Interview: the real green impact of festivals (and how they can be better)

Festivals exist for music-lovers to let their hair down, ignore their work inbox for a weekend and just cut loose while shaking to some class acts. It’s easy to overlook just how much of an environmental impact large festivals have on their surrounding area, and this is one of the many reasons Liftshare exists.

Not only does sharing lifts together cut down on all the emissions used to get to a particular place – such as festivals, it’s also saving people a great deal of cash. We’re always on the look out for new festivals to work with, such as our friends at Willowman Festival, and it’s clear that there are many event organisers out there looking for new ways to cut down their festival’s footprint.

Following on from his superb 2015 Festival Preview, we reached out once more to Kes, editor at Festival Mag, to discuss the true environmental impact of music festivals, how many organisers are working to solve the green problem, and to namedrop some of the impressive eco-friendly events out there today.

Liftshare: In your experience just how much of an impact do festivals have on the environment? It’s clear that they do but we think – understandably, that sometimes people overlook it completely.

Kes: According to research carried out by the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, which was commissioned by Julie’s Bicycle, the UK music market is responsible for some 540,000 tonnes CO2e per annum, with around 5 per cent coming from festivals. However, this research was carried out back in 2006 when the UK festival industry entered the current boom period, so in my opinion this number could be even higher today.

Why do some individuals overlook this? Some people view festivals as singular events therefore do not realise the impact they create. What they often fail to realise is that there are actually over 900 festivals annually in the UK alone, and collectively the impact from all the waste, power usage and traffic emissions is clearly significant.

Thankfully many in the festival industry put the care of our planet at the heart of everything they do, and are working hard to dramatically reduce their CO2e emissions. This isn’t surprising when you consider that much of the festival scene we see today was born out of the peace movements of the 60s, 70s and 80s, which was instrumental in raising green issues at the time and is responsible for much of the environmental awareness around today.

Some people from this era are still involved in the industry today and many still share this ecological ethos. When it comes to sustainability the festival industry is probably one of the most proactive and vocal industries going and one could argue that as a society, we’re better off for festivals.

Liftshare: We’ve spoken to a few people who have been clean up stewards at festivals in the past, and from the sound of it this is a really telling experience about just how much waste is left behind after an event. Have you had any insight or experience into how this clean-up process takes place, and to what extent recycling comes into it?

Kes: Most festivals provide recycling bins and bags, but unfortunately when people are in high spirits not everything always makes to these depositories and is left for the clean-up stewards to clear away after the event. This process can take anywhere between a few weeks to a couple of months for the bigger festivals.

Unfortunately recycling comes with a cost, which means a reduced festival budget for artists and production. This is especially a problem for the smaller festivals where the margins are tighter. If fans want to keep seeing the biggest bands together with lower ticket prices then they should do their bit, and make more use of the on-site recycling facilities.

Liftshare: How far does landscaping come into the recovery process? You have to imagine that during a rainy event the fields get utterly battered by all the footfall. How conscious are festivals when it comes to preservation?

Kes: When you’ve got 50,000 pairs of feet on the ground it only takes a couple of good showers to turn it into a mud bath, and in the UK it is inevitable that such a situation will happen at a good percentage of festivals.

You’re seeing a lot more metal track-ways and wood chips being placed down in high traffic area at events over the last few years. This is great for protecting the ground alongside your legs from wading through mud for sixteen hours a day.

I’m not sure what happens with green field sites, although I know some of the bigger events have fallow years to give the ground a rest.

The licenses of events in public spaces and parks won’t be renewed if they don’t make the site good after an event. This means that they have to perform certain conversational work no matter whether or not this is driven by conscience or coercion.

For instance, the Shakedown festival in Brighton takes place in a public park and organisers have paid the council around £45k in previous years for the ground to be restored after the festival. It is good that the local authorities force the festival organisers to take responsibility for the impact of their event.  As long as festivals work with local authorities to set an acceptable level of conservation, and factor the costs to support this in to their budgets then relatively speaking I don’t see it being a huge problem.

Liftshare: We touched on your green festival champions in our previous interview, but do you have any examples of when events have gone above and beyond to hit sustainability aims?

Kes: There are three that immediately spring to mind:

Shambala just won the Green Festival Award at the UK Festival Awards for the second year running. This is testament to the work they’ve put in to bringing their carbon footprint down by around 80 per cent over the last five years. Imagine what the world would be like if other industries could achieve the same reductions.

Always a leading force in the festival industry, Glastonbury has made some major inroads into becoming greener in recent times. Last year they invested around £600k installing 5,000 long drop toilets. These store the human waste generated by the 200k+ party-goers and staff in underground tanks, which can then be turned into manure to fertilise local fields.

However, my personal favourite has to be the Wood Festival in Oxfordshire where the stage lighting is powered by push bikes. Energetic attendees can jump on a push bike and pump out a few k’s to help provide electric power. Unfortunately kinetic, solar and wind power technologies are not quite there yet to power the bigger stages, but hopefully it won’t be long before cost effectiveness solutions will be readily available.

Liftshare: Lastly, what do you feel is the biggest sustainability challenge facing most fest today and how could they go about solving it?

Kes: Traffic emissions seem to be the main concern at the moment. Waste can be recycled and alternative power technologies are advancing rapidly, but how do you limit the number of vehicles heading to an event?

This issue has seen a rise in the incentives for people to use public transport or car share. Festival-goers are generally a fairly green bunch and thus pretty receptive to this green issue and as long as the festivals continue raising awareness and offering incentives then hopefully in the future we’ll see more take up of the ecologically friendly travel options.

Let’s not forget that if people stay at home instead of going to a festival they still use electricity, fuel and generate waste. It would be interesting to compare the footprint of a festival-goer living in a tent for five days, cooking on a camping stove and having all their waste recycled compared to that of someone who stayed at home on a bank holiday weekend in August, firing up the BBQ, driving to the coast and possibly not doing that much recycling.

Wouldn’t it be nice if one day it was actually greener to go to a festival than to stay at home? Maybe it already is!

Thank you once again to Kes for his superb insight into the festival scene, and be sure to check out Festival Mag for all of the hot festival news, rumours and information as it happens.

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