Getting to Zero Waste

90% - keep that number in mind -  that’s how much of your event waste you should be diverting away from landfill to be able to claim that your event is a zero waste event. Sounds tough? Easy? 

For most races that’s a pretty high bar to clear - particularly as, when you start adding everything up, it quickly becomes apparent that a race can generate waste in many more ways than may seem obvious at first. 

To see how a race might get to that zero waste goal, I’m joined today by P3R’s Director of Operations, Brain Schmidt. Brian and the P3R team have really been at the sharp end of event sustainability, having achieved a zero waste status for the very popular DICK'S Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon since before “event sustainability” was even a term!

With Brian’s help we’re going to be looking at a race’s more obvious - and less obvious - sources of waste, waste segmentation, recycling, composting and reusing waste materials, as well as the importance of joining forces with local agencies and businesses that share your sustainability goal.

And since making sustainability sustainable in the long term has to come with a dose of financial pragmatism, and a careful balancing act between respecting the environment and delivering a fun race experience, we’ll also look at things like sustainability sponsors and other ways to take some of the burden of achieving zero waste off your shoulders.

In this episode:

  • The biggest sources of race waste
  • How much waste does a typical race produce per participant
  • What zero waste means and what sources of waste go into the calculation of race waste
  • Recoverable vs reusable vs recyclable vs compostable race waste
  • Waste materials you may think is recyclable but isn't
  • Reducing cardboard packaging waste 
  • Donating leftover swag and discarded clothing 
  • Working with local sustainability organizations
  • Managing race purchases to reduce material leftovers
  • Premium giveaways vs tons of giveaways
  • Fewer water stations = less water station waste
  • Managing the cost of sustainability efforts through sustainability sponsorships

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Episode transcript

Panos  2:23  
Brian, welcome to the podcast!

Brian  2:26  
Thank you for having me. Looking forward to talking with you today.

Panos  2:30  
Absolutely. It's great to have you on. Thank you very much for coming and thank you for your patience. I should say - so people would know this - with all the Gremlins we've been having, this is like the fourth time we're coming together to record this. So, thank you very much for sticking with us through this. You're the Director of Operations for P3R. 

Brian  2:46  

Panos  2:47  
You're based in Pittsburgh, is that right? 

Brian  2:49  
Yes, I am. 

Panos  2:50  
Awesome. Is the entire team from P3R based out of Pittsburgh?

Brian  2:54  
Yes. The entire team is here in Pittsburgh. We are all in one office down on the north shore along the river here in Pittsburgh downtown.

Panos  3:02  
And which river is that? Because I'm not a Pittsburgh native and I see in your company name. There are three rivers there in Pittsburgh. So, which river are you guys adjacent to?

Brian  3:12  
So we are adjacent to the Allegheny River, but we are just up a couple hundreds of feet from where all three rivers actually come together - the confluence of the Ohio and the Monongahela. 

Panos  3:28  
Awesome. Must be some very nice fishing around there, I guess.

Brian  3:31  
You could say that. Some people might not want to fish out of the rivers. But it's beautiful, though.

Panos  3:35  
So why don't you tell us a little bit more about the company - about P3R - a little bit about what your role is within the company in operations, and the kinds of races you guys put on. I'm sure a few people would recognise at least a couple of them.

Brian  3:51  
Sure. So P3R, as we mentioned, Pittsburgh, Three Rivers marathon - it's right there in our title. DICK's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon is our marquee event - the first Sunday in May every year. P3R has been around for 16 years now. The marathon here in the city of Pittsburgh went away for a few years. Then, Patrice Metamoris, our former CEO, brought the marathon back and started up P3R. As I mentioned, the marathons are our marquee event, but we have a portfolio of over 11 other events - some that we own as an organisation, but some that we work with others within the Pittsburgh area to put on their events. Some of our events are Fleet Feet Liberty Mile, the city of Pittsburgh Great Race, which is a 5K and 10K. One little different from a road race that we do is the Greater Allegheny Passage, which is a trail that runs from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, actually all the way down to Washington, DC - we do a relay along the trail for 150 miles. We have our EQT 10 miler in the fall and then we help, like I said, other organisations like the YMCA of Pittsburgh to put on their Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving, The Steelers and the Penguins to put on their races, children's hospital for a walk, and then the Pittsburgh International Airport to put on a FlyBy 5K right on the runway of Pittsburgh International Airport. So, very busy year for us here at P3R. My role, as you mentioned, Panos-- I'm the Director of Operations. I have a team of five that work under me. My role specifically is I work with the city, work with the officials, Department of Public Works, permitting office, really close with city Pittsburgh police to get police and all that for our events, and then just oversee the team that I have from course designs to mapping out, to working with vendors to be ready for race day.

Panos  5:43  
It never ceases to amaze me - even very high-profile large races like the Pittsburgh Marathon and other events you guys put on - how lean of a team ended up running them. I mean, yourself and five other people in operations wouldn't sound like the kind of team you need to run those kinds of events, right?

Brian  6:02  
No. As P3R as a whole, we have 30 full-time staff members. And in my nine years of being with the organisation, this is the largest that we have been - specifically the marathon with the distance and how much of the city we cover. The fall for us is very busy with a lot of events on back-to-back weekends. A lot of people think that we would have a lot more individuals working on these events. We are great at time management and multitasking. One thing we get a lot too is people asking, "Oh, is this a full-time job?" The marathon is only in May. What do you do the rest of the year - without them knowing that we have other events that I just mentioned previously? So it's a full-time job. 30 of us are on the P3R staff. We keep busy, but I love it and am so happy to be working for such a great organisation.

Panos  6:52  
Absolutely. Just spending a second on this. How has the past couple of years been for you guys?

