Tents, toilets, transport: eco-friendly festivals tackle the unholy trinity

Event organisers have already gone to war on plastic bottles and diesel generators, with the full support of music fans

When Chris Johnson first started putting on outdoor parties with his mates, they were small, impromptu and shambolic – or “really good fun”, as he puts it. Seventeen years later and he and the same four university friends are still pioneering in their field of partying, albeit Shambala is now a four-day festival in rural Northamptonshire with 15,000 people that has set an industry standard for its eco-credentials.

“We’re a purpose-led organisation, the point of it existing is to contribute something to the world,” says Johnson, “and the environment is an important part of our outlook; we have a responsibility – but also an opportunity to experiment.”

The festival now uses 100% renewable power from a mix of vegetable oil and solar power units, has eradicated disposable plastics, and became fully meat and fish free in 2015. “It caused a storm initially,” says Johnson, “but the appetite is there. This year we’ve got 1% of our audience coming by bike and 25% by coach. It might not seem much, but 80% of the carbon footprint of a camping festival is made by travel down to the site.”

If the cultural conversation around festivals in recent years has focused on shaming organisers into booking more female musicians for their lineups or making them less white, the buzz this summer is on sustainability: how can festivals go green?

The four-day Northamptonshire Shambala festival has set the industry standard for eco-credentials.
The four-day Northamptonshire Shambala festival has set the industry standard for eco-credentials. Photograph: Wayne Farrell/Alamy Stock Photo

For one, the war on plastic seems to have proliferated: this year, Glastonbury has banned the sale of single-use plastic drink bottles across the site. Co-organiser Emily Eavis estimates “the ban will save the million bottles that we would have otherwise sold” and is in line with the festival’s ethos to tread lightly on the land. Instead, the 200,000-strong audience will be served by 850 water taps and dozens of water kiosks, using Worthy Farm’s purpose-built water reservoirs.

Earlier this year more than 60 major festivals, including Reading, Leeds and Download, pledged to go plastic-free by 2021. Straws, cutlery and bottles remain major offenders and bans have been met with enthusiasm by audiences. But according to Claire O’Neill, co-founder of the not-for-profit organisation A Greener Festival, which audits and advises the industry on how to reduce its environmental impact, the key challenges remain “transport, tents and toilets”.

Getting festival-goers to the site using public transport or signing up to car-share schemes makes the biggest difference to the carbon footprint. Trying to make sure they pack up and take their tents is also a major environmental headache.

“We actively ask people to consider what they bring to the festival and urge them not to bring disposable tents,” says Ian Fielder, operations director at Green Man festival. “We don’t ban it because we don’t want to become financially prohibitive, but they are a bane for most festivals. The waste is extraordinary.”

Green Man works with refugee charities to repurpose left-behind tents, but emphasises that many of them are impossible to recycle and get sent to incinerators.

The Green Man festival donates what abandoned tents it can to refugee charities.
The Green Man festival donates what abandoned tents it can to refugee charities. Photograph: Nici Eberl

At Houghton, an electronic music festival set in a Norfolk estate, sewage is treated equally seriously. “We’re using compostable toilets across the site this year,” says co-founder Tom Elkington, who explains at length the environmental benefits over chemical portable toilets. “Being sustainable and ethical is a core social responsibility for us – a lot of what we do isn’t legislation, but it probably should be.”

For Festival Republic boss Melvin Benn, who runs major events including Latitude and Wireless, efficient use of the diesel-powered generators used on sites remains a key focal point. For Benn, converting to vegetable waste oil, biofuel and hybrid units makes environmental and economic sense.

“I’ve worked with De Montfort University and a group called Powerful Thinking to seriously look at and measure the power drain from each generator,” he says. Monitoring from A Greener Festival shows that average generator efficiency is between 10% and 20% at the 7,000 outdoor events hosted in the UK every year; the ideal range is between 50% and 70%. Benn has hopes his festivals will be the first to hit that range.

At BlueDot, a science and music festival held at Jodrell Bank observatory in Manchester, the line-up is heavy with climate crisis panels and talks from experts and activists. According to the festival director, Ben Robinson, the emphasis isn’t just on what happens at the festival but what the audience takes from it afterwards.

“Of course, building mini-cities in fields every summer has an environmental impact,” he says. “But festivals can prompt long-term behavioural change. It’s not just about hedonism. People are open to new ideas and it invites them into a different conversation. We cause a conscious cultural shift – using less plastic, reducing waste, living sustainably. If these can be achieved on site, they can make a difference long after people have gone home.”


Nosheen Iqbal

The GuardianTramp

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