Can Festival Trash Be an Unlikely Source of Good?

Elisia Guerena

Since their simple flower power beginnings in 1967, music festivals have turned into massively popular events, with about 800 festivals annually in America and millions of attendees in the U.K. (a number that is steadily growing).  Great big bashes under the sun, in the mud, and under the influence are tons of fun—and they also leave behind tons of trash. In the U.K., festivals generate about 23,500 tons of waste, and their American counterparts aren’t much better. Popular events like Bonnaroo reported 680 tons of waste over a four-day period and Coachella 2017 generated 107 tons of waste each day. They’re like miniature eco disasters.

But it’s getting better—festivals are getting greener, helpers are stepping up, and new products are promising sustainable solutions.

One man’s trash is another’s safety net

 Discarded tents are a giant problem when the music stops and the crowd is long gone.  For example, the 2018 Reading Festival in the U.K., left behind 60,000 tents. A popular music festival like Glastonbury, which hosts over 150,000 people, has left 20,000 tents behind in the past.

“When you start, it’s all very clean,” says Matt Wedge, director of Festival Waste Reclamation and Distribution, a U.K. charity that collects abandoned tents. “By Monday morning, it’s quite apocalyptic.”

While some festivals collect tents and other usable goods for donation, many simply haul them off to a landfill. To combat that, Wedge’s charity works about six festivals a year, like Leeds, Reading and Boomtown, stepping in to collect usable tents before the festival crews start sweeping through the grounds. He estimates that on average, 25 percent of tents are abandoned at each festival. What can be salvaged are collected and redistributed to charities around the UK who pass out tents to the homeless or resell them to benefit their charitable efforts.

Another U.K. charity, Aid Box Community, similarly scours leftover festival grounds and sends tents, sleeping bags, and other reusable goods to other countries. In 2017, Aid Box sent sleeping materials to Greece and non-perishable foods to Calais.

Like-minded efforts exist stateside. Firefly festival in Dover, Delaware, works with Code Purple, a nonprofit which provides emergency shelter for the homeless on frigid nights. The nonprofit provides purple zip ties for festival campers to mark items, from bedrolls to clothing, which they plan to leave behind. Leftovers that wouldn’t help the homeless, like coolers or furniture, help raise funds at the nonprofit’s yard sale.

Finding solutions in new products

While collection efforts have helped put a tent in landfill acreage, a better solution might be to give festivals goers a more sustainable alternative to traditional tents from the jump—and some start-ups are doing just that. There’s the Netherlands-based KarTent, which offers tents fully made of cardboard (and can allegedly withstand a few days’ worth of rain). They can be found at festivals in over a dozen different countries or can be purchased online, where a 2.4m x 1.6 m cardboard tent goes for about $62. Another product that’s still in the works is Comp-A-Tent, which are fully biodegradable, plant-based tents that biodegrade within 120-days. The product was a runner-up for the 2017 James Dyson award.

Similarly, the Dorset-based startup Above All C6(n) is trying to reduce festival waste and also has big-picture goals. The company is developing lightweight, two-person modular living pods created from recycled plastic water bottles that can accommodate solar power, a water supply, and a bio toilet. The inventors’ end goal is to provide these modular dwellings as not only an option for festivals but also as emergency shelters. They won the “Most Innovative Solution for Temporary Structures” award at the Major Events Summit in Liverpool in 2018.

Green festivals are catching on

It’s not just charities and companies trying to solve the festival trash problem. Festivals are also taking an active role in becoming greener.  For example, Australia’s Babylon Festival offers a free drink or one free raffle ticket for those who can turn in a cup’s worth of cigarette butts.  Latitude Festival has a reusable cup program with a $2.50 refundable deposit. At Green Man, the event gives out recycling bags and has recycling wheelie bins throughout the grounds.  Burning Man takes significant strides to leave no trace (although it’s not entirely successful) and has some pretty strict rules of what you can and can’t bring to the event. Even trash factories like Coachella and Bonnaroo provide ground-level programs to encourage recycling and cutting down on carbon emissions.

 Meanwhile, major event organizations are also taking sustainability seriously. By 2020, Live Nation, the world’s largest entertainment company, aims to achieve a zero waste goal at 20 of its amphitheaters. It is also partnering with Rock and Wrap it Up, an anti-poverty nonprofit that connects event food vendors and local food rescue agencies. And in the U.K. over 60 festivals have promised to eliminate single-use plastics by 2021.

While it might be disheartening to wake up the Monday morning after a festival and look out from your disposable tent onto a sea of leftover trash, change is happening and many festivals—and the retailers who rely on them—are aiming for a zero-waste world. And that’s a good thing. After all, as Creedence Clearwater Revival sang at the original Woodstock festival that started it all, “99 and a half just won’t do.”