Brian  6:57  
I think everyone knows the answer. It's been tough. It's been difficult. It's been different. So, like I said, Marathon is on the first Sunday of May every year. So, in 2020 March, we had to postpone the marathon due to the pandemic when we were just a few months out. It really at the beginning of "Who knows what is to come?" Unfortunately, in 2020, we had none of our events. We switched everything to virtual. Our mission here at P3R is to get any and all to move with us. So we didn't want to leave our runners or movers with nothing to do through the pandemic. We all saw, now looking back, how many people got outside, started walking, and started running. Gyms were closed. Parks and personal fitness - doing things on your own - were really all you had at your fingertips at the time. So we went virtual through all of 2020. And then, in 2021, we thought things were getting better but, unfortunately, we had to postpone the marathon again in May. And then, our Fleet Feet Liberty Mile, which is usually the last two weeks of July, was the first event that we were able to come back live in-person. It's one of our smaller-numbered races. It's a unique race. It's Friday night in downtown Pittsburgh. We shut down the streets. But that was our first in-person race. Finished out the rest of 2021. And then, this past May 2022 was our first marathon in three years. Did a lot of fulfilment, packing shirts and medals in poly mailers. So for some reason, if my time here in P3R comes to an end, I think I'd get a job at Amazon real easily in a fulfilment centre. But let's hope that doesn't come and I'm here at P3R for a while.

Panos  8:34  
I'm sure it won't. Is 22 shaping out to be sort of what you expected it to be going into the year? 

Brian  8:40  
Yeah. We're starting to see runners - we even saw in 2021 - starting to come back, runners anxious, runners and movers that have been with us and are excited, and those that are new to the sport of running. And we're seeing a lot of new faces at our start line. So, we had a couple of events already. We actually have one coming up this weekend, Saturday, August 20. A Light of Life here in Pittsburgh-- we put on their Yinzer 4.12K. So the years, I would say, is what we predicted and what we're looking forward to, and just excited to have a full calendar of events back.

Panos  9:16  
I mean, that's great. Things are definitely showing some signs of improvement. I'm sure 2023 is going to be a much stronger year for everyone. The reason we are gathered here today is to discuss waste and to discuss the amazing efforts you guys have been putting in for a number of years actually now in reducing your waste footprint at P3R, even at your very large events, which I think in some ways is even more challenging than doing it for a smaller event. I mean, obviously, smaller events, fewer resources - but still being able to do that for a large event, I think, is quite significant. And because we've spent some time on the podcast with a couple of my other guests looking, at sort, of the theory and the best practices around it, I thought it would be a nice complement to that to actually take a case like the Pittsburgh Marathon - such an important race - and look at how you guys actually managed to get to zero waste. And in researching this, one of the things that I discovered, to my surprise is that this is not a new thing for you guys. I mean, you've been at zero waste for a few years. Even before that, it seems that the company has had a very early commitment to sustainability. So how exactly did that come about? It seems like you guys were focusing on sustainability when, perhaps, like, all of these buzzwords weren't even around.

Brian  10:35  
You really nailed that one, Panos. Really, our sustainable efforts here at P3R originated prior to me being a part of the company. I mentioned I've been in part of the company for nine years now. I started out as event staff, really evolve and grew through the ranks to full-time assistant Operations Manager to where I'm at today - Director of Operations. Even when I came into meetings and help out years ago, marathon planning involved sustainable efforts. A few years ago - I believe it was probably 2018 - was when zero waste and sustainability really started to become the hot topic. And the buzzword-- as you mentioned, a few in the organisation came to me and found articles or found organisations that help. From the get-go, I've always, kind of, led our sustainable efforts working with organisations. They came to me, and I was like, "We do this already. We have these efforts and everything in place." So, as you mentioned, especially the marathon, one of our largest events, we bring 30,000 runners into downtown Pittsburgh, that first weekend of May, add on over 100,000 spectators, we're one of the largest events in the city of Pittsburgh and we want to do our part and be responsible of controlling the waste and - what we leave behind - what we produce with such a large event. So, it's always been a focal point for the organisation and it continues to evolve as much as this world does. It's not like we have the final answer and we have the blueprint that's never going to change. Things change over time and we just continue to evolve. We have a great partner that I'll talk about here that we work with for our sustainability efforts. We work closely with them and whatever changes we need to make year-in-year-out, we will.

Panos  12:27  
The Pittsburgh Marathon has been officially at zero waste - and we'll go through what that technically means in a sec - since what? 2015 or something? 

Brian  12:38  

Panos  12:38  
Yeah. Which is, like, an awesome achievement. Right back in 2015, there was very little talk around these topics. What actually led you to think harder about this stuff than some of your other colleagues out there? Was it, like, a moral thing? Was it something about where you're based or the culture of the company? Where did it all come from?

Brian  12:56  
I believe it just started with the culture of the organisation. We make sure that we cover all bases. I think being along the rivers, as I mentioned, plays a little bit into it. As the marathon and the organisation came back and grew, we didn't want to have something negative attached to our event, to our organisation, as far as we bring all these people in this city, we bring all this money into the city, it's a great event for all to come run and move with us, but look at the pile of trash that's left behind, look at the waste that this brings. We've kind of - pros and cons - focus on sustainability, focus on our efforts, and now it's another positive that we get to talk about post-marathon. What our diversion rate is? What is our percentage of waste that's not going to landfills that is getting reused or recycled or composted?

Panos  13:53  
Yeah. So let's get into some of those technicalities. And let's start with waste. Our listeners - our race director - know some of the major things that produce waste in a race. What are those biggest buckets for the Pittsburgh Marathon in terms of sources of waste?

Brian  14:09  
When we talk waste, meaning what's there when you look at what's around on the streets. It's cardboard. Looking at waste by weight, it's cardboard. Starting from the whole weekend, all the shirts come in boxes for 30,000 runners, so there are a lot of boxes of shirts and medals come in cardboard boxes. You have your cups and just your normal things that you can think of that come within a cardboard box. So by weight, cardboard is the most waste we produce. But luckily, cardboard is something that is recyclable, so it's not going into a landfill. We want to look at waste from what is actually, unfortunately, ending up in the landfill. It's the snack bags, chip bags, and stuff like that we give to our runners post-race that just can't get recycled or composted. Coffee cups that people are bringing themselves, sometimes, aren't what we like to use, so that goes to landfill. But really, to answer your question directly, from a weight perspective, it's cardboard. That's the biggest source.

