In the Deep End: Swim to the Moon 2019 Sustainability Report

The 10th annual Swim to the Moon was, for the athletes, and the charitable camp the race supported, a really good day. It went swimmingly, one might say.

Behind the scenes, things were a bit less serene. A full race field combined with a shortage of volunteers made for a long morning for everyone, including the solo member of the Green Team. In came the waves of waste. Did we get swamped, or climb on top and ride them out? All is revealed below!

Sustainability Report: Swim to the Moon
Date: August 18, 2019
Event company: Epic Races, Ann Arbor MI
Location: Halfmoon Lake recreation area, Gregory MI
# Attendees: 700 runners + staff and spectators
Green Team size: 1

Results: 89.6 percent landfill diversion
Compostables: 68.4 lbs.     Recyclables: 139.5 lbs.     Landfill: 24.1 lbs.

Pie and trend chart - Swim to the Moon 2019.jpg

Landfill trash was up a little but still pretty much in line with previous years. Main items were foil contaminated with melted cheese, ice cream wrappers, and race tag materials. The “wet and peel” numbering is convenient for the swimmers, but unfortunately the laminated paper backing cannot be recycled.

Swim to the Moon 2019 - Swimmers applying their numbers

Race Overview

Swim to the Moon is a swimming race that includes 5K, 10K, 1.2 mile, and 0.5 mile options. The beach at North Star Reach is the starting point for the 5K and the turnaround point for the 10K. The other races start at, and all races finish at, the Halfmoon Lake Day Use area.

Swim to the Moon 2019 - 10K elite wave starts with moon above
The 10K elite wave starts, right under the moon.

The event raises money for North Star Reach, which provides a free camping experience for kids with serious health challenges. This is the tenth year for Swim to the Moon, and the race director announced that over $10,000 has been raised for the camp so far.

Swim to the Moon 2019 - North Star Reach camper and parents
A North Star Reach camper and his parents express their gratitude for the camp.

Zero Waste Plan

With no Green Team volunteers registered, I planned a minimal setup. Two sets of bins (Compost / Recycle / Trash) were placed in the finish and food area, with the Ground Zero sorting station at one of them. The registration tent and vendor tents were some distance away, so I placed general-purpose (all waste) bins near them with the intent of sorting them post-event unless a volunteer showed up to help. (Putting out full stations unsupervised would have just resulted in more bags of mixed waste.)

When I arrived at the beach at North Star Reach (the 5K start and the 10K turnaround) someone had put out baskets to collect waste. I maintained them until the 5K start was complete, then took the collected waste back to Halfmoon Lake. After that I rotated among the finish line stations and the food prep tent to keep order as best I could.

Swim to the Moon 2019 - Me at North Star Reach waste station

Post-race food was grilled cheese sandwiches and egg and cheese burritos (wrapped in foil), tomato soup, fruit, bags of chips, and ice cream bars. The plates and utensils were compostable. The soup cups were a challenge – see below.

The foil and ice cream wrappers are too contaminated to recycle but the sandwiches and ice cream are popular at this race, so the trash is a bit higher here than at other Epic events. And I was too busy to separate out the chip bags, so most of them went to landfill with the other wrappers. I was able to separate out the Gu wrappers for recycling via TerraCycle.

Post-Event Processing

Data collection and final sort, including the three “all waste bins” was done at HPR HQ following the event, as well as the special recycling items (discarded swim caps, race bibs, etc.) to be placed in their respective TerraCycle Zero Waste Boxes.

Compostables went to Tuthill Farms. Standard recycling and waxed cups were taken to a Western Washtenaw Recycling dropoff station. Plastic bags went to Recycle Ann Arbor.

What Went Well

It was one of those days. Just when I was thinking, “at least it’s not raining,” we got some showers during takedown! But the finish line stations stayed reasonably under control. And even with all the challenges, we recycled or composted nearly 90 percent of the waste. I’m calling it a win.


Keeping the waste stations sorted, assisting the athletes, and keeping up with the waste coming from food preparation (empty boxes, used gloves, plastic wrap, and food scraps) was all I had bandwidth for, so some processing and all data collection had to be done after the event.

Swim to the Moon 2019 - Food tent gets busy and stuff piles up
The action gets heavy in the food tent during the rush, and boxes and other waste pile up.

I discovered the tomato soup was being served in waxy cups, which cannot be composted, and could not be recycled due to contamination. And they were being tossed into the recycle bins, causing soup to spill onto the other recyclables. I replaced them with compostable cups from my stock, and clipped examples to the compost bins. This reduced the cross-contamination somewhat and saved many cups from landfill.

Even with examples clipped to the bins, some athletes were confused about what went where. Part of this was the variety of materials – foil, compostable paper, waxy paper, regular plastic, and bioplastic. When I put out more specific signs, e.g. “FOIL and ICE CREAM WRAPPERS” things improved.

Opportunities for Improvement

Simplify bin signage but also provide more specific examples.

Confirm during setup that compostable containers are used where possible, especially where residue would prevent recycling.

Put more labeled waste receptacles in the food prep area. In addition to disposable gloves, boxes could be added to hold food waste, plastic bags, and soup cans. And provide a large box for cardboard so it isn’t scattered on the ground. Space is tight, so full-sized bins are impractical, but smaller boxes should work.

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