Reducing the environmental impact of events for a better future. Go green or go home.
Imagine this, it’s 1969 and you’re standing in the crowd that’s gathered in Bethel, NY waiting for Jimi Hendrix to take the stage as the final act at Woodstock. You and nearly half a million other people came together over the past 3 days to watch some of the biggest acts rock out. While enjoying three days of endless music in the muddy field, the last thing on your mind is the aftermath, which will show the organizers were simply not prepared for the number of people that arrived; waste bins are few and far between. As you and other festival-goers climb back into your cars to head home, you leave behind a formerly clean swath of farmland that is now littered with trash, which will be no easy feat to clean up. The mess will take several days to clear up with the help of several bulldozers and a hefty price tag to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.
Fast forward. It’s 2030 and you’re on your way to the most highly anticipated festival of the season. As a local, you were able to secure your tickets at a relatively low price; those traveling from afar had to dig a little deeper into their pockets to cover the carbon tax. You roll up in your electric car and make your way to the gates which are free of the large crowd normally waiting to have their tickets checked. You pull up your digital ticket and give it a quick scan before making your way through a field of solar panels to your campsite where you set up your recycled tent. As you grab your first meal, you notice there’s not a plastic utensil, cup or straw in sight. All festival food is sourced locally and served on bamboo plates. As day one comes to a close, your phone battery is running dangerously low so you hop on a stationary bike and get pedaling in exchange for a quick charge. The entire event from start to finish is powered by 100% renewable energy from stage lighting run by the interactive dance floor to solar powered generators. Everything is recycled, reused or upcycled. Waste has become a thing of the past. After three days of music and dancing, the weekend is wrapping up so you pack up your campsite and head home, leaving no trace that you were ever there, minus the memories and photos. You leave feeling happy as a clam knowing that you had the experience of a lifetime while giving back to your planet, having planting a tree elsewhere in the world.
It is not unrealistic that adopting these practices will become the new normal for all festivals as soon as we emerge from the current crisis.
Prominent leaders in the industry, like Live Nation, are already taking steps to become more sustainable. They have established a roadmap to reduce the overall environmental impact of their events over the next decade. Their initiatives for the ‘Green Nation’ program include reducing greenhouse emissions by 50% by 2030 and having events powered by 100% renewable energy. Considering Live Nation hosts around 35,000 festivals and concerts annually, the impact will be quite significant. With their huge platform, Live Nation’s actions and dedication to the cause could be extremely valuable and effective in raising awareness for such an important global issue.
Present day. Festivals and outdoor concerts are more popular than ever, but one thing that has changed is the initiative to be more eco-friendly. In the UK alone, 3 million people attend festivals annually, producing around 23,500 tons of waste (weighing almost as much as the Statue of Liberty!). On the other side of the ocean, US festival-goers are responsible for producing more than double at 53,000 tons of waste annually (about as much as 450 blue whales worth of waste).
These stats are a real eye opener and event organizers are constantly searching for new ways to help improve these numbers any way they can. Back in the Woodstock days, sustainability was not exactly at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and since then the direction has changed drastically. A recent study on the North American events industry shows that ‘59% of event professionals are taking steps to improve their event’s environmental impact’, compared to just 6% in the previous year. Festival sustainability is becoming more of a trend and has been changing the festival scene altogether, and it is clear that event managers are becoming more proactive.
Now, more than ever, we as a community need to make conscious efforts and be dedicated to help reduce our carbon footprints and overall environmental impact. COVID definitely put a wrench in the progress, in fact it even forced us to move backwards, so it’s even more imperative to make the sustainability of events a priority. Due to the impact that COVID has had on the world, 85% more organizers surveyed in the UK are even more committed to making the move to become greener as they plan for the new festival season. It is definitely a step in the right direction.
From one side of the Atlantic to the other
Over the years, major festivals have been recognised more and more for their green initiatives. For a moment, let’s all pretend that travel is normal again and we can all just hop on a plane to Oslo, Norway to check out one of the country’s most well known music events, the Oya Festival. Although it’s not recognized for being the biggest or most popular global music festival, it’s claim to fame is being known as the 'greenest event in the world’. Their initiatives are encouraging other event organizers to take similar steps, and with the continued joint efforts, we are likely to see considerable change sooner rather than later.
So, how are some of the biggest festivals in the world becoming ambassadors for more sustainable events and setting the stage for festivals of the future?
In the US
Throughout the US, Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza and Burning Man top the list with being some of the more eco-friendly events. Year after year, these events have been educating and encouraging their attendees to participate in becoming more eco-conscious. From reducing waste (Lollapalooza’s ‘Rock and Recycle’ program, ‘Leave No Trace’ Principle of Burning Man), to offering incentives for carpooling (Coachella and Bonnaroo) and running on renewable energy (Coachella). It has been a work in progress over the last number of years and each and every step like this will continue to change the world for the better.
In the UK
When it comes to the UK festivals, Glastonbury, Green Man Festival and Latitude are the bees knees. They’re no strangers to the festival world, and for a number of years, they have been committed to not only reducing, but improving their impact on the environment.
Green Man’s partnership with Help Refugees and the Newport to Calais Aid Collective distribute unwanted (unbroken) camping equipment to refugees around the world. Latitude offers its own ridesharing program, encouraging its attendees to carpool together to the festival. As far as Glastonbury is concerned, they are cutting down on transport emissions by setting up an on-site Wholesale Market and using water from their private reservoir, eliminating the need for transport trucks.
In addition to their individual partnerships and practices, we’re seeing very similar trends across the festival world, from banning the use of single use plastics and styrofoam to offering free water refill stations and encouraging the use of public transport or shuttles to promoting composting and recycling.