Panos  15:11  
And that's recyclable. Because you mentioned there are different types of waste, I guess there's better and worse waste - right? I mean, there's the stuff that you can at least recycle like - you were mentioning - cardboard. Then, I guess there's some stuff you can compose that will be compostable. There's some stuff you can recover, some stuff you can reuse, and then there's the stuff that just goes to landfill. Right? 

Brian  15:36  
Correct. Correct. 

Panos  15:38  
In terms of those three buckets, can you give people listening in a rough idea of how those different types of waste, sort of, break down for the Pittsburgh Marathon between the recoverable stuff, the compostable stuff, the reusable stuff, and then what ends up going to landfill?

Brian  15:55  
Yeah. Looking at just this past year's marathon in 2022, our diversion rate was 92%, and that's a high standard. We're always in that 92%-94% range. So compost, the banana peels or cups-- we use wax cups, we don't use polyline cups, so the cups can be compostable. I mentioned the banana peels. Any other food product that is just thrown into the garbage bags is compostable. Out of our percentage of everything we produced, 23% of our waste is compostable. Then, you get to your reuse, which again is food, bananas, and whatever other food products. We've had food cups or fruit cups - over the years - eaten tart cookies, potato chips, and different food products that get donated to the local food banks. 412 Food Rescue is an organisation here in the Pittsburgh area that recovers food. So, that's your reuse. Also, clothing that is discarded along the race course is reusable. It's picked up, taken to Goodwill, cleaned, and is able to be reused. So 30% is reusable. Then recycling is 39%, and that's just your normal recycling efforts. That's one thing I've learned over the years - some things that you would think are recyclable that are not. Aluminium is not as great as, maybe, plastic, as funny as it sounds. It's just the way it's able to be broken down. But the bottles of water and the plastic water jugs that we use at our water stop are things that are recyclable. Mentioned the cardboard, which is our biggest thing. So, I said 39%. So, out of all that, waste that actually ends up in the landfill is 8%.

Panos  17:42  
And the total amount of waste for a race like the Pittsburgh marathon with 30,000 runners, how much total waste are we talking about just to give people an idea of exactly what the footprint of a race like that would be?

Brian  17:55  
Yeah. So the percentages - I just went over right there. This past year, as far as waste, we had just over 27,000 pounds of waste from this year's race that includes the food product. That's where those percentages came out of all that. 30% of that number was reusable. 39% was recyclable. So it's a large number coming from the event.

Panos  18:19  
And it's interesting the way the number comes out. It, sort of, ends up around almost like a pound of waste per runner roughly for this kind of race, right? 27,000 pounds of waste in total for a 30,000 race. So it's almost, sort of, like an interesting rule of thumb for people, maybe, to look at. Then, you mentioned the diversion rate, which then gets us into how zero waste is defined because zero waste doesn't actually mean exactly zero waste, does it?

Brian  18:48  
Correct. Now, it doesn't mean that we produce zero waste - nothing on a land landfill. Zero waste, from a definition standpoint, is a set of principles focused on waste prevention. All products we use, no trash to be sent to landfill. So like you mentioned, we all know it's very hard to be zero waste and not produce anything going to landfill, but it's focused on the prevention of waste. What can you do to help lower the amount of pounds that are ending up in the landfill?

Panos  19:21  
I guess for the definition of waste and zero waste, we keep factoring in only the kinds of waste that are created by the race and immediately around race day and runners, right? So we're not including things like the 100,000 spectators you mentioned that come to the race - the waste those guys contribute. We're not considering things like, "We give away a few T-shirts to runners then they go away back home and those are waste at some point down the line." These are not factored in this calculation?

Brian  19:53  
Correct. spectator waste is very slightly factored in around our start-finish line and our post-race party. I will cover the city trash receptacles. That way, trash is being thrown into the receptacles that we monitor and are able to sort later. So, we will pick up a little bit of that spectator waste. But along the course, whatever happens, no, it's not factored in. As far as any swag or the T-shirts, medals that we give to the runners that they might take home, not want, and throw away are not factored into that equation.

Panos  20:28  
You still though, I guess, clean up after the race - even spectator waste and stuff like that - right? I mean, you go around and you collect everything there is to collect. 

Brian  20:37  
Yes, yes. 

Panos  20:38  
So in that sense, as you were saying, part of that comes into the calculation because you count all that waste you collect as part of your total waste footprint. 

Brian  20:46  
Yep. If the team that we use gets their hands on it, it's part of ours. But like I was saying, out on the course at your mile five, if there are spectators watching the event and they just throw their stuff away into a trash can, if the city comes around after the race and dumps like your normal trash service, we unfortunately don't calculate that in or able to do anything with that weight right there.

Panos  21:08  
So let's go through a few examples of things that produce waste during a race that people would be familiar with. You mentioned some of them. Let's start with the big ones. I guess, apart from cardboard, which is really interesting and we'll get back to in a sec. With regards to how stuff is delivered to the race, do you guys give out water bottles or do you use cups? What do you use for water?

Brian  21:31  
So along the course at our water stops, we use the wax cups. Those are recyclable. Those are collected throughout the race and recyclable. At our finish line, we give out bottles of water to the participants as they finish. So, those are also recyclable. Then, some of the food products are not so much recyclable depending on what it is if it's compostable or recyclable.

Panos  21:57  
So the water comes with the wax lining. Are they still recyclable or compostable? 

Brian  22:03  
The cups are compostable. 

Panos  22:04  
Okay, so they have that lining, so you can't quite recycle it back to the paper you put into compost. Has it ever been the case that, in the event, you actually use water bottles at the stations themselves and then you switch to cups, or has it been like using cups for a number of years?

