It’s time to foster a new festival-waste ethic

By Erica Cirino, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla ‘Launchpad’ Fellow”

It’s midnight on a recent Saturday and I’m dancing outside in a muddy field in suburban Denmark with a handful of friends and a-hundred-thousand-or-so strangers. The Cure is playing on the enormous stage before us, and I realize that we’ve all made it, well—almost have made it, to the end of the eight-day-long Roskilde Festival, one of Europe’s biggest music celebrations. All that stands between us and the final curtain call is a Cypress Hill show happening in two hours at another stage. Yes—despite the tiredness in my legs, I will go on and find the energy to dance along to them, too.

The Cure plays Roskilde Festival 2019 as a major headliner. Photo: Erica Cirino

While I find it easy to have fun at a music festival, it’s hard to be a plastic-aware person during these events. It took me several days to acclimate to the piles of waste accumulating on the festival grounds. All around, all day and all night, people are downing metal cans of beers, plastic cups of mixed drinks, plastic bottles of water, plastic-tube liquor shots; are eating food wrapped in paper or plastic (and sometimes both), and many are smoking cigarettes. And when they’re done consuming those things, a significant number of people simply toss them on the ground where they blow and roll and get mashed into the mud, instead of throwing them away responsibly.

It seems most festival-goers have concluded that it’s too time-consuming to rush through a massive crush of boogeying bodies to make it to a wastebasket, particularly when someone is performing onstage. Hunched-over bottle collectors help reduce the mess some, by scavenging between our bouncing and swaying legs and grabbing any containers that can be refunded. But left behind are food wrappers, cigarette butts, lost clothing and anything else that can’t be exchanged for cash.

Even after festival areas are “cleaned up,” waste–especially plastic waste–remains, often embedded in the muddy ground. Photo: Erica Cirino

Outside the festival area where people are camping, at the tent sites, more problems arise. With the advent of cheap camping gear has come the advent of careless campers who simply abandon their polyester and nylon tents, chairs and sleeping bags after the festival. Tents blow and bounce across the ground, piling up in heaps, to be trashed. In reality, many of these tents could be perfectly suited to use again, whether at another festival or a weekend trip to the countryside.

Tens of thousands of perfectly good tents are discarded or abandoned at the end of a festival. Photo: Erica Cirino

Rokskilde festival-goers produce enormous amounts of waste, which you can watch massive bulldozers push into dump trucks at the festival’s end. According to the festival’s website, Roskilde Festival was responsible for producing nearly 2300 tons of waste last year—a small amount of which was recycled and 2000 tons of which was burned for energy.

To reduce its overall ecological footprint, Roskilde Festival hires food vendors who sell mostly organic food not sprayed with pesticides. To address waste specifically it offers reusable and refundable cups and pitchers for drinks, offers a reusable tent service, has free water refill stations, compostable cutlery, charges for bamboo and paper straws, tent reuse drop-off points (where you can drop off a designated festival tent for reuse if you neatly pack it away and drop it off) and abundant closed-top wastebaskets around the festival site. Oh, and the festival vendors sell very few things wrapped in, or made of, single-use plastic.

More tossed-away tents and other camping gear. Photo: Erica Cirino

While Roskilde Festival and others like it—such as Glastonbury in the UK—have worked hard to eliminate single-use plastics, people bring their own disposable items and tend to discard them carelessly on the ground more often than not, complicating the plastic waste challenge And while the new compostable single-use items many festivals now offer aren’t as bad as plastic, which never degrades in nature, they still require resources like wood and sugarcane to produce. And, ultimately, any item that’s designed to be tossed away creates waste that can have a negative effect on the environment. Many festivals are this, or more conscious, about waste. Yet the trash keeps piling up.

The main problem, not unlike the world’s waste problem more largely, is that there are too many people—and more than that, too many people who do not take responsibility of their belongings and waste. This includes consumable items like foods and beverages, which are often packaged and served with straws, cigarettes, and also clothing, tents and even glitter—which is made of plastic. (I opted for plant-based biodegradable glitter for the festival).

The author with a face full of biodegradable glitter. Photo: Erica Cirino

The festival vibe is so special because it’s built on the premise that music builds community. We need to feel compelled to care for the commons. Roskilde Festival and others would do well not only to implement more strategies to reduce single-use waste and encourage reuse but to foster a new festival-waste ethic: encouraging festival-goers to rethink the role they play as waste-makers in the festival community and how their creation and handling of waste affects the entire festival experience, for everyone participating.

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