Festival waste: what’s the solution?

Festivals generate 25,800 tonnes of waste annually. We spoke to the sustainability manager at Roskilde festival and the founder of Festival in a Bag to ask them what the solution is.

Festival waste is a serious issue. Powerful Thinking’s ‘The Show Must Go On’ report 2020 says UK camping music festivals are generating 25,800 tonnes of waste annually.

89% of festival goers want to be more responsible with the waste they create, research from giffgaff shows, however, even with the best intentions, reducing festival waste is a challenge.

58% of people said they had left, lost or broken something at a festival, despite 80% buying brand new items especially for the events.

The numbers in The Show Must Go On report are staggering but there is good news. The report also shows there has been a reduction in waste per festival attendee per day from 2.8 kg in 2014 to 2 kg in 2019, which it says is a result of the increase in reusable cups and initiatives that encourage attendees to reduce the waste left behind in campsites.

However, despite the decrease in the amount of waste generated by festival attendees, there is still a massive problem with one product festival-goers consistently abandon: tents.

“Waste from bottles, food containers, and black bin bags are often the common image seen at the end of a festival,” Festival In A Bag Founder and Director, Anne Kapoor, said. “But, the largest source of waste at festivals is without a doubt: tents.”

The Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) estimates that 250,000 tents are left at music festivals across the UK each year, with many of them ending up in landfill, which they say is equal to 8,750 straws or 250 pint cups.

How big a problem are single-use tents?

Compostable tent manufacturer Comp-A-Tent found 77% of tents were abandoned based on data collected from multiple festivals with more than 50,000 attendees, which it says is over 900 tonnes of waste.

In today’s climate-conscious age, to have such a high rate of tent abandonment at festivals will no doubt come as a real surprise to some.

Why are so many tents abandoned at music festivals in the UK?

Director of Festival Waste Reclamation & Distribution, Matt Wedge, said up to 90% of tents left at festivals end up in landfill or an incinerator, despite some festivals advertising that they donate abandoned tents to charity.

In Festival Republic’s 2017 customer survey, featuring responses from seven festivals, 39% of participants left their tents behind because they believed it would be donated to charity; this was the only reason I abandoned my tents myself during my first few years attending festivals

Many festival goers also believe that tents are recyclable. Unfortunately, the truth – a truth I didn’t learn until years after my first festival experience – is that tents are extremely difficult to recycle because they’re made from a wide range of materials. 

Typically, tents are made from different types of plastic, composite fabric, and metal, which is why they pose a recycling challenge. Separating the materials makes the process simpler, however, this is time and labour intensive, and why single-use tents are the bane of festival sustainability managers.

What’s the solution?

festival campsite

Founder and Director of Festival in a Bag, Anne Kapoor, said festivals should “encourage better purchasing decisions to show people that cheap camping gear isn’t necessarily the best idea.”

“They could also provide educational messages on tickets, websites, and social media that explain the importance of taking camping gear home. One idea is to have an image of the damage single-use items do to the environment on the product’s packaging, in a similar way to cigarette packets.”

The concept of showing the impact of waste on packaging was brought up at this year’s Resourcing The Future Conference.

Anne Kapoor said Festival in a Bag was created as a solution to the issue of people buying camping equipment only intending to use it once.

The company says it offers a one-stop shop for festival goers that allows them to purchase sustainable versions of essential products, such as tents and sleeping bags.

“There is a mixture of mindsets amongst customers, some buy for the convenience of a one-stop shop, others buy as we are plastic free and all the products can be reused again and again.”

The Festival in a Bag product contains a 65 ltr rucksack with a double skin tent, camping mat, water bottle, and sleeping bag already packed. Kapoor said this “reduces waste and comes with a unique bag code which can be traced back to the customer if it is mislaid.”

At Festival in a Bag, we appreciate that single-use tents solve a budget issue, but their sustainability is nil. 

“We opted to sell the double skin tent (a tent with an inside ‘bedroom’ and flysheet), which can easily be re-packed and re-used, as it offers better value for money for those who continue their camping experience.”

One festival implementing innovative solutions to this issue is Roskilde. The Danish festival creates a temporary city every year with residential areas, infrastructure, food and drinks stalls, and places for attendees to trade. This year, 130,000 festival goers will descend on the city from the 25 June to the 2 July to see Post Malone, Dua Lipa, and The Strokes headline.