Brian  22:19  
It's been cups for a number of years. It's easier for the amount of participants that we need to take care of and, also, just in a way safer for the participants to-- we've all seen pictures of runners grabbing the cups, taking their drinks, and tossing them on the ground, and the lovely volunteers clean it up. It's a lot easier to run over a wax cup that just crushes at your feet than to kick around a plastic water bottle that might still have some water in it that could get underneath your foot and you can slip and fall. So we've always had cups at our water stops.

Panos  22:52  
And then the heat sheet blankets, which I guess you guys use some of those. Do those go to landfill or do you do something with them?

Brian  23:00  
Now those are able to be recyclable - those are all collected - and that's usually one of our biggest that affects our number good or bad. If we're able to work with volunteers and control how many come on the rolls, we rip them off and stick them on the bike rack fence to be able to hand them out. So we're able to control how much is pulled pre-event which, in past few years, we've done a great job communicating to the volunteers. As long as they stay within our footprint - someone takes up the blanket and wanders off somewhere else in the city and goes away, unfortunately, we missed that - within our finish line, within our post-race party, if that's where they dispose of it, it will be recycled and taken to a location that they've made benches out of them and other kinds of interesting products from recycled heat sheets.

Panos  23:49  
And is it your responsibility to basically collect all of those discarded heat sheets and then put them all in a big bag and send them over to the recycling plant or do you work with someone who comes and picks them up?

Brian  24:01  
We work with someone from PRC - I know we're gonna get to here in a second - the organisation that we use to kind of handle our sustainability efforts. They collect them as they're going about doing all their other things, separate them, and puts them into a large bag to take to where they need to be.

Panos  24:20  
I hope you’re so far enjoying our chat on waste reduction and getting some good pointers out of it. 

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Ok, now, let’s get back to the episode… 

In terms of cardboard, which you mentioned, is one of the highest sources or one of the largest sources of waste you guys have. I mean, I'm sure you've had discussions with your vendors to reduce that. Do you think there's any solution around that in terms of taking delivery of swag or maybe some other way? Or is that sort of, like, an unavoidable part of your waste or something that you can't really do too much around?

Brian  26:24  
Unfortunately, there's not much you can do around it, Panos. It's just the way some companies ship things. Shirts are always going to come in cardboard boxes. The medals always come in cardboard boxes, I think, sometimes. Even that cardboard is tested with the weight of those medal boxes. One thing that we tried to do and we're very fortunate this year-- I talked about bottled water. We've had different sponsors of bottled water in the past and some have shipped bottles in cardboard boxes. It's unfortunate because we have more cardboard. But this past year, we were able to get bottled water that comes plastic-wrapped, so you just have to cut the plastic wrapping off of it and you have that instead of, sort of, the cardboard. So, trying to get those types of products out of cardboard is definitely something we can work on but, unfortunately, there are some things that just can't do.

Panos  27:19  
We'll get into that actually, in a sec. I guess when you get to 92 or 94 percent diversion rate, squeezing more juice out of that lemon gets a little bit harder, right? I mean, at some point, there are only so many things you can improve without compromising on race experience - we'll go through a couple of examples there - because, at the end of the day, you have to keep it balanced, right? You can't be too rigid about some of these things. You mentioned - which is actually the first time I hear of it and it's really great - that some of the clothes that people discard on the start line, which I've seen in marathons quite a lot-- you put those to good use. You donate them. You try to recover as much as you can from that. What about leftover medals and T-shirts you may have from no-shows or no-finishers? I'm sure you guys maybe buy an extra X percent of that. What do you do with that?

Brian  28:08  
That's one thing over the years that our team here has worked closely on. As many in the industry know, the shirt and medal order has to be placed months in advance for the quantity that we need to get, so you're really, really forecasting how many runners you think you're going to have on race weekend. If you're down some, you're gonna have a lot more leftover shirts like you said - that no show. So, now those shirts are added to our equation. That's something that - as we were prepping for this podcast - I thought of working with our partner. Is there a way that it might not get into our final report of the marathon, but it's something that we can report on later? We work with an organisation here in the Pittsburgh area called World Vision that we take all of our leftover race shirts throughout the year of all the events that we do, we donate them to them, and then they go to third-world countries or other areas that have a need for clothing.

Panos  29:06  
Yeah, which is great. Then, the medals, you just scrap them, I guess?

Brian  29:10  
Yeah, you look at the medals. I think I've taken them there. They looked and they called it-- the type of metal is called pot metal. We just take it to the local scrap yard and they're able to melt it down and reuse that. 

Panos  29:24  
There are a few interesting initiatives around medals as well. I've seen a couple of charities - I want to cover a few of them in the podcast - where you can also donate those. I'm sure you may be familiar with some of them that go around giving them to children's hospitals and other places as, sort of, a reward for people, so there are other things you can do there. You mentioned - I think it's high time we'll get into this - PRC, a very important organisation that has helped along the way getting you guys to zero waste. So, you had the vision. You had the desire. Then, PRC comes in. Can you tell us a little bit about how they work and how they've helped you guys get to your goal of zero waste?

Brian  30:06  
Absolutely. I can't say enough good things about PRC and our involvement with them in everything they do. As I get into this, in a way, they take everything off our plate on race weekend and allow our team to focus on other areas. So, PRC-- Pennsylvania Resource Council is their official name and they're right here in the Pittsburgh area. They are the oldest grassroots environmental organisation here in the state. Their mission is really environmental education, recycling, and waste diversion. They have programmes. They have anti-litter campaigns. They do a lot more but they really work in the Pittsburgh area with events like ourselves and other events that go on to help their diversion rate. They also do other things like the "hard-to-recycle" events. Household products that you have in your house like old paint cans and electronics that aren't good to go to landfill, they put on those events as well. Here at P3R, we've been working with PRC since 2012. P3R brought the marathon back in 2009. So, for around three years, they grew it and got the event together and got to where it is so that they can look towards sustainability efforts. 2012 was the first time that we approached PRC to help us with this and we've worked very closely with them every year since.

