How to Make Your Race a Zero Waste Event

By USA Triathlon | Sept. 10, 2018, 6:03 p.m. (ET)

Epic Races Zero Waste

Like many triathletes competing in the 1980s, Eva Solomon didn't think much of the trash collected at races when she'd cross the finish line and grab her cup of water and banana. 

But, when it became common practice for race events to provide plastic water bottles and packaged snacks, Solomon grew more and more frustrated at the sight of trash commingled with recyclable plastic water bottles. 

Her races were going to be different. 

Solomon, founder and CEO of Epic Races in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has committed to implementing "zero-waste" practices at her more than a dozen endurance sports events, and has even hired a race waste expert to handle these efforts. 

"When I started Epic Races (in 2008), I knew that I wanted to do it differently, I even wrote "eco-friendly" into our mission statement. I put out recycling containers at our first race, and had a local high school "green group" volunteer to help keep everything "green,'" said Solomon, who started competing in triathlon in the late 80s. "When we started cleaning up, I wasn't sure what to make of our trash and recycling containers. They looked exactly the same!  Both had a mix of wrappers, banana peels, half-eaten food, and of course, plastic water bottles. The "green group" did their best, but giving recycling instructions to tired athletes was more challenging than any of us had anticipated." 

From those humble beginnings, Solomon and her Epic Races crew have grown to learn the tricks of zero-waste efforts, implementing a full plan for each of their events, from the triathlons with 200 to 1,500 participants, to the half-marathons and marathons with 3,000 participants. The average landfill waste per event: 2 pounds. 

Though directing a zero-waste race event may seem daunting, Solomon and Epic Races are proof it can be done with proper planning. Read on in this Q&A with Solomon to learn how to make your event zero-waste.  

What are the challenges to implementing a zero-waste program?

It seems as simple as putting out labeled bins, but that wasn't enough. When the labels didn't work, it seemed as simple as putting photos of the food that goes in each container, but that wasn't enough. When the photos didn't work, it seemed as simple as actually posting the wrappers, plates, cups, and bottles above the bins where they go, but even that wasn't enough. Having a volunteer standing at each waste station helped, but not until we had a professional in charge of the entire program to do a final sort of all the bins were we truly successful.

I’m sure there are many race directors interested in implementing a program like this but may be concerned with the cost of it. Have you done anything to offset the expense of bringing on a waste expert?

There is a cost to using compostable goods as opposed to paper and plastic, we need additional volunteers,  and we do pay a fee to Happy Planet Running who we hire to handle race waste management. Jeff Jackson started Happy Planet Running and helped us as a volunteer. After a few races, we were hooked and we now pay him to be at as many races as possible.

We have not done anything to offset this cost. Our hope is that our participants see what we are doing, appreciate it and will keep coming back.

What changes have you had to make to your races to implement zero-waste practices? 

We have made more changes than I ever would have imagined. We go over all food and beverage options several weeks before the race and create a "Zero-Waste" plan.  The plan includes the different waste streams we will have (recycling (cups, plastic, paper, etc.), recycling (plastic bags, styrofoam), compost, and trash, the providers, and their contact info. It then covers a packing list, waste recovery plans for each area (transition, finish/food, course/aid station), disposal plans, volunteers, recycling bin and tent deployment, and which bags will be used for each stream.

We use all compostable plates, bowls, and utensils. Typical recycling (carboard, etc.) is all put together, but certain things such as GU wrappers. plastic gloves, styrofoam, tablecloths are recycled separately and transported to separate recycling centers. We do or best to collect discarded bib numbers, tutus, mylar balloons, and Gatorade containers to be sure they are recycled properly.

What are your race waste statistics?

Our best result is only 1.2 pounds of landfill, but that was a running race. Triathlons are a bit more challenging. Our worst was just over 10 pounds. What typically tilts the scale it is a diaper or two in the trash bin. Here is an example of a report from the Ann Arbor Tri which had only 2.9 pounds of landfill. 
 
Did you publicize this program to athletes before the race? Was zero-waste something athletes have specifically asked for?

We probably could do a better job of publicizing.  We started doing it because we thought it was the right thing to do. We have learned a lot and many things that we used to need to think about have become automatic in our race planning. We have not had requests from athletes, but we certainly have not had complaints!

What has the reaction from athletes been in response to zero-waste efforts?

We receive positive reactions from athletes from the time they see our "zero-waste" tents to the post-race emails when we share our sustainability report. We receive lots of emails thanking us for putting the effort into zero-waste.

 

Cups at a race