How Music Festivals Are Going Green

Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and a ton of other major live events are leading the charge in rocking out sustainably

It’s Earth Week. From Standing Rock to Flint, from fashion to festivals, we’re diving into the fight for our planet on all fronts.

“I can’t stop looking at the trash anywhere I go, and maybe that’s why I don’t go to live music events anymore: All I see is trash.”

Anna Borofsky is explaining why it’s tough to focus at the few concerts she finds herself at when she isn’t working. As the president of Clean Vibes, the waste-management company she founded in 2000, Borofsky’s got an eagle eye for wayward cups, overflowing trash cans, and discarded cigarette butts. Clean Vibes specializes in minimizing the environmental impact of your favorite large-scale musical productions — like Bonnaroo, Governors Ball, Outside Lands, and Okeechobee, to name a few of the dozen-plus festivals they’ll work between April and November. Scanning fields for trash is only one of the many ways in which they do that; keeping these festivals clean is a gargantuan mission, due to the millions of patrons that descend upon outdoor venues across the country each season. But thankfully, Borofsky isn’t alone, and the work that she and her peers do helps put many festivals on the forefront of sustainability in live entertainment.

The most important step in the greening of music festivals takes place before any lineups are announced. When people interested in heading to Coachella visited the mega-fest’s website earlier this year, they were first met not with photos of blissed-out kids in cutoffs and shades, but images of the wind-farm fans that greet visitors when they drive through the Coachella Valley into Indio. Lollapalooza has a passionate environmentalist for a founder in Perry Farrell, who launched the Chicago fest in 1991 as a one-time send-off for his band, Jane’s Addiction; his concern for the planet continues to shape the festival's personality, from the intensive post-Lolla replanting of Grant Park to the biodiesel that fuels the power generators of the stages. The same goes for Bonnaroo, whose producers see themselves as guests of the Manchester, Tennessee, farm they take over each June. Both Lolla and the Newport Folk Festival encourage biking to the grounds, not only to ease gridlock traffic but to lower gas emissions. Lollapalooza regularly provides a bike fleet to its staffers, and Andrew Bird biked to Newport Folk when he played it in 2013. Thirteen percent of Newport Folk’s attendees chose to bike to Fort Adams last year, and the festival hopes that that number will grow to 15 percent soon.

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Laura Sohn, Bonnaroo’s director of sustainability, believes that the symbiotic relationship between those who come to festivals and those who organize them is beneficial to both sides. The needs and passions of both impact the decisions Bonnaroo makes in planning for the future, especially when it comes to minimizing its environmental impact. “As people become more educated and interested in these causes, they become part of their daily lives — and they expect where they’re spending their money to embrace those philosophies as well,” Sohn says. “Or, if you’re an artist, you want to support businesses that also support your personal philosophies. In that way, we feed off of each other. Years ago, Jack Johnson was one of the first to have a green, eco tour rider. I’ve taken some ideas from him, and vice versa.”

With this in mind, Bonnaroo has made permanent improvements to the grounds in Manchester by building a solar array to offset the festival’s reliance on electrical power. It now has a composting facility on site as well, which helps cut carbon emissions by ensuring that Clean Vibes doesn’t have to transport tons of compostable waste to far-off facilities. In Virginia, FloydFest — a smaller festival that spreads across nine stages in the Blue Ridge Mountains — echoes Bonnaroo’s care for the destination, and keeps their carbon emissions in check by relying on permanent timber-frame stages instead of temporary structures that arrive and depart via pollution-pumping trucks. “We have to be stewards of the land we’re given," says Sam Calhoun, FloydFest’s marketing and publicity director. "And we have to try to impart that to our patrons.”

What these festivals preach is put into practice once the gates open, the crowds come — via carpool, subway, bike, or, in Newport Folk’s case, water taxi — and the show gets underway. Food vendors are often required to serve their goods with compostable silverware and cups, and massive recycling initiatives, coupled with corporate partnerships that bring clean, accessible water to attendees, work toward eliminating the need for plastic water bottles. FloydFest hands a Klean Kanteen–conceived stainless steel pint glass to each ticket holder when they enter the festival, a move that nixes 100,000-plus cups or bottles that would’ve been used in their stead. Lollapalooza encourages attendees to bring their own bottles, and a whopping 1,136,313 of them were filled over the course of the festival’s 2016 run.

When plastic does make an appearance, Clean Vibes and other recycling programs and organizations — like Rock & Recycle, Lollapalooza’s participation initiative that has patrons pick up bottles in exchange for t-shirts and other prizes — make it as easy as possible for people to fall in eco-friendly line. Instead of typical, catchall trash cans, Clean Vibes streamlines the process by setting up clearly marked receptacles that separate compostable material, recycling, and garbage, which they then filter and process or transport. Waste-diversion rates at these festivals — meaning the amount of waste produced divided by what’s diverted from the landfill into composting or recycling — are impressive, and growing. This approach, along with Clean Vibes’ around-the-clock cleanup, scored Outside Lands a whopping 91 percent diversion rate: the festival produced 174.7 tons of waste in 2016, and they were able to divert 158.6 of it away from the landfill. FloydFest boasts a diversion rate of 74 percent; urban festivals like Lollapalooza and Governors Ball skew a bit lower, in part because they have less of an emphasis on composting. (Governors Ball, for example, doesn’t have a compost diversion program in place.)

“The reality is, we’re trying to set a bar for waste diversion [that's] higher than what most people achieve in their day-to-day lives, and trying to do it in an environment where it’s the last thing on their minds,” says Borofsky. “People are there to listen to music and have a good time, and we’re trying to get them to recycle as much as possible. So, in and of itself, it’s a challenge. [But] there’s no reason they can’t take it and apply it to their daily lives.”

Festival organizers uniformly say they're always trying to do better. Bonnaroo is less than thrilled about the carbon emissions that are kicked up by the cars that most people have to use to drive to their rural Tennessee location. The impact that Lollapalooza has on Chicago’s Grant Park is major, and its planners say they're working with the city to alleviate it. Smaller festivals like Newport Folk and FloydFest have less flexibility given their respective locations at an 18th-century military fort on a peninsula and the hills of the Appalachian Mountains, but they set new, green goals each summer. Those efforts don’t stick to recycling, carbon concerns, and waste diversion, either: Both Bonnaroo and FloydFest donate thousands of pounds of left-behind camping gear to organizations benefiting the homeless, and an increased presence of various nonprofit organizations looking to connect with festival attendees on-site reflects the average festivalgoer’s growing interest in activism when they’re taking a break from the music.

At the end of the day, then, is all of this — the cigarette butt pick-up, the insistence on compostable forks, the stainless steel pint glasses, the biodiesel generators, reseeded grass, and gallons of filtered water — worth it for these festivals, big and small? Across the board, the answer is a resounding yes. “It’s no question that it would be significantly cheaper to have one barrel out there, put everything in it, toss it in a landfill, and call it a day,” says Borofsky. But the benefits of greening the music-festival industry go beyond the monetary, and that value is what the staff — and the patrons — at these events are walking away with when it’s time to pack up and head home.

“With some of these camping [festivals] we’re looking at, they are cities — sometimes the largest cities in those areas,” says Borosfky. “It gives us a great opportunity to show that there can be significant waste management happening on a city level. If we can do it in a temporary city, all the more reason other people can do it on a more permanent one.”

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