It’s Time to “Run” Our Talk

Let’s say you operate a nature center, which has been offering three free environmental programs per year for the city’s school children for over 32 years. Then, let’s say you were told that due to budget cuts, you were going to have to start charging these schools for the programs. Suppose the schools did not have the budgets to cover these additional costs. What would you do?

Five years ago, we had to answer this question. Our first instinct, quickly shot down, was to market the programs to schools that could better afford them. We quickly realized this approach would push us out of the local market (possibly alienating our local supporters), and leave the students without access to any nature programming. Put another way, it didn’t seem fair to the kids or the community. So, we took another route.

Racers, Toe Your Marks

Instead, we decided to host a half-marathon and a 5k race and sell them to Minnesota runners as training races, tune-ups for the world-renowned Twin Cities Marathon held every October.

Like all new endeavors, the first one took loads of planning and lots of coordination. But, after having hosted four successful races, we can also say it is well worth it. Not only have we raised all the funds necessary to cover the costs of the school field trips to our nature center, but we’ve seen an increase in the number of runners who participate each year (last year we topped 1,000).

Like all good special events, this one offers plenty of positives above and beyond dollars and cents. Each year we succeed in bringing visitors to our city and send them away with a positive image of who we are and what we do. Each year we learn to work with other departments, meet new people, and create something that makes all of us proud. And, each year we create new volunteer opportunities for our citizens, which has the effect of tying us all closer together.

The Waste Challenge

In fact, the only downside (other than getting up at 3 a.m. on race day), is that these races produce a lot of trash. Since the money was going to help teach students about the environment, it always felt a little hypocritical to me to know that at the end of race day, 20,000 cups were headed to a landfill.

We felt it was time to “run” our talk and try to create an experience that did not create so much waste. The first step was to analyze our successes. Since day one we had been able to find fruit vendors who would donate organically raised oranges and bananas to feed 1,000 hungry runners. We felt this was a success because we were definitely supporting better land-management practices. But we still didn’t know what to do about the cup issue.

Our big break came at the city’s “Living Green Expo,” a type of state fair for the environment. While there, I realized the industry that produces compost-friendly cups was really growing, and they were now an option. I also realized that we were lucky to live in an area with several large compost sites. For a mere $15 per ton, we could dispose of biodegradable items.

All we needed was the money to buy the cups and pay for disposing of them. That money came in the form of a waste abatement grant from the county. We used the money to buy the more expensive but very cool 100 percent certified biodegradable cups made out of corn. We also had enough money to buy un-dyed paper napkins and 100 percent certified biodegradable garbage bags. One of the local waste haulers was very helpful by donating his services (and he gave a donation as well).

Since we knew the more slippery corn-plastic cups were not a favorite among runners, we decided to put a letter into each runner’s bag explaining why we were using the no-waste approach. We thought we were covered. Unfortunately, we were wrong.

Race Day Issues

We were all set to have only two categories of waste containers, one for biodegradable items and one for the recyclable plastic water bottles. What we didn’t plan on was that runners would bring along non- biodegradable trash, particularly in the form of individualized energy bars and liquids, which left wrappers mixed in with all of the lovely biodegradable cups at seven water stops. We learned an important lesson that some trashcans must be provided.

Our other challenge is that it’s difficult to get tired, sweaty runners on a hot August morning to properly sort their waste at the finish line. This phenomenon has honed my personal skills of dumpster-diving and re-sorting trash, earning me the nickname of “dumpster diva.”

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