Panos  31:33  
And in terms of their structure, are they a nonprofit organisation or a for-profit organisation? Do they come under, I guess, the city of Pittsburgh?

Brian  31:43  
They do not fall under the city of Pittsburgh. The city of Pittsburgh has their own environmental services, their own trash trucks, their own recycling programme. PRC is their own organisation. We do pay for their services, but they are nonprofit that, like I said, promote individuals and organisations to lower their waste footprint.

Panos  32:02  
And in terms of those services. What exactly did they offer you guys on race day exactly? What kinds of weights do they take off your shoulders on race day?

Brian  32:13  
On race day, they are boots on the ground. They are the ones that are going around. They'll have a team. I think, this past year, they had 38 individuals as part of their sustainability crew. They are the ones that are setting up the "clear streams" as we call them. They're not garbage boxes, but they're metal frames that we put the trash bags to recycle - the compostable bags in. They will monitor heavy areas where you approach and have some food in your hands and you're not sure what bin to throw it in - they help put it in there. If they also walk up on site, if they see a plastic water bottle in the trash, they'll move it over to the appropriate container. They're cleaning up the cardboard as we're unpacking the medals on race morning. They're in our post-race party doing exactly the same thing in our hospitality tents, helping with that cleanup efforts as well. But our coordination with them starts way before the marathon and even goes past the marathon. Whenever we are all set and done on that Sunday, everyone gets to go home and get some much-needed sleep. But then, PRC's right back out the next morning. Everything that's collected out on the race course at the fluid stations - like we mentioned, the cups, the cardboard, and the plastic water jugs - were taken to a site where they're dumped. Then, PRC will sort out the recyclables, the compostable, the waste, do that sort, do that cleanup, and then the waste will be hauled away. They'll handle it. Then the compost heads up north to a farm where it's used up there. So, they have their sort. It usually takes two days after the marathon to sort through all the cups and water bottles and cardboard. But yeah, it's a big effort. Like I said, 38 individuals kind of work, so that's 38 less people that we at P3R would have to-- it'd probably even be more because these individuals do this for all kinds of events in the city, so they're professionals. They'd be more efficient than we would be if we were doing this. So, it definitely allows our team to focus on the runners, on the safety, on the overall experience of the day, and don't really have to worry about waste piling up at one spot.

Panos  34:31  
That's a really important point about the professionals there because a lot of these things, as you said, you could probably put headcount too. You probably need more people. One of the things that really surprised me - something that Bruce Rayner and other guests I had who is a consultant for sustainability who raced with me at some point - is that you definitely don't want to leave participants and lay people, so to speak, throw stuff where they think needs to be thrown. They will contaminate waste. They will come to contaminate different categories of recycling stuff. I mean, all well-intentioned, obviously, right? But these professionals like the PRC staff or whoever you get to help with this are so much better at knowing, from experience, how to do this, where to put things, and at what stage does it makes sense to take it off the hand of someone and you then take over and put it into the final bin, and all of that stuff? 

Brian  35:30  
Oh, absolutely. A lot of people indirectly, with good intentions, think, "Oh, I have this plastic water bottle or this wax cup" that they probably don't know is a wax cup and they see a bin that says "Recyclable" and they're like, "Oh, I know this isn't trash. I'm gonna throw it in this recycle container," with great intentions, but really, it can go over to the one to the left of it that's compostable. So, to have those individuals working long hours standing at collection sites - I've seen them - take it off your hands and sort them, "This right here was waste. This is recyclable. This right here is compostable. These number of plastics are recyclable. These ones have to, unfortunately, get thrown away - glass, for instance." Unless you're someone that's really up on it, you might think you're doing the right thing or putting it where it belongs but, unfortunately, it's not. Like you said, you mentioned contaminated. A whole bag has to go to waste just because something that shouldn't be in got in there and can't go to where it's supposed to go. That's another great thing that PRC does. They will sort, go through, and pick out as much as they can. Some things get missed, but as much as they can, they'll sort and pick out the things where they belong.

Panos  36:51  
And I wonder is employing them something that is an obligation for events of your size or is it something that is optional, whichever event wants to put themselves forward and go hire them?

Brian  37:06  
Within the city of Pittsburgh, we had to fill out permits for the event, the special events permits. Really, anybody within the city has to fill out if you're having a marathon or if you're having a block party. Part of the permit process is they asked, "What are your recycling efforts?" You can go through the city and if it's just your normal block party that you need some recycling containers for, you can. PRC is well-known and respected within the city. So, when I put on that permit that we are using PRC, it's great and applauded to see. I've mentioned before there is a cost to it and there are some events that might not want to spend that cost and try and do it themselves. So, I wouldn't say it's mandatory, but it definitely is something that we at P3R want to do and make sure we do it for our events. 

Panos  37:57  
Yeah. And I can't even think why trying to do it yourself would be any kind of reasonable economy. I mean, it sounds like the kind of thing you want to just hand over to someone else, right? I mean, there are so many things you need to worry about on race day. Particularly these days, I'm talking to race directors all the time with all the resourcing issues and, like, volunteer and staffing problems there are. If you're really set on being sustainable and working on this, if such an organisation exists - which is an interesting point because maybe other states don't have a PRC or maybe they don't offer these kinds of services - it sounds like good sense to employ someone like that.

Brian  38:37  
Absolutely. If you have an organisation like this in your area, you put a marathon on-- I'm lucky enough to go to other marathons in the country to work, see their efforts, and a lot of people do things the right way, even pre-pandemic when volunteers and staffing wasn't as crucial and as dire as it is these days. Yes, if you sit there and look at the invoice that we get at the end, it's a big number that we pay for their service. But to find the 38-40 individuals to do this or if you think, "Oh, our team can handle it," we all know the last thing we want to do when that final runner crosses the finish line is clean up the finish line and clean up the post-race party. The final thing we want to do is walk around dead tired, not sleeping all weekend, just walking around and collecting waste and recyclable and then spend, like I mentioned, the days after trying to clean up and get all of our equipment back in our warehouse and getting ready for our next event instead of spending on them sorting through this trash and putting things. So the price we pay is well worth it. Also, to sit there and look at, "Okay, if we hire individuals and do this all ourselves, we would be spending a lot more than what we would with PRC."

