Can outdoor festivals shed 'environmental disaster' label and go green?

Grant Pollard/Invision/AP
A young fan enjoys the music at the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, in Somerset, England, in June 2017.
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The aftermath of an outdoor festival is seldom a pretty sight. Empty water bottles, plastic bags, cups and straws, and all manner of debris typically litter the ground where, hours earlier, revelers danced and partied. Festivals also generate millions more tons of waste that we can’t see, in the form of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Yet if given the opportunity, attendees appear more than willing to clean up after themselves. In the United States and Britain, festival organizers are pushing to shrink carbon footprints and keep as much waste as possible out of landfills. Some of the efforts are restrictive, like banning plastic water bottles and charging extra for single-occupancy vehicle parking, while others, like using music to encourage picking up litter, aim to harness festivalgoers’ natural inclinations to clean the environment. “You’ve got to have congruence between your ideas and the things you do,” says Teresa Anderson, director of the University of Manchester's Discovery Centre at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Britain, which hosts the annual Bluedot Festival.

Why We Wrote This

Music festivals tend to attract an environmentally conscious crowd. But the pollution they generate can be hard to reconcile with those principles. Some organizers are addressing that head on.

It’s almost 2 a.m. at Lightning in a Bottle, a music festival in Bradley, Calif. The Portland, Ore.-based DJ, Emancipator, is playing his last hypnotic beat and the final headliner, Zhu, just finished an intense electronic set. But neither of these will be the last song of the night. That honor goes to the “Clean Up Song” by Mr. Nigel & Friends and its slight reggae tones that float over the chattering crowd.

Clean up / Clean up / Boys and girls let’s clean up

Suddenly, heads bow and backs hunch as people scour the ground for empty cups, dirty forks, and ripped festival guides, and drop the trash into landfill, recycling, and compost cans dotted around the festival.

Why We Wrote This

Music festivals tend to attract an environmentally conscious crowd. But the pollution they generate can be hard to reconcile with those principles. Some organizers are addressing that head on.

“It works,” laughs Jesse Shannon, marketing director of Do LaB, the organization that hosts Lightning in a Bottle. “It reminds people in a fun and cute way not to leave everything on the dance floor.”

The “Clean Up Song,” has been a tradition at Lightning in a Bottle since the beginning. It’s just one of the innovative ways music festivals are trying to reduce their impact on the environment.

Outdoor festivals have been called environmental disasters. A 2006 analysis conducted by Burning Man, the annual gathering in the northwestern Nevada desert, estimated that the seven-day event produced 91 million pounds of carbon emissions, or 1,400 pounds per person. These events literally produce tons of trash, anything from 60 tons at Lightning in a Bottle in 2015 to almost 550 tons at Bonnaroo in 2017.

There is a tension between these realities and the beliefs of those who run and attend these festivals. They cater to an audience that’s educated about the environment. Many attendees are concerned about their environmental footprints but still sometimes leave huge amounts of waste in their wake.

Clean Vibes, an on-site waste management company for outdoor festivals, calls these people “hippie-crits,” a combination of the word “hippie” and “hypocrite.” Burning Man has a strong “Leave No Trace” policy. Lightning in a Bottle hosts talks from climate activists and scientists including the Buckminster Fuller Institute and Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in San Francisco has worked with Clean Vibes to responsibly manage its waste. In 2016, the festival diverted 91 percent of all waste from the landfill by encouraging recycling, reuse, and composting. 

“No one throws anything away without talking to us,” says Anna Borofsky, co-owner of Clean Vibes.

And under the shadow of the Lovell Telescope, the British science and music festival Bluedot is built on the idea that the Earth is a very fragile speck in space.

“You’ve got to have congruence between your ideas and the things you do,” says Teresa Anderson, director of the University of Manchester's Discovery Centre at Jodrell Bank Observatory, home of Bluedot.

These and other music festivals have sustainability procedures in the hopes of addressing their carbon footprint. They use LEDs for all the lighting except on stages. Many offer free water and have banned the sale of plastic bottles. The food vendors are required to serve on compostable plates and silverware. More than 300 volunteers at Lightning in a Bottle spent the days during and after the event knee-deep in dumpsters sorting trash. According to the 2015 Green Report, the festival's “green team” diverted 44 percent of trash from landfills to compost or recycling centers. In 2017, Bonnaroo reported diverting 55 percent of its waste.

But the most significant portion of any event’s carbon footprint is transportation. Lightning in a Bottle and Bluedot both have bus programs to lessen their carbon impact by transporting more guests per vehicle from the surrounding areas. Lightning in a Bottle also charges a $30 fee for single-occupant cars, while all other parking is free to encourage carpooling.

Festivals hope they can affect people’s attitudes and awareness instead of simply mitigating their own environmental effects.

“People [at a festival] are exploring an alternative way of living, and it’s a good opportunity to reassess your relationship to waste,” Mr. Shannon says. “While camping, there is a unique opportunity to see all the trash you are going to generate in a single weekend because you have to take it all with you. Hopefully [the guests] take some of those strategies and learnings into regular life.”

“I find that people are in a different state [at music festivals],” says Amanda Ravenhill, executive director of the Buckminster Fuller Institute. “They are more open, reflective, and have the potential for an epiphany that might become a deeper shift.”

At a venue surrounded by nature and awe-inspiring stages made from recycled materials, speakers find they can have a more profound effect than when speaking from a Marriott Courtyard conference room. Since the 1960s, music festivals and outdoor gatherings have taken on a decidedly countercultural flavor. It’s not surprising, then, that organizers feel the need to address environmental concerns.

“People have been gathering for as long as there have been people,” Shannon says. “So it’s not something we are going to stop doing. It’s more what can we do to reduce the impacts of these gatherings and at the same time have a positive effect. We are confident we are helping people’s minds expand and change, and that’s why we do it.”

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