Planning for the future
Think about your action plan when you’re beginning to organize your event, whether it’s a festival, the X Games or a world tour with Elton John. So many details are involved in the planning process. Where are you hosting it? How will you select your vendors or contractors? How will you interact with your attendees? All of these choices will have an impact on the sustainability of your event. Taking action and implementing small changes now can pave the way to make a big difference in the future.
Location, Location, Location
Choosing the location of your event based on the location to public transportation could be a game changer. If there are options for attendees to use public transportation, it will limit the number of cars on the road which will in turn help in reducing carbon emissions. Organizers have frequently offered shuttle services as another option, but of course, this might not be in the budget for every organizer. So how can you encourage people to leave their car at home, use public transportation or even carpool with others? Offering incentives (maybe a chance to win special prizes, VIP tickets or discounts) are proven effective. Another way organizers have approached choosing their event location is based on how the venue supports green initiatives, such as implementing policies for energy efficiency, recycling and waste management. Venues that use eco-friendly cleaning services with chemical free products is another example of how they can support your initiative.
Paying it forward
Camping out for the weekend is a whole other experience for those multi-day events. To avoid dealing with a sea of abandoned tents (which happens more often than we’d like to believe), urge your attendees to donate their (unbroken) camping equipment if they’re not willing to travel back home with it. UK festivals have already considered charging a deposit, or ‘tent tax’, which will discourage people from abandoning their camping equipment. An estimated 250,000 tents are ditched at festivals annually throughout the UK, which could be attributed to the increased manufacturing and marketing of cheap ‘festival specific’ tents. A variety of festivals have partnered with organizations that donate such items to others in need, like Delaware’s Firefly festival which works with Code Purple who have donated all types of items over the years. The attendees’ contributions don’t just stop at the site of the festival. The idea is to educate staff and attendees more about their impact, and this can also be done by offsetting their negative impact through programs such as planting a tree or reforestation.
Don’t underestimate the importance of choosing the right food vendors as it could be considered a huge step in becoming a greener event. Naturally, you will want to make sure you offer options for all guests, this includes vegetarian and vegan alternatives. According to eventbrite’s 2020 event trends report, 46% of event professionals (North American) offer vegetarian/vegan options, and we will likely see this number continue to increase. Knowing where the food comes from could make or break who you choose to hire. Locally sourced food and drinks will help reduce the impact by limiting transportation needs. By providing an onsite Wholesale Market (like Glastonbury) it gives traders an opportunity to restock supplies that will meet your sustainability standards.
We all love getting free stuff, so SWAG bags are usually a hot ticket item when you attend any event. Consider providing sustainable merchandise as giveaway items instead of ones that fans will be inclined to toss. Bottles, mugs, straws or other similar reusable items can be a good alternative. Recycling, reusing and reducing is what it’s all about these days.
Flushing away the competition
Multiple temporary toilet suppliers business models’ revolve around chemical free, compostable or water-saving facilities. They are slowly replacing the classic plastic temporary toilets and could become a more popular choice. In addition to saving the environment from harmful chemicals, no-flush toilets will reduce the overall water use and eliminate extra transport needs that are often required for the regular festival toilets (i.e. water tanks). We all know from personal experiences how a bad portable toilet can leave a horrible impression.
Plastic, not fantastic
Plastic free festivals are one of the most popular trends right now. Many event professionals have made a conscious effort to eliminate plastics altogether, from water bottles to straws, plates, utensils and signage. There are many alternatives to plastics items that you can consider and by urging your attendees to bring reusable items from home helps your cause. Since many events are navigating towards being plastic free, an emerging trend is using reusable, recycled or biodegradable plates and utensils and straws (save the turtles!). With the impact of COVID on our progress in terms of plastic reduction, it’s even more important to consider food served in recycled or reusable packaging. No more plastic water bottles allowed, so providing free water refill stations for attendees who brought their own bottles should be available.
Glitter and festivals go together like peas and carrots (or Forrest Gump and Jenny), but these tiny micro plastics will end up doing more harm than good, ending up in our oceans. Organizers and fans alike should make the change to more eco-friendly types of glitters, if they haven’t already. Maybe take a hint from some festivals that are making that change and banning glitter at their events. Sparkle on and go biodegradable!
If you read our last blog on festival trends for 2021, this might seem repetitive, but worth another mention. There’s no doubt we will see a shift to becoming completely digital, not only for new safety measures, but as a way to become more eco-friendly. Organizers are finding more value in switching to 100% digital tickets. When it comes to signs, you can consider using alternative materials (wood or recycled matter) and printing only what is necessary.
Dance Dance Revolution
Last but not least, energy is another hot topic. From the planning to building and execution of the event itself, there are multiple ways that renewable energy can be utilized. Any vehicles that are operating onsite could be limited to only fuel efficient or electric ones. Bicycles that double as power charging stations? Stage lighting powered by fans on a dance floor? Festivals powered by clean-burning biofuel? These are all possibilities! Just as Live Nation has set out to accomplish, it is well within the sphere of possibility that we will see events running on 100% renewable energy.
Overall, we’re making considerable progress and moving in a positive direction with respect to sustainability of events. Since our society is paying a lot more attention to environmental impacts, expectations for festivals to be more eco-friendly and sustainable are a lot higher. Organizers are discovering more forward thinking and innovative solutions, allowing leaders to learn from each other and share insights on what practices are effective. Since sustainability is a growing concern and festivals and other large events have faced scrutiny in the past, making the changes now is crucial. We’re all anxious for events to get back to normal, but let's not forget that our contributions to minimize our impact on the environment is vital for the future of these events. Let’s bring back events but make them even better than before.