Panos  39:58  
In terms of the work you guys do before race day to help ease some of the burdens - or, like, think a little bit harder around your supply chain and your orders and try and sort of minimise that or optimise that as much as you can - is that also something that PRC advises on? Or is it on you and your team to, basically, think harder through where we get stuff, how we get stuff, how much food we order, and all of that stuff?

Brian  40:31  
It's a collective effort, Panos. I talked about what PRC does on race day and the day after. We start talking to them a few months prior to the marathon. I've had a great time working with them. There's been a few individuals I work with over the years. It's lucky that when someone leaves, the second-in-command has, kind of, taken over. So they've seen our event before. They might not have seen it from this full scale because they weren't in that position, but they're familiar with our event and it's always eye-opening - that first marathon that they go through. We have a few meetings with them a few months prior to the event. We recap. They do a great job of giving me a post-race report. So, we review that from the previous year. In there, they let me know that, this year, we had a lot of leftover bananas or we had a lot of extra product here, and that helps. I do see that as well. They're right there. They're the ones handling it. So, it helps me when I'm putting in that order - looking at what our registration numbers are, what they were last year, what I ordered - and see if I could reduce that. Then, we just talked through the event. Is there anything new this year that we didn't have last year that should be an area that we focus on? Do we add a hospitality tent to our post-race party to put that on their map of, "Hey, we got to make sure we're getting in this tent as well." One great thing I mentioned was the water is not coming in cardboard this year, so that's less of a concern and they don't have to put as many people in that area on race day. So, really just talking through what's new, what's different this year. Then, they also - with our vendors, with our sponsors - give us guidelines. When we have some of our caterers come in, PRC provides us with guidelines in helping them find compostable utensils and compostable serving equipment that we asked all of our vendors to use when they come on-site. That way, it helps with our sustainable efforts. So, they do give us that guidance to pass along to our vendors, as well as some things that we put out on our social media channels to our spectators and our runners as well.

Panos  42:40  
What kind of information do you actually share with your spectators to help them be part of what you guys are doing around sustainability? 

Brian  42:48  
Really just a broad overview of what we're doing and make them aware that we have-- it always makes me laugh. You go to some events and the trash cans are covered because of their efforts, but people still set their coffee cup or something right on top of that bag even though, if you look right to the left, there's where it should go. So just making them aware of what we're doing and our efforts. I think, sometimes, too, if you're a first-time marathoner and your family's coming, you talk to race directors - Panos, you've seen it - about the clothes at the start line along the course. You see the cups at fluid stations and it looks like there are just cups all over the road. Well, yes, at that moment, as runners come through, they are there, but they get cleaned up and they get discarded responsibly. So, just educating them again. We have something in place. All those cups aren't left there. They don't go blowing away into the sides of the roads or into the weeds. They're collected and here's where they end up.

Panos  43:50  
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Ok, now, let’s get back to the episode…

We need to be practical about this as we mentioned earlier, right? I mean, there are a million things you can be doing. There's cupless racing in trail running but a different story when taking that into a 30,000 person event. How do you manage that side of things? So basically, being reasonable while still delivering a great event and a great race experience and the kinds of stuff that people want because they want a medal and a shirt? I mean, they want stuff, I guess. So how do you balance people wanting stuff and you guys trying to create as little waste as possible?

Brian  45:31  
It's a lovely balance, Panos. I think one of the big things we do is post-race surveys to our runners and our movers, and that really sheds light on what they - as a participant and as a client of ours - want. We take that and we really listen to them. But as you said, there's that balance. It's a balance of giving the runner what they want or offering them something that will make them want to sign up to run the event but, at the same time, being responsible on our side to not just create excess waste. So, one thing that we've looked at over the years, in a lot of races, you get the goodie bags. Sponsors send items to us. A sponsor would send 30,000 items of something that maybe half or maybe a quarter of the people would like. The other half quarter would look at it and dispose of it right away. So back in 2018 - the first year we thought about it - we started thinking about a premium item, a premium gift. So, instead of asking our sponsors or partners to send, like I said, 30,000 items, we'd ask for a pair of sunglasses, pint glasses, or something that we would think the majority of the runners would like - something like a pint glass. You take it home and you put it in your cabinet and it's something that you're using often or on an occasion. It's not a piece of plastic that might get used one time or given to your kids or somebody - it's used once and done. So, we've really started looking at that premium gift to our runners to really help cut down on excess waste from giving out the swag that everybody sometimes wants. You mentioned the cupless and everybody - all race directors, all organisation - across the country have their own thoughts. They all have their own best interests in mind, and it's one that you saw a lot leading into the pandemic, even coming out of the pandemic, not just from a zero waste side of things, but also from a safety and health standpoint as we're dealing with the pandemic. It's something that we look at and always evaluate at our events. Sometimes, trail races are smaller numbers compared to our 30,000 or other marathons that are even larger than us - Boston, New York, Chicago. Sometimes, in trail running, the athletes are a lot more spread out and they're not in the packs that they are during marathons or during 5K's as they approach a water stop. So, keeping the runners' experience in mind not just from a swag standpoint but an actual competing standpoint-- could you go cupless? You could look at things to do - water monsters, multiple spigots, runners bringing their own cups. I think that's possible if your numbers of athletes are down, maybe, I would say, under 10,000 or definitely even smaller. You'd be able to do something like that because then you're getting backlogs at water stops and people just aren't getting the experience. Then, also, from a safety and medical standpoint, depending on the distance you're running, if we're talking marathon, someone really cares about their time and they come up to a water stop that's just crowded with people and they said, "I'm not waiting for this. I'm going to keep going." There could be some medical issues that come about from that. So it's definitely a balance - something that we're always looking at. We had in the works for 2020, but we had our first ever Earth Day Run - just a 5K - that was something we went cupless. We had a water stop out on the course and we informed our runners to bring their own cups to fill up for fluids if they need it. So, like I said, there are areas where we can attack this and do something. I've looked at our events as far as number of water stops that are along the course and see if we need as many as we do. That way, we might not be cupless but we're able to eliminate a fluid stop or two. If we talk 30,000 runners, just doing simple math, there are 60,000 cups that are not out there anymore. It's definitely a balance and something that we're always looking at.

