Despite a Fail, We Prevail! Hightail to Ale 2019 Sustainability Report

Morning, Friday, May 10. It was cool in Ann Arbor. While getting ready for the Hightail to Ale 5K that evening, I received a text from the event director regarding the recycling rolloff I’d ordered:

“Hey Jeff, no dumpster on site”

So in a few hours we’d be serving several thousand runners food and beer, and we had nowhere to put hundreds of pounds of recyclables. It was time to implement my carefully thought-out contingency plan. Or scramble like hell. Or panic.

Which of the above did I choose? And how did it turn out? All is revealed below!

Sustainability Report: Hightail to Ale 2019
Date: May 10, 2019
Event company: RF Events, Ann Arbor MI
Location: Atwater Brewery, Detroit MI
# Attendees: 2,800 runners, with spectators and staff
Zero Waste Team members: 5

Race Overview

The Hightail to Ale 5K takes place at the Atwater Brewery in Detroit on a Friday night. It is one of the “Thirsty 3” series featuring local producers of beer, wine, and cider. After completing the race, runners receive a free can of beer, and local food trucks serve up barbecue, sandwiches, and other fare.

Hightail 2019 - Start

Food waste is captured for composting, and beer cups and cans for recycling, along with cardboard from t-shirt and pint glass boxes, plastic wrap from medals and water bottle cases, and snack bag wrappers.

Surprise! Our Rolloff Provider Fails

We’d reserved a 30-yard recycling rolloff from a major waste hauling company (to be named later). I called them and was told that a bureaucratic snafu on their end caused our signed and confirmed order to be cancelled without notice to us. Now they could not provide a rolloff in time for the event.

Fortunately I had a Plan B, thanks to another failure from a different provider last year. I went to U-Haul to swap out my reserved trailer for a large truck. I drove it to the event and took the collected waste back with me. While it created additional work disposing of the cardboard and plastic that would have been put in the rolloff, it did the job, and saved RF Events over $500.00.

Results:  98.4 percent landfill diversion

Compostables: 65.3 lbs.     Recyclables: 435.6 lbs.     Landfill: 8.2 lbs.

Pie chart - Hightail 2019

Landfill waste consisted mainly of diapers, contaminated plastic, broken glass, a few waxy sandwich boxes, and tape.

Zero Waste Plan

We parked the truck between the beer area and food area, where the rolloff was to have been. We set up Ground Zero in front of it near the street.

Hightail 2019 - Ground Zero and truck

Waste station setup: Two tents flanked the entrance/exit to the food truck area. Another was placed near the brewery dumpster (covered with a tarp). Sets of bins were placed by the “No Alcohol Past This Point” signs on either end of the street, and in the finish corral just past the water bottles. Pails were put at each station for dumping liquids before recycling the cans/cups/bottles.

We used lined 96-gallon carts to collect cans, two in the beer area and one at each end of the street by the signs. Atwater also set up a table with draft beer in cups. We placed a general-purpose bin there and hoped for the best.

Hightail 2019 - Dana at station near end of roadHightail 2019 - Tent across road by dumpsterHightail 2019 - Bins in beer areaHightail 2019 - Bins in beer area 2

Food trucks were Mac Shack/El Guapo, Simply Spanish, and Slows 2 Go. Atwater Brewery provided sandwiches. At the finish line we provided water bottles and bags of chips and pretzels. No aid station for this event.

Instead of stations at the starting line, a team of three “swept” it after all the runners had departed, collecting some water bottles and miscellaneous trash.

Post-Event Waste Processing

At takedown it was getting dark, so I instructed the team to weigh the cardboard and bags but not to final sort them. Everything went into the U-Haul truck. Over the next few days I did final sort, with some welcome assistance from a volunteer and her daughter. Thanks again, Dana and Layla!

Hightail 2019 - Dana and daughter helping sort

Compostables went to WeCare in Ann Arbor, standard recyclables to WWRA, and plastic bags to Recycle Ann Arbor. Wrappers, party decorations, and small plastics went into TerraCycle Zero Waste Boxes. Beer cans went to PR Run Club, a nonprofit in Ann Arbor.

What Went Well

The backup plan of a U-Haul truck went surprisingly smoothly. The truck comfortably held all the collected waste, including all the 96-gallon bins and bags of cans.

Having several experienced Zero Waste team members was a huge help, as they kept stations sorted as much as possible, and weighed a lot of stuff quickly. The starting line sweep was also quick and efficient.


The large number of chip bag wrappers took a lot of time to process, as many of them still contained chips or pretzels that had to be emptied by hand. They are also expensive to recycle due to the cost of the TerraCycle zero waste box.

Atwater provided sandwiches in what I thought were compostable boxes, but after the race I discovered they were PE-lined. I pulled them out of the compost bags and redirected the clean ones for recycling at WWRA (similar to PE-lined cups). The soiled ones went to trash. They also had plastic cups for pickle chips, which had to be hand-sorted out of the sandwich boxes.

The bin at the Atwater draft beer station required several changes and extra sorting, but it was manageable, and we didn’t have enough staff to keep it manned.

Opportunities for Improvement

Continue to use a truck instead of a rolloff, but line up some support for post-event sorting and disposal of the compostables and recyclables.

If possible, find an alternative to individual snack bags at the finish line.

Work with Atwater to switch them to entirely compostable materials for the event.

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