What Not To Do / Event Management  / What not to do: Sustainable Festival Production – Part 2

What not to do: Sustainable Festival Production – Part 2

Let’s create a zero waste Festival!

What is a ‘zero waste’ festival anyway? Is it a festival where no waste is created, everything is recycled, and nothing ends up in landfill? This is a good starting point, but not the whole picture. In truth, a zero-waste festival would be one where all materials are reused and kept in circulation and that doesn’t create emissions or pollution. That would include all materials and resources – from construction to packaging, renewable clean energy, food waste and even the waste from the loos! But we’re a long way off from that yet, so let’s start with looking at the waste issues we can start to fix.


Campsite Waste

We’ve all seen the waste created by festivals – particularly in the campsites on the Monday morning post-event. What started the weekend as lovely green fields, stretching for miles, has turned into a wasteland of abandoned tents, sleeping bags, clothes, cans, and a sea of mud. Heartbreaking isn’t it. Over the years, I have battled with this, I have many successes and failures under my belt with attempts at tackling this issue. The truth is, there is no one easy fix.

As the operations manager for one of Ireland’s large-scale camping festival events, I can remember a number of times when well-meaning young folk have approached me with ideas for fixing campsite waste. One concept I’ve had presented to me on a few occasions was to charge people on the way in for bringing a tent, and then to refund them on the way out when they bring their tent home. This seems like a good idea in theory, but in practice this would require lots of extra manpower and administration, would be very difficult to police, and ultimately could potentially create a backlash and bad feeling towards the festival trying to implement it.

Coordinated volunteer salvage operations in post-festival campsites is another avenue I’ve gone down at length and this approach also has its own complications. The strange reality is that once someone has abandoned their camping equipment in a field, it becomes a litter item. You’re not supposed to pick it up, and you’re especially not supposed to organise a large-scale operation to pick it up in big quantities, without an official waste handling licence. That’s the law. Couple this with insurance issues – if a volunteer is clearing the campsite and they hurt themselves with a tent pole that’s come loose (they can snap up with force – I know of one guy, a litter-picker, who broke a tooth in exactly this type of accident), then who is liable for this injury? The festival organisers of course.

I’m not saying that the issue of campsite waste is impossible to solve! I’m just saying that there’s more to it than meets the eye. Solving the issue starts with strong messaging, engaging the audience, and taking a fresh look at campsite design.


More Waste

Ok, campsites are tricky beasts. So, what about all the other waste created at a festival? Food waste is another pain point. Did you know that currently, ⅓ of all food produced globally is wasted? Or that food waste contributes to a third of all greenhouse gas emissions? This is primarily from food waste going into the general waste bin, from which it ends up decaying in landfills, creating methane emissions. Clearly, we need to do everything we can to combat food waste.

Secondly, the packaging that food is served in is a major waste issue. There’s a big push against single-use plastics at the moment and festivals have an important part to play in this. Traditionally, food from casual traders was served in polystyrene takeaway packaging, which obviously couldn’t go into a recycling bin as it was contaminated (and polystyrene isn’t recyclable anyway). Thankfully, big moves have been made towards compostable packaging and cutlery – but if you’re putting on an event, and you decide to use compostable food-ware, you’ll need to make sure you have the right bins in place for people to put them in!


So how to not create excess waste?

  1. Never begin to plan before you consider where your waste will come from

The first step isn’t to make really nice signage for your bins (although this is really important too) and hope that everyone will pop things in the right bin and you’ll have a lovely clean event. The first step is to think about who will be bringing stuff to your event, what they’ll bring, and then how you’ll dispose of it. Consider everyone – staff, suppliers, performers, the audience. What are they bringing? How much stuff will they bring? Do they really need it all? Is there any way of reaching out to them, to ask them to bring less?

  1. Do not begin to even dream about charging people to bring a tent in and planning to refund them again on the way out

Please don’t do this. Getting everyone into the festival is a big job in and of itself, without adding an extra layer of complexity to it. Your audience have been queueing for hours, laden down with stuff. They get to the entrance and they’re told they have to find €10 to pay a deposit for their tent. There’s messing around with change etc. Then they’re given a wristband to identify them as someone who brought a tent, so they can be checked on the way out.

On Monday, it’s time to go home, but they’ve lost their wristband, taken it off, or they’ve lost their tent! Imagine being the person on the gate on Monday morning, when everyone is tired, trying to help these people. It could end up with a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. A better route would be to encourage people with strong messaging and communications before the event – not by penalising them onsite.

  1. Don’t forget to include everyone in your waste plan

There is no point in creating a really lovely waste management plan, with recycling points (and hopefully compost bins too) all across the site for the audience to use, only to have no facilities in the backstage areas. Staff, suppliers and performers make your event happen too! All humans create waste at events as they go about their daily business. So, if you’ve got ambitious plans to reach great recycling rates and keep as much as you can out of landfill (and I hope you do), then don’t have your staff putting everything into one bag in the production office!

Top Tip: The waste handler

It’s really important to create a strong working relationship with whoever handles your waste. Have regular meetings, ensure you understand their infrastructure and that they understand what you are trying to do. Check if they have recycling and composting facilities and that if you do manage to get good separation onsite, that this will follow through to waste processing. Ask them for reports after your event – if your results are good, you’ll want to let everyone know about it! Your waste handler is the ace in the deck in all of this, so make sure that they are your friend.

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