Reducing THON's environmental footprint, one bottle and bag at a time

Marchella Verdi
March 20, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Last month, the crowd roared as the THON 2019 fundraising total — $10,621,683.76 — was announced onstage during THON weekend. Since 1977, THON has had a growing impact that enhances the lives of children and families affected by childhood cancer, raising more than $167 million. But we should also save some cheers for how THON has been trying to lessen its impact — the impact its events have on the environment.

With the help of its OPPerations committee, since partnering with Penn State’s Sustainability Institute in 2016, THON has looked for active ways to reduce its waste, with the goal of becoming a campus sustainability champion and eventually becoming a zero-waste event. 

“Sustainability and waste-reduction efforts are gradually becoming more of a THON focus, rather than just an OPPerations focus, and it’s really great to see,” said Isaac Messner, a THON OPPerations captain and sustainability officer.

Beginning last year at THON 2018, to reduce the amount of plastic that water bottles generated, dancers were given a reusable water bottle to use throughout the 46-hour dance marathon, thanks to the work of the Hospitality Committee. Also, people who attend THON as part of committees or as bystanders were encouraged to bring reusable water bottles to the event, to further lessen impacts and bring it toward a zero-waste event. 

New to THON 2019, the OPPerations Committee introduced a revised compost system, informally known as the Compost Cart. Before, bags were used to collect compost throughout the event. However, they often would rip and tear when being replaced. With the Compost Cart, the lined waste bins themselves, rather than their bags, were regularly swapped out without needing to use bags. The new system not only was an easier and more effective way to reduce and dispose of waste, but it also was more cost-effective and reduced the use of plastic garbage bags.

Also new to THON 2019 sustainability efforts was the OPPerations Committee’s interactive sustainability and recycling education sessions for all the other THON committees to help embed sustainability in all aspects of the event planning. For example, the Supply Logistics Committee found alternatives to cardboard signs that get thrown away each year, instead creating signs that can be re-used at multiple THONs. The Hospitality Committee introduced compostable cups to THON and compostable utensils at this year’s THON 5K.

Beginning in 2016, THON began calculating its waste diversion rate — the amount of waste that is recycled, reused, or composted rather than thrown away in the trash — at every event, in order to track its progress. While THON 2019’s diversion rate of 33.97 percent is slightly less than in previous years, this was in part due to the fact that the new methods of waste disposal and recycling that were introduced require greater training and awareness campaigns to become fully effective. 

THON aims to reach an 80 percent diversion rate or better for each event, in order to accomplish zero-waste. Last year’s THON 5K had a diversion rate of 82.92 percent and the Family Carnival had a diversion rate of 82.44 percent, which is what THON hopes to continue producing. As these new methods become more embedded in THON culture and additional initiatives are introduced in the future, the plan is to move THON closer to its goal of being a zero-waste event. 

“I have high hopes for the future,” said Messner.

Last Updated September 20, 2019