Panos  49:58  
Absolutely. Actually, I think that's a very interesting point that people keep focusing on. I know I was in thinking about how do we take cups and bottles out of water stations. If you can do that, which I agree is difficult to do for a road race because people are running for time-- I mean, expecting them to carry even, like, a collapsible silicone even in those cases may be a little bit too much to ask of them. But you can think harder about - which I see lots actually in US races, mostly - do I need a water station every two kilometres or something? I mean, maybe you don't. Maybe people can get by with two-thirds of the water stations and then you eliminate just a station full of all of that stuff.

Brian  50:43  
Exactly. Exactly.

Panos  50:45  
So if you feel comfortable sharing that kind of information, I think it would just be interesting for people listening in to talk a little bit about the cost of all of this for you. I know you mentioned that there is a bill waiting for you guys at the office at the end of the event from PRC, and you said it's sort of an eye-watering number. What kind of ballpark are we talking about for something like that for a race of that kind of size? 

Brian  51:10  
Yeah. For the marathon, we have events on Saturday and Sunday, so it's really two days of activity. Plus, like I said, the marathon usually takes two days after to do the sort. So, we're usually looking in the $15,000 to $20,000 range for PRC. The big chunk of it is the hourly rate that we're paying them and their employees, but it's also their coordination. We take on the cost of the compostable dumpsters or different dumpsters that they get and secure for us to put the compostable and recyclable waste in. For some of the others, we coordinate before buying the trash bags or recycle bags. So it is definitely a large number to say the least but, overall, it's something that's definitely worth it. We've looked at it. I think we looked if this was something that we would take on ourselves and employ the people and do all this work. Yeah, that'd probably be something that's well in the six figures for us to, kind of, handle internally.

Panos  52:17  
Yeah, because these guys have made the capital investments. They have all the equipment. They reuse it for you guys to do it unless you lease it out. It just would be a no-brainer. That's why people hire timers and all kinds of stuff. To be honest, $15,000, I mean, on an absolute basis, yes, it's a five-figure amount. I mean, it's definitely something to think about, but it still boils down to 50 cents per runner, roughly, for your 30,000 participants, which I think - for all of this stuff to be able to help you guys to be zero waste which, again, means that only 8% of your waste goes to landfill - is well worth it. I know it won't scale up and down for a 1000-person event or even less - maybe for a 200-person event - but I think it's a very good investment to pay 50 cents per runner and have all of that taken care of for you.

Brian  53:11  
Yeah, absolutely. If you hand the bill to somebody that you're not very familiar with - what PRC does for us, like you said, for a five-figure number - it's a large number. We all know in the industry that police costs are a larger bill than that. But like you said, if you break it down to the number of runners that you have - 50 cents - and the things that it takes off my plate as a Director of Operations and off the plate of those in the event, and the experience that our runners get, it's definitely a well-worth investment.

Panos  53:45  
And are you able to offset any of that by receiving any financial support or grants to basically offset some of those costs?

Brian  53:54  
There are grants out there. We all know there are grants for everything if you're out there looking for them. So, I implore all to look at that and potentially help offset the cost. But as an organisation, we don't go after grants specifically for our sustainable efforts. We kind of go at it in a different approach. We look at a sponsor for our sustainability efforts and we have a sponsor or partner that kind of helps offset that cost for us.

Panos  54:22  
So that's a super interesting concept. Again, I heard that first in the podcast I did with Bruce Rayner - the sustainability sponsor or partner - and it's something that more and more races get to do. You want to tell us a little bit about how this relationship works and basically what the role of a sustainability partner would be for a race like that?

Brian  54:45  
Absolutely. I think every organisation and every event can kind of have a different role for them. I think that each partner that you find could have their own idea or intent. One thing that we do in our partnership sponsorship team that does a great job at securing these partners is we really want to target a company or an organisation that has sustainability in their mission statement or sustainability in their pillars. It's not just, "Hey, let's think of a company out there that can give us some money and say, 'Hey, X is the partner sponsor of our sustainable efforts.'" We want the partnership and our sustainability efforts to come together and make sense. We want to use an organisation or company that has the same thoughts on sustainability that we do at P3R, like I said. It's in their mission or it's in one of their pillars. One of our sponsors now is Evoqua - it's a water technology company here - and they're transforming water enriching life. So their efforts are to help clean water, help make sure things aren't getting into our three rivers here. They have sustainability in their pillar. So, that sponsorship helps offset the costs - not really involved as far as doing the work, but they're supporting what we're doing with PRC. 

Panos  56:10  
And basically - yeah, they don't do the work - what they do is they provide a sponsorship with a sort of earmark for the sustainability programme. So you're getting the resources from them to, then, go on and work on your sustainability with that money that comes from that specific sponsor. 

Brian  56:29  

Panos  56:30  
And then, from their point of view, you mentioned that these are companies that share your approach to sustainability and vision, but that should also help them increase their profile within the community by being the sustainability sponsor for the event.

Brian  56:46  
Correct. I mentioned Evoqua. Transforming Water, Enriching Life - that's something they talk about. They can turn around and say, "We have partnered with P3R and Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon on their sustainability efforts. We're supporting an organisation that cares just like we do about the environment, about water quality. So we're going to help them be able to continue with their sustainability efforts at their events. So, that's how it really, kind of, comes together and we support one another.

Panos  57:21  
And that first sustainability sponsor you had at the Pittsburgh marathon-- was that before your time? I'm just wondering, how did that relationship get started? Did the company comes to you and say, "We want to help you out with sustainability"? Or do you go and find someone who's a good match?

