A Long, Dirty Day: Dances with Dirt Hell Sustainability Report

A wet, dirty run through the wilderness. Not your idea of how to spend a fall Saturday? How about pizza, beer, and live music afterward? Plus you can wear exotic costumes and give your team a raunchy name. Welcome to Dances with Dirt, Hell edition!

This very popular event creates a lot of waste, most of which gets tossed during the exodus from the park just as it’s getting dark. Oh, and there are nine full-service aid stations, too. The Zero Waste team thus shares in the day’s suffering, and without the fancy costumes and raunchy team name. Did they still push through it without getting buried in leftover pizza? Read on to find out!

Sustainability Report: Dances with Dirt – Hell 2019
Date: September 21, 2019
Event company: RF Events, Ann Arbor MI
Location: Halfmoon Lake, Gregory MI
# Attendees: 1,500 runners, plus family and spectators
Zero Waste Team size: 4

Results: 90.1 percent landfill diversion
Compostables: 328.2 lbs.     Recyclables: 650.8 lbs.     Landfill: 107.8 lbs.
Pie and trend charts - DWD Hell 2019
Landfill waste was up considerably over previous years. Reasons included treating most wrappers as trash, and there seemed to be more outside items that we could not do anything with. Rain also added some water weight.

Race Overview

The Hell edition of Dances with Dirt is not your standard trail run. After a deceptively runnable start, it devolves into bushwhacking, steep climbs, swamps, and even a section where wading down a river is part of the course. I didn’t take any photos this year, but here are some from my 50K in 2014. (Not much has changed.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The main draw is the 100K relay, but 50K and 50-mile solo ultras are also offered for those who really enjoy suffering. Runners can expect to get wet, dirty, and scratched up, not necessarily in that order. But did I mention costumes? And pizza? And beer?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Live music adds to the party atmosphere, and most runners stay until it gets dark. Waste includes leftover food, lots of bottles and cans, cardboard boxes from T-shirts, pint glasses, etc. and hundreds of pizza boxes. Many runners also discard their muddy shoes and race clothes. And we get a lot of bottles and cans the runners bring full and leave empty.

Zero Waste Plan

A 30-yard recycling rolloff from Modern Waste Services held cardboard, water bottles and jugs, and other standard recyclables. Waxed cups and other non-standard recyclables were put in a U-Haul trailer for disposal after the event.

We set up a three-station central “pod” like at Run Woodstock, with an additional station next to the registration tent and pavilion and one near the park dumpster. Ground Zero was placed near the rolloff, which was also where the aid station waste was dropped off.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The central “pod” used tents for compost, recycling, and landfill, 96-gallon carts for pizza boxes (treated as compostable) and returnable bottles and cans. Large boxes for discarded shoes and clothes were placed at the central pod and the parking lot station.

We asked the aid station staff to sort as much as possible, in particular keeping food waste and Gu wrappers out of the cup bins. As I was running the 50K, I planned to do a real-time check and make adjustments as needed.

As at Woodstock, HPR provided orange bags for landfill, to clearly distinguish them from compost and recycling but still provide some transparency. We then knew that black bags were from runners.

Post-Event Waste Processing

Waxed cups were taken to a Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority dropoff station. Compostables were taken to RF Events for Tuesday pickup by My Green Michigan.

TerraCycle Zero Waste boxes were used for Gu wrappers, disposable gloves, party supplies, small plastics, race bibs, and Gatorade powder and Pringles cans. Plastic bags and wrap and various pieces of Styrofoam went to Recycle Ann Arbor.

Discarded shoes (82 pairs plus 2 singles) were dried and taken to The North Face for their Clothes the Loop program. Clothing was washed and then donated. Collected returnables were donated to a nonprofit running club in Ann Arbor.

DWD Hell 2019 - discarded shoes

What Went Well

The central three-station pod worked as well here as it did at Run Woodstock. Just two volunteers kept everything in order and provided more assistance to people disposing of their waste. I think we have a “keeper” setup for larger races.

The volunteers were terrific. We had two in the morning shift, captained by my wife Joyce, while I ran the 50K (*). We had three more (including my wife, again) for the evening shift. And veterans Anna and her son Bryce helped me set up the day before. Everyone worked hard and cheerfully. (The morning team is the headline photo, with me included. I think you can figure out who had just run the 50K.)

DWD Hell 2019 - Anna and Bryce at setup
Anna and Bryce helping with setup.
DWD Hell 2019 - Amelia and Scott
Amelia and Scott begin the evening’s sorting.

At the request of My Green Michigan, we used 96-gallon carts to hold pizza boxes instead of packing them in larger boxes. I wasn’t sure we’d have enough carts, but only three (of eight available) were needed. And we had no “towers of boxes” like in previous years. To optimize space, we asked runners to put leftover pizza into the compost bags.

Using the carts for collecting bottles and cans worked very well, with minimal contamination that was easily removed.

There was only a small amount of litter in the parking lot, most of which was collected by race staff, reducing the need for me to police the area as I did in previous years.


The waste generated in the evening came heavy and fast, and as usual we had to stop sorting due to darkness before it was done. I went back Sunday morning to complete sorting and transport the compostables, and again Joyce helped out. Is she great, or what?

A rain shower in the late afternoon soaked everything pretty well, which slowed down waste sorting for a while. The tents were too wet to put away, so I took them home and dried them.

Several hiccups occurred at the aid stations. They did not receive any orange bags, and one water stop had no bags at all, just cardboard bins. Also, low volunteer turnout resulted in some last-minute staffing by people untrained in Zero Waste methods. As a result, many bags were not well sorted, adding to the effort for our team in the finish area.

A lot of waste dribbled in late from the pavilion area and the race cleanup staff. Just a minor annoyance, but distracting to a team busy trying to complete sorting.

The recycling rolloff was not marked and could have been mistaken for a trash dumpster. I placed “Closed” signs on all sides and blocked off access as much as possible, and only a few things – bottles, cans, and cups – were tossed in by attendees.

Opportunities for Improvement

Make some large “Recycling Only” signs for the rolloff.

I can do a specific checkup on race morning to make sure the aid stations have all the Zero Waste materials they need, and check that the captains understand the sorting instructions.

Some race waste was observed in the park dumpster, but not too much. Still, we can work on ways to ensure more of it ends up at our stations instead.

With a larger evening Zero Waste team, we can assign one evening volunteer to just handle the cleanup and pavilion waste. We could also set up a staffed station by the park dumpster to intercept any waste that would go there.


(*) Yes, I’m one of those who really enjoys suffering. At least the kind brought on by trail running. When I figure out why I’ll let you know.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: