The Environmental Impact of Music Festivals

by Laura Mitic (Carmanah) for The Jellyfish Project

Music festivals. For many, they are one of the biggest summer 'to-do’s.' We spend heavy amounts of money to sign up for weekends full of music, dancing, partying, sunshine and friends. We arrive, we set up our campsites, we consume, we enjoy and then we leave. 

From the huge music festivals to the small local ones, waste management is one of the biggest challenges for the festival organizers to manage. Combined with the heavy carbon footprint of people traveling to a festival, and the mass amounts of consumption and indulgence, music festivals have become an immense environmental problem.

Gigantic festivals, like Sasquatch, are being criticised for their lack of environmental initiatives and the grand size of their footprint. In fact, Sasquatch has been coined “Trashquatch” by some who have witnessed the atrocious mounds of garbage that pile up during the festival, including recycling items that get unfortunately miscategorised and added to the trash mounds.

Most festivals flaunt their environmental plans with promises to be more sustainable than ever before. While intentions are good and some great ideas have been created, it takes a thoroughly planned execution to ensure success. While attendees are essentially responsible for their own actions, the initial responsibility is in the organizers hands. Making it easy to recycle, creating incentives to re-use and encouraging attendees to clean up after themselves, all start with a well-run and well thought-out environmental campaign at each festival. 

It needs to be easy. While a growing number of people are willing to go out of their way and recycle, re-use or reduce, many people are not quite there yet. And it only gets worse at music festivals, where people are feeling especially care-free and unattached from reality. Mix alcohol and drugs into the equation and the idea of “recycling” becomes a faint whisper, drowned out by the party.

Festival campgrounds get literally covered in trash, from small items (glowsticks, plastic water bottles, broken sunglasses and plastic bags) to the big stuff (tents, coolers, sleeping bags and tables). The price of cleanup is a huge weight on a music festival’s budget, and in return, leads to the price of tickets going up as well. Either expensive trash removal companies or cleanup crews are left with the challenge of collecting mass amounts of garbage and dismantling tents for the landfill. 

In fact, tents being left behind have become such a problem that a new campaign called “Love Your Tent” was created by the sustainability consultants to the Isle of Wight Music Festival in the UK. The aim is to encourage festival-goers to leave nothing behind, including your tent. They claim that “about 1 to 2 in every 6 tents [are] being left behind, depending on the size of event, the audience demographic, and the all-important weather conditions." Take a moment to check out their video. 

Some festivals have created really great environmental initiatives that are actually working. For example, Lightning in a Bottle, an electronic music/yoga/arts festival in Temecula, California, is being recognized for their eco-responsibility. Stages are being made from recycles materials, portions of the event are being run of off solar power, and food vendors include local and organic options. A volunteer “green-team” of 120 people runs the successful waste-reduction program, and is responsible for sorting through the massive trash piles. Lightning in a Bottle also created the “Temple of Consciousness” and area of the festival grounds devoted to holding workshops about things like permaculture, healthy eating and meditation. As an incentive to cut down on carbon emissions from cars coming into the festival, an additional $30 is charged to anyone driving alone, and extensive ride-share programs are in place to encourage people to carpool.

Other festivals, like Bonnaroo and Burning Man also boast about their aggressive recycling, composting and environmental wellness programs. Many of them are finding success in their campaigns, and also discovering that many of the attendees enjoy participating in environmental programs. For example, at Coachella Music Festival in California, people can trade in 10 empty plastic water bottles for 1 full new one. 

Festivals like Pickathon, in Oregon, are handing out stainless steel cups and reusable plates and cutlery to all of their attendees, cutting down on massive amounts of trash. "No advertisers, no waste, just music. This is what all music festivals should be like," said Andrew Savage of Parquet Courts, after performing at Pickathon. As well, they charge additional fees for each car driven to the festival.

Edmonton Folk Fest is doing a similar practice, with their Keep It Green campaign. No styrofoam is allowed on the festival grounds and 5000 reusable plates were purchased to cut down on disposable food containers that contribute to much of what piles up in festival garbage cans. As well, they have created EnviroPower, a cleanup and garbage collecting crew composed of youth volunteers. They also have an active recycling and composting program in place to further cut down on their footprint on Gallagher Park, where the festival has been held since 1980.

Otalith, an intimate locally run festival in Ucluelet/Tofino, British Columbia, puts a big emphasis on protecting the coast off of Vancouver Island, and donates a portion of their proceed to Pacific Wild and Central West Coast Forest Society. On their website, they proudly share how “Last year, Otalith raised $3,000 for the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust – a local non-profit that supports conservation, education and research within the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and $1,000 for Ucluelet Secondary School’s Drug Free scholarship.”

Music festivals don’t have to be known as environmental disasters. Live music and environmental consciousness can go hand in hand if the time and effort is put in to create initiatives that are successful and well-managed.

You can do your part by leading by example. Consider trying these few things at your next music festival:

-Show you friends how easy it is to cut down on your own personal waste. One of the easiest things you can do is to bring a reusable water bottle and fill it up at the many water stations.

-Don’t leave anything behind! Pack an appropriate amount of “stuff” and you won’t have to do multiple trips into the campground. You don’t need 5 pairs of shorts for a 3 day-festival. The better you pack, the easier it will be to leave with all of your belongings in one quick trip... plus you’re less likely to lose anything.

-If you’re washing in a nearby creek, be smart about your choices of soap. Even most biodegradable soaps take years to break down in rivers and lakes. Do the research and get something that will not harm a healthy ecosystem, or just get clean by water alone... it works too!

-Consider supporting the vendors that are local, organic or have less packaging. Remember that each time you buy something you’re essentially casting a vote. If lots of people “vote” for local/organic/less packaging, vendors of that calibre will be more in demand for festivals in the years to come!

-Plastic – live without it! Much of what is left over after a festival is made of plastic. For example, glowsticks create much of the waste found after a festival. They are made of plastic and can’t be recycled because of the harmful chemicals inside of them. I know it’s cool to glow bright while you’re partying, but there are other ways you can stand out. Sport some sweet bright tights and learn a flashy new dance instead!

-Demand change! If you see something that really upsets you at a festival, bring it up with one of the festival staff members you see or send a letter to the organizers. The more people that complain about environmental negligence, the more likely a festival is to change their ways.

Enjoy yourself and enjoy your surroundings, knowing that you’re doing your part to keep them clean and keep music festivals going strong (and clean) for years to come!