Have a Cold One! Corktown Races 2023 Sustainability Report

How can you make the 40th anniversary of a St. Patrick’s Day celebration run even better? How about making it zero waste for the first time ever?

The Corktown Races – a kids run, one-miler, and the signature 5K – have been a Detroit tradition for a long time. This year the race director decided to add recycling, and HPR got the call. It was nearly a last-minute request, so I understood there would be challenges. Still, I preferred to make the attempt rather than let the waste from a 3,500 person event all go to landfill. And just maybe some Irish luck would rub off on me.

The event took place on the streets of Corktown in Detroit. The usual setup near the old train station was unavailable due to renovation efforts, so the setup was entirely new. I walked the area when I got there to figure out the best places to put stations. The race reserved a 10-yard recycling dumpster from Unlimited Recycling for cardboard, paper, and plastic.

The post-race food area would be the busiest, so I set up stations on either side of the food and drink tents. Refreshments included bananas and snack bars, and bottles of water and Gatorade. All standard stuff. It was a cold morning, so we also received a fair number of disposable hand warmers (including my own pair).

Main station near registration and vendors. A little tight, but we managed.

Station on the other side of the food. Beer tent in left background, recycling dumpster on the right.

Farther down the street was a tent and fenced-off area providing adult beverages. Waste from this area was mainly plastic cups, along with cardboard and plastic wrap, as well as what the runners brought to the area. Other sources of race waste included cardboard from food, medal, and T-shirt boxes, along with lots of plastic wrap.

Things went pretty smoothly, despite a number of challenges that made me think the leprechauns were having a lot of fun with me. For example, it snowed much of the morning, requiring me to continually clean off my tables and signs. And no sooner had I set up my tall Zero Waste Station sign when a wind gust blew it down onto my head. Ouch. Well, this is March in Michigan.

Holy shamrocks, Batman! I think this is the doing of Mr. Freeze!

The biggest challenge was informing the race staff of what we were trying to do. Word had not spread sufficiently, and they were quite reasonably distributing unsupervised trash cans in the area. Once they knew, they were supportive and helpful, but finding, removing, and sorting the “rogue trash cans” took up quite a bit of my time.

And I was, unfortunately, short-staffed – just me and regular staffer Debbie, so the beer area was left mainly to its own devices so we could managed the main two stations. The result was several large bags full of unsorted waste, which had to come back with me for sorting later in the week.

The recycling dumpster was a big help, but it got placed in an area accessible to the attendees. So some banana peels and other non-recyclables got tossed in, which I removed. And some recycling got put in there before I had a chance to weigh it, which just means we captured somewhat more than the official numbers.

Remarkably, despite the challenges, we accomplished our standard goal of just one bag of landfill trash, and a 98 percent diversion rate! The main contributors to landfill were shop towels (by weight) and contaminated plastic wrap (by volume).

As with any event doing Zero Waste for the first time, there were plenty of lessons learned and opportunities for improvement. Among them:

  • Communication is key. The entire race staff needs to be aware of the Zero Waste effort, even those who don’t directly participate. Also, set up a meeting ahead of the event to go over the Zero Waste Plan with key race staff.
  • Sufficient help is important. The Zero Waste team really needs volunteers along with my staffers.
  • Locate the recycling dumpster in a place less accessible to the public and closer to a staffed Zero Waste station.
  • Put a station near the porta-potties, which accumulated a fair bit of litter.
  • Increase signage to point to the stations, so runners know where to stash their trash. And find a way to keep the tall signs up in the wind.

With race attendance expected to continue increasing over the next few years, having it be sustainable becomes that much more important. I hope to be back!

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