Sustainability manager at Roskilde, Sanne Stephansen, cited the fact that the temporality of most festivals creates a lot of waste as organisers have to build the necessary infrastructure and take it down every year. Despite the key issues this presents, Stephansen said this also presents many opportunities.

“Being a temporary city allows us to introduce new solutions rather quickly and test different kinds of radical initiatives every year. 

“So I think that we’re cursed by being temporary but we’re also blessed in terms of being able to test new solutions.”

Amongst these new ideas being tested, are innovative solutions put forward as part of Roskilde’s initiative The Circular Lab. The festival says it aims to involve at least 200 young entrepreneurs in the development of circular solutions through this scheme with the main platform being Roskilde.

Entrepreneurs will be given the opportunity to test their solutions on a young audience in a temporary environment.

“Making The Circular Lab is our way of providing more structure to initiatives,” Stephansen said. “The initiative was made with the purpose of trying to solve problems and is calling on young people to offer the solutions.

“That’s one way it’s being structured but we’re also trying to test some of our ideas, for example, returnable camping gear and educational institutions, to evaluate if we can scale the solution.”

Two of the most innovative ideas developed and tested last year Stephansen cited were an experiment to see what kind of information influences participants the most when they dispose of waste and a machine that sorts waste for the participants. Both concepts were tested at Summer Days, which was organised by Roskilde festival and had a lower capacity because of restrictions on gatherings that were in place at the time.  

Roskilde says over the last 20 years the volume of waste the festival produces has increased by 76 tonnes a year on average with the largest quantities of waste coming from the campsites, particularly functional camping equipment.

Organisers say they’re determined to reduce the amount of waste it produces. To do this it plans to create a circular economy within the festival. Roskilde’s resource and waste management plan lays out the framework for the mission and sets the goal of reducing the total volume of waste by 30% (600 tonnes) towards 2024 and increasing recycling to 55%.

In the plan, Roskilde also says it will phase out low-quality camping equipment that is harmful to the environment towards 2024.

To achieve this the Danish festival will offer shared and rental solutions, with tent rentals being tested initially, as well as supporting the development of sustainably produced recyclable camping equipment.

But what about legislative changes? Is a policy framework necessary to reduce festival waste?

Scott Graham, general manager at A Greener Festival (AGF) doesn’t think legislation is essential.

“I think that legislation may come along at some point, but if the event industry continues to take the initiative and continue to drive improvements and increase ambitions it may not be necessary.

“Festivals generally already do more for segregation and waste management than most local authorities for commercial waste, and more than most other event types in our experience. However, legislative changes regarding retail, manufacturing, and advertising of wasteful consumer products would be useful as festivals are a reflection of broader society.”

What are the biggest challenges?

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome when trying to reduce tent abandonment is convenience. It’s much easier to buy a cheap tent and leave it at the festival site. You save time by not packing it away, there’s no problem if it breaks, and you don’t have to worry about carrying it back or storing it when you’re home.

Returnable camping equipment offers festival-goers a convenient alternative to single-use tents, could this concept be the solution?

When asked how the problem of tent abandonment at festivals can be solved, General manager at A Greener Festival (AGF), Scott Graham, said: “Audience education is key.

“However, festivals could consider deposit schemes or look at having more options of affordable pre-pitched tents, which promotes the re-use ethos and also helps people travel lighter and move away from car use. Retailers and regulators must also do more to prevent throwaway cheap plastic items being produced and sold in the first place.”

AGF is a non-profit that works to improve the sustainability of events, tours, venues, festivals, and all live sector contributors.

“AGF started back in 2005, where we were very much the pioneers in event sustainability. In the beginning, we largely focused on helping music festivals become more sustainable but we now apply our expertise to all sorts of sporting and cultural events, as well as arenas and tours.”

Scott Graham also said he thinks the carrot approach is more effective than the stick when trying to encourage behaviour changes amongst festival goers.

“I think incentives and education are the way to go. Festivals who are engaging with their audience in a fun way are having great success.

“Having volunteers in bright crazy outfits out and about speaking to audiences, encouraging and educating on waste and recycling is proving a great way to get important messages across and to start changing behaviours.

The good choice needs to be the easier, more attractive choice.