Brian  57:38  
That's outside of my area but here's just the knowledge that I have of it. Just like a lot of partnerships, sometimes, something falls right into your lap. Company reaches out. Organisation reaches out to you with an offer. And sometimes, our team does the research themselves and it might be, "Oh, I know somebody worked for this. Look at what their mission statement is. Look at what they do already. This seems like it'd be a great fit. Let us reach out to them." So, I'm not sure of how Evoqua came about and who initiated the conversation - was it us or them? It's not the area that I focus on, but it's been a great partnership with them. So, it's great having them on board.

Panos  58:19  
And I think it's a great model. For people listening in, it's a great model to expand your roster of sponsorships outside your typical endemic sponsors - the people who are interested in the running or in the sports side of things, and it's great to open up the event-- I think that it's, like, a fantastic opportunity to offer someone to be able to be a sustainability sponsor or partner for a race. There's, like, so much good that can be attached to being that kind of sponsor, and any race can do it. They can be approaching really any kind of corporate. I know you guys focus a little bit more on finding even a better fit for that, but there are so many corporates and companies out there in your community that would be interested in taking on that role. And what takes off the table a big objection or a big hurdle for lots of race directors is the cost. For people outside companies like yours, spending that amount of money, particularly, at tough times like this is a luxury - let's face it, it's not something that people will do automatically.

Brian  59:24  
No, absolutely. Going to conferences and talking to others that are smaller organisation than what we are here at P3R. If you would poll race directors and organisations, "Do you want to do sustainability?" I think it'd be an overwhelming unanimous "Yes." But I think, sometimes, what people and some of the smaller organisations run into is the cost that goes along with some of these efforts. They want to do it but they don't have the money to be able to do it. Unfortunately, right now, with inflation in the world that we are in, everything is going up. You have to sit there and talk about what is prioritized - the safety of the runners and everything else. Sometimes, sustainability gets dropped down. To be able to go out and find a partner and open up like Evoqua - like I said, it's a water technology - at first, you would think, "What would they ever want to do with a running event and endurance event? Why would they sponsor it?" But when you make that connection of, "They have sustainability efforts. They have it. It's something that they focus on. We have that too," it's a great marriage of two organisations that have the same common goal in mind. Now, they're our sustainability partner of the DICK's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon and P3R, and that helps us be able to further continue our sustainability efforts.

Panos  1:00:51  
And there are lots of local businesses - even, sort of, at a really local level - who have sustainability efforts that would love to team up with events on that. You have retail, supermarkets, and all kinds of people that are thinking harder about their own sustainability programme and that kind of sponsorship in a local community can bring lots of benefits to them. So, I would highly encourage people to think around that and potentially see if they could potentially bring a sustainability sponsor on board. As we wrap up, what does the future look like in terms of your sustainability programme and your waste reduction efforts at P3R? As we mentioned earlier, 90$ to 94% is pushing it a little bit. Where's the next percentage point coming from?

Brian  1:01:39  
Like I've mentioned throughout - always evaluating, always looking at our post-race reports that PRC gives us - getting better at our leftover food product. One thing you never want to happen is to run out of food for the athletes and for the runners. Sometimes, you have to make those orders well in advance because you're asking for such a high quantity. Registration is usually around the same amount - give or take - a few thousand. So, over the years, look at what we ordered, what is getting used, talking with who we're getting stuff from. If I place this initial order now, what is my drop dead date to maybe increase this? Looking at registration to date, we're looking a little lower - we're looking right off-paced - so I'm going to drop my order by 10,000. But if something happens and we're starting to pick up the pace, can I do a second order in time to be able to have what I need? Then, just looking at the event as a whole, from a runner experience, one thing that you see at all races is signage - sponsor signage, directional signage, and informational signage. A lot of time, those are Coroplast signs. We're looking here at - other few organisations have done it - LED boards at our finish line. So, instead of having these Coroplast signs that sometimes get reused or marked up as sponsor comes goes - if you change your logo, we have to change out that sign - now, it's LED boards so that those signs aren't going to waste. So, I think that's one of the major things that we're going to be looking at going forward here at P3R. Always keeping our eyes open, always leaning on PRC, their advice of how we can improve and do better.

Panos  1:03:29  
Yeah, and of course, it's a fast-paced world we live in. New things come on the market all the time - new products, new technologies. In a few years from now, there might be ways of cutting back even further on the residual waste you guys have. I think that has been really helpful for getting, sort of, like, a ground-level grasp of how some of these things apply in a real race. So, thank you very much for that. If people want to maybe reach out, take an interest in some of these things, and perhaps follow up with you, can they do that? How do they find you?

Brian  1:04:05  
Yeah, absolutely. First off, Panos, I appreciate you having me on. It's been a pleasure getting to spend this time with you talking about what we do here in P3R and our sustainability efforts. But if people want to find me, I'm on LinkedIn, Brian Schmidt. You can find me there and if you really want to know more about it and how we can help, feel free to send me an email. So my email is

Panos  1:04:42  
Awesome. Well, thank you very much again for the time you gave up to share some of these thoughts with us. Really appreciate it. 

Brian  1:04:49  
Thank you, Panos. It's been a pleasure. 

Panos  1:04:51  
Thank you very much to everyone listening in and we will see you all on our next podcast!

Panos  1:05:01  
I hope you enjoyed today’s episode on getting to zero waste with P3R Director of Operations, Brian Schmidt. 

You can find more resources on anything and everything related to race directing on our website You can also share your questions about waste diversion, sustainable event practices or anything else in our Facebook group, Race Directors Hub.

Many thanks again to our awesome podcast sponsors RunSignup and Racecheck for sponsoring today’s episode. And if you enjoyed this episode, please don’t forget to subscribe on your favorite player, and check out our podcast back-catalog for more great content like this. 

Until our next episode, take care and keep putting on amazing races.

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