Close this search box.

Festival Trash

BonnarooBonnaroo Venue Post Kanye 2008Bonnaroo
Blue Ridge Bashes are Cleaning Up their Acts

“You learn so much about human behavior when you go through a person’s trash,” says Georgia Malki, owner of Seven Star Events, a company that works to reduce the environmental impact of one of America’s favorite guilty pleasures: festivals. At first glance, the typical festival may look environmentally benign. What’s so harmful about a bunch of people getting together to eat food and listen to music? But look at the resource management side of festivals and you see that these massive parties are a collection of eco-sins.
“The event industry is one of the top four most wasteful industries in the U.S.,” Malki says. “Conventions, music festivals, concerts—add them up and as an industry, they’re in the top tier of carbon and waste producers, right up there with the building industry, manufacturing, and hospitality.”
The typical outdoor festival is like a micro city, complete with the same environmental challenges that all cities face—transportation, energy consumption, waste production—only on a much more localized and intense scale. For each festival held in the U.S., thousands of people converge to buy and throw away mass quantities of food, suck up thousands of megawatts of energy, burn millions of gallons of gas, and produce tons of trash. The festival carbon footprint is huge, particularly when it comes to the waste stream.
Take Bonnaroo, one of America’s premier music festivals, where 90,000 people from all over the world converge on a farm in eastern Tennessee. They camp, they eat, they drink—and they produce one million pounds of garbage in four days.
“The mess is enormous. It looks like a wasteland,” says Anna Barofsky, owner of Clean Vibes, the company responsible for cleaning up Bonaroo’s garbage. In 2008, they diverted 20 percent of garbage—roughly 200,000 pounds—from the landfill by employing innovative recycling and composting techniques—including encouraging Bonnaroo’s attendees to collect the most cans and bottles in a recycling challenge for autographed items from bands.
“The signed Metallica drum head was a huge item last year,” says Barofsky.
She and her staff have worked closely with the production company behind Bonnaroo over the years to help turn the massive festival into one of the greenest music festivals in the country. The event recently won the Outstanding Greener Festival Award from an independent festival auditing service out of England.
“The Bonnaroo evolution has been amazing,” Barofsky says. “In the beginning, we had to beg them to let us compost. Now they have a composting center at the festival and are looking at establishing alternative energy on site.”
The Bonnaroo evolution is indicative of the festival industry as a whole, which has begun to clean up its act in recent years—at least on the surface. Barofsky started Clean Vibes as a department within the production company responsible for Phish’s live shows. In 2000, she took Clean Vibes solo, and started approaching other production companies.
“We were a little ahead of our time, so we just told festivals we’d clean up their mess better than anyone else, and by the way, we’re going to recycle as much of it as we can,” Barofsky says. “It’s been an interesting evolution, from us begging festivals to let us recycle their trash to the state we’re in today, where recycling is almost obligatory from a PR perspective. Every festival has to have a ‘greening’ button on their web site.”
Of course, not every festival that claims to be green is actually green. While some festivals are making a genuine effort to reduce their impact, most are simply doing the bare minimum in order to claim the “green” label.
“There’s a lot more resistance to this than people realize,” Georgia Malki says. “Even when you show these production companies how to mitigate the cost, and how beneficial it will be to their company, if the management perceives there’s going to be any amount of work or cost associated with greening, it gets pushed off to another year.”
Malki’s Seven Star strives to recycle or compost at least 85 percent of an event’s waste stream. Seven Star worked several of Al Gore’s Live Earth festivals in 2007, keeping over 90% of the waste out of landfills at massive concerts held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Johannesburg, South Africa. The company also recycled or composted 85% of the waste created at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008.
In order to put up such high numbers, Malki, her staff, and a team of volunteers sort through every piece of garbage that’s collected.
“We learn up front what products will be made available to the customers and we figure out where each of these products can go. We know potato chip bags can go to Terracycle. We learn who in the nearby market is taking shrink wrap. We work with a company that takes vinyl products and turns them into handbags,” Malki says. “We find a marketplace for every item at the festival.”
Unfortunately, trash is only the most obvious aspect of a festival’s environmental impact. Most festivals use inefficient generators to power their stages and vending areas, and all festivals incite massive resource use simply by attracting thousands of attendees, most of whom travel by plane, train, or automobile to reach the party. The band Radiohead did an environmental impact study on their own worldwide tour and discovered the biggest impact from their tour comes from all the fans traveling to get to their shows.
“The only way to totally green a festival is to not have it,” Barofsky says. “In lieu of that, festivals have to look at every element, particularly how fans get there.”
Some progressive festivals are already addressing the issue. The 2008 Virgin Mobile Festival in Baltimore offered VIP parking passes and chances to win prizes to people who carpooled. The festival even employed a fleet of hybrids that would pick up festival-goers from nearby public transportation depots.
Ultimately, all of these attempts to green the festival industry rely on one key element: attendee cooperation.
“Our ultimate goal is to fold because all of the attendees do the right thing and there’s no mess for us to clean up,”  Barofsky says. “Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon.” •

Share this post:

Discover more in the Blue Ridge:

Join our newsletter!

Subscribe to receive the latest from Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine sent directly to your inbox.