Sanne Stephansen also commented on the importance of audience education. She said: “One of the biggest challenges for us is camping gear and we’re trying to find solutions to implement. What has worked is coming together with the audience and having a dialogue with people before they come to the festival.

“We have different community areas, Dream City, Clean Out Loud, and Leave No Trace, and these areas have had the biggest effect throughout the last ten years.”

The community camping areas encourage campers to behave responsibly. For example, Clean Out Loud is a collaboration between Roskilde and Vallekilde Højskole and has helped to reduce waste since its creation in 2011.

People staying in the Clean Out Loud campsite are asked to take part in an eco-friendly process focused on keeping the site clean during the festival and before leaving. One of the initiatives includes a festive trash parade, as the focus is on reducing waste without stopping the party.

“A lot of people attending the festival choose to stay in areas where they do more to facilitate community feeling with a focus on waste prevention and waste management. This is one way we’re working towards encouraging more sustainable behaviour.

“By involving participants in different kinds of activities at the campsite we both create awareness of the problem and instil positive habits that you maybe don’t think about on a day to day basis.

“The arts and activity programme is another great initiative that we try to use to inspire people to have conversations on the topics of climate change and the environment. We see activism and discussions as part of the tool to tackle waste so our participants can imagine what a transformed society looks like.

“We can also inspire people to talk about the topic through other types of cultural activities so we can all dream a little about what a transformed society looks like and how our behaviour can encourage the kind of transformation that we need to become a more sustainable society.”

Encouraging behaviour changes amongst festival-goers

Green Deal Circular Festivals (GDCF) is an organisation, working in collaboration with the Dutch government, that stands for a future-proof and circular festival industry. They aim to create a blueprint for resilient and circular festivals by 2025. GDCF works with festivals across Europe, including Roskilde, and has supported events in the UK.

Boomtown, the British music festival held on Matterley Estate, works with GDCF and has cut campsite waste in half in 2019 which the SMGO report says is due to campers taking their tents home.

At the Body & Soul Festival, organisers had a big problem with the Us & You campsite as attendees were leaving campsite waste behind. GDCF worked with them to create a solution focusing on changing the behaviour of campers.

Festival-goers get priority queuing when staying at the Us & You campsite and pass many signs on their way to pitching their tent asking them to clean up after themselves. A social media campaign launched as part of the initiative, as well as the LED-screen on the mainstage sending out messages in between the acts.

On the final day of the festival, dedicated teams walk around the camp and ask people to take their camping gear home with them. However, the GDCF says the most important part of the initiative is positive reinforcement that makes participants feel good. They say this made the Us & You campsite look like a much more appealing place to camp.

Anne Kapoor, when I asked her about whether the ideal, sustainable festival was achievable, said: “We are sure it is possible as great strides are already being made. The ideal sustainable festivals will hopefully be achieved within the next 5 years as awareness of the environment, financial situations, and the global message of recycling hits home.

“We believe that festivals are now going out of their way to encourage attendees to take a look at what they are leaving behind and the impact it has on the land, environment, and greater health of fellow attendees.

“Some festivals are now providing vast ‘skip sites’ for products to be reused or repurposed. The incentive of this initiative is to feel you have done something for someone else, not necessarily monetary recognition.”

Is behaviour change enough?

When asked what the ideal sustainable festival looks like and if it’s possible, Scott Graham at AGF, said: “That’s a big question but of course it’s possible.

“The bigger festivals attracting audiences and artists from across the world have a bigger challenge. The most sustainable festivals may have a smaller, more local vibe.

“Local audiences, consuming local (vegan!) produce, listening to local bands whilst connected to the local smart energy grid, would be very cool and very green!”

Historically, festivals have contributed massively to waste but through the hard work of dedicated event organisers and innovative companies there are solutions available that are being implemented today.

The good news is festival goers know about their waste impact and want to do something about it. 65% of people asked in a survey by giffgaff say they want to buy more eco-friendly products for festivals, with 61% saying they’d like to buy fewer ‘new’ things. 

That’s good news for the planet, with 37% of people already buying pre-loved festival gear.

However, there is still a lot of work to do. Each year festivals generate 23,500 tons of waste, 68% of which goes to landfill.

If festival goers can act responsibly by reusing the items they bring to events, they can play a huge part in reducing the impact of waste generated by festivals. However, behaviour changes aren’t enough. We need more festivals that are establishing initiatives to encourage sustainability too.

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