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Issues of the Environment: Happy Planet Running in Ann Arbor sprinting toward zero-waste running events

Jeff Jackson (center) and his fellow runners.
Jeff Jackson
Happy Planet Running
Jeff Jackson (center) and his fellow runners.


  • Running for sport or leisure is an inherently eco-friendly activity that generates no waste other than the carbon dioxide exhaled. Washtenaw County is an excellent place to run for enjoyment or train for a competitive event, with miles and miles of paved sidewalks and connected off-road trails, multiple stores catering to runners' needs, and plenty of social clubs and organized races for all skill levels. 
  • Jeff Jackson, founder of Happy Planet Running, took up competitive running about 15 years ago and quickly noticed that while running itself was green, races produced a lot of waste, including plastic water bottles, cups, paper, medals, cardboard, and food waste. Jeff has completed over 150 races from 5K to ultramarathon, and he’s been on a crusade to transform competitive racing into a zero-waste endeavor. 
  • Jeff operates his business out of Ann Arbor and covers the “zero-waste” aspects of racing events from start to finish. Happy Planet Racing comes up with an action plan for waste reduction in the planning portion of the race. Then, after running the race himself, Jeff (aided by volunteers and his staff) collects, sorts, measures, and properly removes all the waste generated. He keeps meticulous metrics and has served over 150 events with a 95% landfill diversion rate. (90% is considered the benchmark for a “zero waste” event.) 
  • Based on a framework from the Council for Responsible Sport, a non-profit that certifies sporting events as sustainable, Jeff started out by offering sorting and recycling services to small to medium-sized races at his own expense. He quickly realized that to expand to more races, he needed to incorporate into a service business. HPR now offers affordable, accessible assistance to harried race managers by shifting the responsibility for waste diversion completely to him. 
  • Jeff likes to present race managers with an SBOT (Single Bag of Trash) when he is finished. This is all the trash that must be landfilled, and it rarely amounts to more than a few pounds. Through composting and recycling HPR has diverted over 15 tons of waste from the landfill. 

  • Apart from trash, race-related swag is another source of excess that Jeff says is an area with room for improvement. Most races give away medals, T-shirts, cups, mugs, glasses, etc... to celebrate making it to the finish line, but runners typically have way more of these items than they can use. He suggests offering swag for a small fee, so it ends up in the hands of people who want it instead of discarded when the runner's high is over. HBP serves multiple events every month of the year, and volunteers looking to help with a race in southeast Michigan can contact HPR or visit their website.


David Fair: It's that time of year where more and more people are getting out for a run. Now, it's not only good for the body, but it can be a truly eco-friendly activity. That is, unless you are running competitively and in a large group. This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair. And welcome to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. There are going to be a good number of 5-K'S, half-marathons and marathons taking place throughout the summer. These events can generate a good amount of waste, and, as you might imagine, that's not so good for the environment. Jeff Jackson is a competitive runner and determined that running events don't have to be an environmental burden. That's why he started Happy Planet Running. It helps organizers work toward creating zero waste events. And. Jeff, nice to have you along today! I appreciate your time!

Happy Planet Running founder Jeff Jackson.
Jeff Jackson
Happy Planet Running founder Jeff Jackson.

Jeff Jackson: Oh, it's my pleasure! I love to talk trash, as they say.

David Fair: And you love to run. What does running mean to you?

Jeff Jackson: Boy, it means an awful lot. It's something I discovered relatively late in life. Actually, I didn't start running until my 40s. Until then, I hated it. And then, I started it, and it sort of took over my life, you know? I ran one 5K competitively, and I sort of caught the fever. And now, I run races every year from 5-K to 100 miles or more at a time.

David Fair: 100 miles? That's rather aspirational!

Jeff Jackson: Yes, that's a nice way of saying it. Others might say crazy, and I can't argue with that. You know, I just get some kind of satisfaction out of it that I can't from anything else. It's very hard to explain. But ask any ultra-runner, and they'll tell you the same thing.

David Fair: In your mind, as you were running these races, when did you start to marry the idea of competitive running and environmental stewardship?

Jeff Jackson: Well, I've always been a proponent of recycling, and I tried to do it. And here in Ann Arbor, we have that ability. So, we've been recycling for a long time. And when I began running races, I just noticed more and more that, at the end of the race, all this trash is being thrown into the dumpster, and it included things that were recyclable. And not only the cups and the bottles and all of that, but all the food waste. And I began saying to myself, "Somebody's got to do something about this!" And it reached the point where I realized, "Well, that somebody has got to be me, so I might as well start." And this was in 2016, I went to a race in Grand Rapids that did zero waste. In fact, they were certified by the Council for Responsible Sport as a sustainable race. I went there. I learned how to do it. At the end of it, we had bags and bags full of food waste. It went to compost. We had bags and bags and bags of recycling, and the landfill didn't even fill a shoe box. And I said, "This is the way to do it." And I took it back here to my favorite running events company here in the Ann Arbor area. And I said, "I would love to do this for you." And to perhaps everlasting regret, they said, "Okay." And I have been doing zero waste for them ever since. That's 2016. I started as a volunteer, and then in 2017, I picked up another events company in the area. And I thought, "Well, I might as well incorporate." And so in 2017, I founded Happy Planet Running, and here we are, seven years later, still going.

David Fair: WEMU's Issues of the Environment conversation with Happy Planet Running owner Jeff Jackson continues. And you work with events that have anywhere from 100 to 5000 participants. That doesn't include whatever crowd may gather to watch the event. So, it occurs to me, I likely haven't considered all of the waste that can be generated during a competitive event. So, beyond the water bottles, paper waste and food waste, what are you trying to truly manage?

