runners take off.

Race distances were 5K, 10K, half marathon, and full marathon, including a relay. As with last year, all the races started at once, which worked out just fine. The morning was chilly – great for the runners.

A2 Marathon 2019 - Me with John Fingerle
Me with John Fingerle last Friday. They closed yesterday after over 70 years in Ann Arbor. What a terrific parting gift they gave us!

The event moved back to late March this year. The start and finish area also moved, in part to weather considerations, and part to bureaucratic inanity we won’t go into. Many thanks to Fingerle Lumber for offering their space to us!

Zero Waste Plan

Zero Waste for this event began the day before, with an informal “plog” of the course with help from PR Run Club (thanks again, all!) and Running Fit West (thanks again, Jessica!). We picked up 52 pounds of trash along Geddes Road, Huron River Drive by the golf course, Gallup Park, and parts of Fuller Road. Thanks again to everyone who pitched in!

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On race day, we set up two stations between the food table and the beer tent, one at the beer tent, and one at Ground Zero in the vendor area. We collected plastic wrap from the finisher medals and water bottle cases. Cardboard came from registration, the retail tent, and the food tables. We also collected small amounts of waste from the Girl Scout cookie table and the medical tent (non-hazardous).

This year instead of pizza there were pancakes and breakfast burritos to warm up the runners, and an ice cream cart that is popular regardless of weather. Bearclaw Coffee brought a truck serving hot drinks and pastries, and Marathon Brewing Co. set up a tent serving 26.2 beer (yes, it’s a real brand).

A2 Marathon 2019 - Pancake station 2

We provided the ten aid stations with clear bags for cups and a pail for wrappers and other small waste. A waste stream guide was given to the captains, with a request to break down the cardboard and keep the bins of cups as sorted as possible.

Waste Streams Processed

Due to the changing logistics, a City recycling dumpster or compost carts were not reserved. We took the collected recyclables to Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority recycling dumpsters. Compostables were taken to WeCare in Ann Arbor.

Space blankets, wrappers, disposable gloves, and small plastics went into Happy Planet Running’s TerraCycle boxes.

Post-event waste processing: the collecting clothing was washed. Some dirty materials were rinsed to make them recyclable. The collected wrappers were sorted into Gu vs. snack bag and other types. (Both types are recycled via TerraCycle, but as separate streams.)

A2 Marathon 2019 - Bags of wrappers to sort
Getting that last 10 percent diversion!

What Went Well

The start and finish area, while comfortably large for the runners, had a relatively compact footprint compared to previous years. This meant less walking needed to police the waste stations.

The coffee truck used all compostable materials, which we encourage. The beer cups (#1 plastic) had to be recycled, so some careful sorting was needed.

We had a strong morning Zero Waste team, and one afternoon volunteer was a superstar. They, with my assistant Janette, kept on top of the stations and did the weighing and recording of all the data.

A2 Marathon 2019 - Staffing a station

A2 Marathon 2019 - Janette and Lionel at Ground Zero with Larry
From left: Janette, Lionel (volunteer), and Larry (relay manager and Zero Waste supporter)


We had an early surge of volunteers for the afternoon shift (six in all). But one wasn’t feeling well and left early, and four others simply disappeared. So at takedown I had just one volunteer and my paid staff member.

Taking care of all the recyclables took three trips to WWRA.

As usual with this race, the timing and amount of aid station waste posed a logistical challenge. Here are photos from 2017 (after all-day rain) and 2018 (with a strong team of volunteers):

A2 Marathon 2017 - Mountain o Trash


This year the bags arrived after the course closed, late in the day, and all at once. But the Epic staff dived in like Marines to do final sort on them.

A2 Marathon 2019 - Staff sorting aid station bags

After sorting and weighing I loaded them into a U-Haul and took them to WWRA the following morning.

A2 Marathon 2019 - Cups at WWRA
Just a few . . . uhhhh . . . bags to unload.

(As a side note, each of those wet, cold bags had to be emptied into the WWRA container, not just tossed in. On a positive note, my efforts got a big thank-you from one of their drivers.)

A2 Marathon 2019 - Post-cup disposal at Zou-Zous
Recovery breakfast at Zou-Zou’s Cafe in Chelsea.

Opportunities for Improvement

Put out separate containers at the start/finish and aid stations for Gu wrappers vs. other wrappers and misc. stuff.

To improve aid station waste handling, investigate ways to bring in some of the aid stations earlier. And create a special late afternoon volunteer shift for takedown and sorting the aid station bags. In addition to aid station bag sort, they could help unload the recyclables at WWRA.

Have Zero Waste volunteers formally sign in and sign out with the team captain or volunteer director.

Next year, consider renting a truck for the recyclables instead of a trailer.

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