Beyond good vibes and heady memories, a primary export of U.S. music festivals is garbage. At the big events like Coachella, Electric Daisy Carnival, Lollapalooza, Governors Ball, and Bonnaroo, literally tons of trash are created by fans, vendors, and artists. Add the mass energy consumption and weighty carbon footprint of 100,000 people commuting to a venue, and these big events can be environmentally problematic.
It probably will get worse before it gets better, as the festival circuit continues its rapid expansion. Events like Coachella and Sasquatch now occupy two weekends each, while the trendiest promoters are taking their parties to sea (and we all know how filthy cruise ships can be).
Most festivals don’t seem to be making big efforts to be green, as anyone who has seen their refuse bins overflowing with plastic water bottles can attest. The behind-the-scenes garbage pile at Coachella, which hosts some 160,000 folks over two weekends, is particularly mountainous, and other large events suffer as well.
“Sasquatch was more like ‘Trashquatch.’ It was awful,” says Tucker Gumber, a frequent festivalgoer—he hit 18 of them in 2012 alone—who reviews them on his website, thefestivalguy.com. “The grounds are so pretty, but inside there weren’t enough trash cans, there were no cleaning crews coming through, and the trash next to my campsite didn’t get emptied all weekend.”
Some organizers, however, are focused on neutralizing the environmental effect of the pop-up cities they create. Take Lightning in a Bottle, the electronic music, yoga, and arts festival, which had its eighth itineration last weekend in Temecula, California. Eco-responsibility is in the event’s mission statement; organizers highlight stages made from recycled materials. Portions of the event—which hosted 14,000 people—are powered by solar energy, and there are local organic-food vendors. An extensive waste-reduction program is manned by a volunteer “green team,” which is 120 members strong. Many can be found backstage, elbow-deep in waste, sorting refuse. Not exactly most people’s idea of a wild party.
“A lot of volunteers complain at first,” says Shena Jade Jensen, Lightning in a Bottle’s sustainability director, “but we’ve had people say that it was life-changing because they realize, when they’re in it, how much waste we’re creating and how big a difference recycling makes when done properly.”
Lightning in a Bottle’s Temple of Consciousness area offers workshops on topics including permaculture, healthy eating, and meditation. Attendees have the option to purchase carbon credits to offset their trip to the festival, and many of them do—the festival also claims 100 percent participation among its organizers. Rideshare buses travel to the site from Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, and attendees who drive in solo must pay $30. Lightning in a Bottle also provides free filtered water, so long as folks bring their own containers. “Attendees should be upset when they have to pay $5 for a tiny bottle of water,” Jensen says.
These types of efforts have earned Lightning in a Bottle top accolades from A Greener Festival, a U.K.–based nonprofit that judges events of this kind. The organization also praises Milwaukee’s zero-emissions Rock the Green festival (which was canceled for 2013) and Nevada’s Symbiosis Gathering.
Bonnaroo—which hosts 100,000 people in rural Tennessee every June—was the biggest U.S. festival to be highlighted by the nonprofit. “We’ve got an aggressive recycling program, yoga, meditation, free water, and composting,” says Richard Goodstone, co-founder of Superfly Productions, the company behind Bonnaroo and Brooklyn’s Great GoogaMooga.
Meanwhile, Burning Man, the 60,000-person New Agey music and arts party in the northern Nevada desert, emphasizes “leave-no-trace” efforts; attendees are known to self-regulate in order to keep even the tiniest bits of trash off the ground.
Coachella seems to be less successful when it comes to sustainability, despite recycling and carpool programs, free water for folks who turn in used water bottles, and other initiatives over the years. Event-goers who try to dispose of their food waste have had trouble. The recycling, compost, and trash bins are confusingly labeled, and as a result many have been piled high with garbage. (A representative from the company that puts on Coachella declined to be interviewed for this article.)
In any case, it’s easy to see how even well-intended fests might be tempted to hold back green initiatives that are too expensive. “If it’s 10 times the cost, we may have to say that we’re not going to do the most sustainable option,” Goodstone says. “We can only do so much based on our finances.”
Festival devotee Gumber says electronic dance music events tend to be the dirtiest, and indeed, Electric Daisy Carnival and HARD seem to provide recycling bins as more of a token gesture. (While EDC parent company Insomniac had plans to launch a comprehensive recycling program, those efforts have been shelved for the time being.)
“Electronic music culture has always been about community, but green has been more fringe,” says Janine Jordan, founder of the nonprofit Electronic Music Alliance. “It pushes some people away for some reason.”
To help counteract this mindset, volunteers from the arts collective Do Lab—which puts on Lightning in a Bottle—have gone on to become sustainability directors at other festivals. Also helpful? When a festival owns its own land, such as Bonnaroo, which bought several hundred farmland acres at its location in 2007. This allowed Superfly to improve its water-filtration systems and install compost pads, among other improvements. The fest’s “Clean Vibes” crew (born out of the earthy Phish scene) picks up garbage piles left by attendees at campsites. The crew also posts information at all the waste stations to teach folks what should be composted, recycled, or put in the trash.
Lightning in a Bottle even plays a song with lyrics encouraging folks to pick up their junk after the music ends each night, which ensures the grounds are kept fairly tidy. Festival organizers are looking into options for algae generators and—brace yourself—turning human waste into energy.
While such initiatives might sound daunting, to say the least, for $350, A Greener Festival will come to an event and assess what can be done to make it more eco-friendly. The nonprofit emphasizes that these types of programs can help generate long-term savings and, considering that it can’t be cheap to move giant piles of garbage out of exceedingly remote locations, this isn’t hard to believe.
Of course, much of this is in the hands of those in attendance; not surprisingly, attendees at the hippie-dippier events tend to be the best about cleaning up after themselves. But it’s clear that organizers can change folks’ behavior patterns. It involves providing the right incentives, the right penalties, and, perhaps more than anything else, making it easy to be green.
“Thousands of people are coming to an event that’s going to be one of the most memorable experiences of their year,” Jensen says. “It’s up to [festival organizers] to decide what kind of legacy they want to create in the world out of that.”