Jeff Jackson: Well, I think you've covered the lion's share of the waste right there. The spectators bring some additional waste to the event, but, by far, the majority comes from the athletes and what the event company is providing behind the scenes. So, if they're handing out t-shirts, for example, there's the cardboard boxes from the t-shirts and the finisher medals. There's the food that the athletes consume, and then, they throw the waste away. But there's all this stuff that goes into preparing that food. There's a waste stream from that as well. And you're right, I serve, say, the 100 to about 5000 athletes because I believe that niche is underserved in the sustainability area. So, that's my focus at Happy Planet Running.

David Fair: So, another part of the focus has to be planning and cleaning up the trash at the end. That is a reaction to the event itself. But figuring out how to plan for such an event has to be a more difficult task. What do you have to do in the lead-up to such an event to ensure that it is close to a zero-waste event as possible?

Jeff Jackson: That is a really good question. And you're right. We do invest quite a bit of time planning how we're going to manage the waste at an event. So, that means, well before the race, we're talking with the events company and saying, "Tell us about the waste you guys currently produce. What kinds of foods you're going to be serving? How are you going to serve the water at the finish line? Are you going to have snacks? Where are the athletes going to congregate?" Because where they're going to be consuming and producing this waste is as important as what they're going to be consuming. So, I produced a zero waste plan before every event and share it with the event company. And I tell them, "Here's where we're going to put our stations. Here's what we're we're planning to collect. And then, here's what we're going to do with it at the very end." So, yes, planning is a very important part of it.

David Fair: And I would imagine that any event organizer would be thrilled to have that taken off their plate.

Jeff Jackson: Oh, yes! In fact, I had an assistant race director years ago tell me, "Great, Jeff! You can do this, as long as it doesn't create any more work for me!" And frankly, I appreciated her candor. And I said, "Don't worry. We will provide the complete solution here." What we really need from the events companies is, one, their support, because I do charge for my services. And the other is providing some volunteers. I have a terrific staff comprised mainly of interns from the University of Michigan every year, but we can't get it done without some volunteer assistance as well.

David Fair: You have reduced, as you said, to a shoe box that goes to the landfill. So, how do you go about disposing of the rest of the waste collected?

Jeff Jackson: The majority—say, over half of the collected waste—is recyclable. And so, that goes to a local recycling center at the end. And sometimes, the events company provides a recycling dumpster on site. And that's terrific because then I don't have to haul it somewhere. About a third of the waste stream is compostable. So, that is food waste and compostable containers, which I encourage the event companies to move toward. I mean, recycling is a wonderful thing, but I know for sure that every compostable item is going to turn back into dirt. And I take that to a commercial composting facility. The remainder is either landfill or, what we call, specialty items. And those are the things you can't normally put in a recycling bin, things like very small plastics, snack bags, plastic bags and wrap, styrofoam, even things like race bibs and swim caps and things like that. We can recover the great majority of that by using a company called TerraCycle, and they recycle specialty items. So, we send all that to them. So, yes, we can do the shoe box. In fact, at some races now, we've gotten it down to a tiny little baggie.

David Fair: Once again, we're talking with Jeff Jackson on 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. Jeff is owner of Happy Planet Running in Ann Arbor. Obviously, recycling has been a part of your life prior to you getting involved in this endeavor of Happy Planet Running. But are you working with other entities in Ann Arbor and perhaps around the state in trying to advance the recycling efforts that will make us a more sustainable society?

Jeff Jackson: Yeah, that's a great question. I do have a network of folks that I use, like the Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, for example. So, I reach out. I describe what I'm doing. And really, my goal of Happy Planet Running isn't to build a little empire of recycling. It's to get the word out. You can do this no matter what size event you have, you can do it. I will be happy to show you how, even if I can't work the event. So, on our website, we're publishing a model that says, "You want a zero waste event? Here's how you can go about it." And I really want to get the word out. It's possible, and I want to encourage you to do it. I'll just give you a couple of quick numbers, okay? Since 2016, I have data from every single race that I have served, and that's 220 now. We've diverted 42 tons of waste from the landfill. Now, a single Chicago Marathon is more than that. So, I'm not under any illusion that I'm making a huge dent in our dumping here in the state of Michigan. But it's a little bit. And if every race in the state of Michigan did this, it would cumulate and add up to a huge contribution to improving Michigan's recycling rate. So, that's really what I'm trying to do with Happy Planet Running is get the word out and show you it can be done.

David Fair: Well, coming up later this month, Happy Planet Running will be working a 5-K run in Detroit, the Mother's Day Run in Ann Arbor, and the Stegosaurus Triathlon in Brighton. Will your company be visible? Will we see folks out working the grounds?

Jeff Jackson: Definitely! You'll be able to notice our stations because we have a big sign. So, people bring waste to our stations, and we do real-time sorting right there, so they don't have to worry about which bin to put it in. We'll take care of all that for them. And we're policing the grounds, picking up things that might have been left on the ground. We like to leave an event cleaner than we found it. That's really our philosophy there and, of course, to divert as much from the landfill as possible.

David Fair: Well, I appreciate you taking time to talk with me today. And thanks for the work you're doing, Jeff. I appreciate it.

Jeff Jackson: Oh, absolutely!

David Fair: That is Jeff Jackson. He is founder and owner and, as he likes to say, chief trash diverter at Happy Planet Running. For more information, stop by our website at wemu.org when you get a chance. And we'll get you everywhere you need to go. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. You hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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