Sunday, April 17, 2011

Up to our elbows – again

By John Gascoyne

The unlikely beginning: small chance encounters can sometimes generate large and positive results. I was nursing an expensive and way-off-diet latte in a local caffeine emporium this past March when my friend Ron Baker, and his colleague, Lisa Sinclair, stopped by to say hello.

Ron and Lisa are both serious distance runners and, as such, are an active part of the Fort Collins running community. They are both ardent environmentalists as well.

As we chatted, the two expressed concerns that two upcoming marathons would be generating a good deal of discarded trash – more methane producing waste for our already crowded landfill. Their more immediate concern was for the Horsetooth Half Marathon, to be run on April 17th. The Colorado Marathon was set for May 1 and would need serious attention when the time came.

The two said that they intended to recycle and compost as much race-generated trash as possible. They also expressed a strong desire to see racecourses left clean after a race. Lisa had been exploring positive solutions for quite some time and Ron had signed on to help in the quest.

As they discussed the need for a strong complement of volunteer trash enthusiasts, an idea came to mind: why not partner with the Poudre Canyon Group of Sierra Club and let us provide the volunteers? As soon as this somewhat random thought was expressed, we had the makings of a deal, the beginnings of a hopefully workable system.

A bit like the trite cliché of the third leg of the milking stool, a third partner was deemed essential. No problem – Lisa and Ron were already working with Gallegos Sanitation, Inc., (GSI), a family-owned sanitation company headquartered in Fort Collins. GSI had expert recyclers and composters on their staff, folks who really knew the ins and outs of Zero Waste objectives and how to achieve them.

Can we pull this off? PCG had committed to participating in what for us was something new and entirely different. No worries, however, we would make up in enthusiasm for any deficits of knowledge or experience. Over the next several weeks, there were multiple meetings with Lisa and Ron, meetings with GSI, and meetings of the Executive Committee and volunteers of PCG.

And we learned about trash and about recycling and about composting. Turned out that few of us had a really comprehensive understanding of the subtle nuances of garbage. The folks at GSI were immensely helpful – keeping us on the right path and providing a seminar mainly focused on how to correctly and quickly separate out what can be composted or recycled from the trash otherwise bound for the landfill. We learned that Zero Waste is more of a path than a destination – the objective is to reduce landfill trash, the reality is that our society is not yet geared for 100% success. We became acquainted with the Zero Waste collection apparatus – brightly colored metal stations that allowed quick sorting of all discarded matter. We readied ourselves for the big day...


It was a dark and stormy night…So much for drama; actually it was a cloudless and mild morning at Hughes Stadium parking lot where the race was to begin. Four of us from PCG ran the two collection stations at that location. Ron and Lisa gave us last minute instructions and then headed off to oversee other parts of the race.

Predictably, most of the several hundred runners were highly energized and focused on the beginning of the race. When they realized our mission, however, the majority of them took time to work with us. Then bang – and the runners were off. Dot, Cordelia and Phil, part of our crew, followed the runners and swept the entire racecourse from their bicycles. The four of us Zero Waste operatives remaining tided up our waste stations for pickup by GSI. We also policed the entire parking lot, picking up the odd bits of trash that had been left behind.

Having done our bit at the beginning of the race, our focus shifted to the finish line – the beer garden at New Belgium Brewery in downtown Fort Collins. There were hundreds of runners in the Half Marathon and hundreds of encouraging fans as well. GSI had set up five Zero Waste stations in the garden and we had one or two volunteers at each of them.

The crowd was wonderfully raucous and, initially, many folks ignored our collection efforts. Over a short while, however, things improved dramatically. If you politely ask someone to lift her or his foot off of an orange peel so that you can pick it up with your mechanical “grabber,” a less-than-subtle point has been made. When you patrol the grounds retrieving discarded drinking cups, people become aware that the ground is not the preferred dumping place. By the end of the event, people were lining up at the Zero Waste stations and helping us separate the recyclables, compostables, and landfill-bound trash. This was probably the most rewarding part of our overall effort – given a bit of direction and encouragement, people really do want to do the right thing.

Coming up roses – Some thoughts, a recap of sorts, from a member of PCG who was involved in this Zero Waste effort:

  • This was a new kind of venture for us. We believed that it could be successful; we also knew that success would involve careful planning, lots of energy, and a buy-in from PCG members who would serve as volunteers.

  • Our partners in this venture were excellent. The running community, through Lisa and Ron, was wonderfully supportive and provided great leadership. Gallegos Sanitation, Inc. did everything possible to ensure overall success – their knowledge of recycling and composting was essential; they did everything necessary to keep the mass at the Zero Waste stations collected and continually ready for the steady stream of material generated by the event.

  • Based on prior experience, GSI hoped to see 15% or hopefully less of the total discarded matter going to the landfill. We held that figure to just under 10%, a better statistic than they had ever seen before. They have invited us to work with them on future events.

  • PCG and Sierra Club benefited from very positive publicity about our role in the event. Our interactions with the general public generated much good will for our group.

  • We garnered income that will help us with our environmental mission – the race presenters gave us a nice honorarium and New Belgium Brewery, impressed with the success of our effort, turned over the significant proceeds they had received in tip jars at the beverage booths.

  • The Executive Committee of PCG feels that this experience could serve as a beneficial model for other groups, in Colorado or beyond. Please contact us for more information.

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