Festival goers: fighting more than the mud?

By Michael Morrison

The environmental impact of festivals is disastrous” said Michael Eavis to The Independent in 2008.

If there’s one person who should know the intimate workings of a music festival it’s the self-styled godfather of Glastonbury, Eavis. He went on:

To pretend they’re green is ridiculous. You can recycle like mad, you can bring people on public transport, which we do. Overall, though…the greenest thing to do is not to run the event.”

A harsh home truth perhaps, but it’s a ripple that quickly made waves across the whole backbone of the UK music festival scene. Graeme Merrifield, who runs Wychwood at Cheltenham Racecourse, shares the feeling:

Festivals who call themselves green actually go to a greenfield site in the middle of nowhere. They have to bring infrastructure in, and there’s no public transport – cars are easily festivals’ biggest environmental cost.

Okay, so far it all looks rather doom and gloom doesn’t it? Well let’s explore how music festivals started to come round to the idea of sustainability and what’s been happening since.

In 2008, when Eavis invited the hyper-environmentally-conscious Radiohead to headline, they refused on the grounds that Glastonbury lacked a ‘public transport infrastructure’. Simple as that. Sure, not very rock ‘n’ roll, but the undernourished tastemakers paved the way and soon the whole circuit woke up to just how un-green festivals seemed to be.

Now, four years on, a different picture is starting to emerge as a result. Glastonbury itself reportedly recycled 49% of its waste in 2010, and launched the Green Traveller package in 2011 – an incentivised travel package that gives perks such as solar-powered showers to revellers who arrive by public transport.

Latitude has gone even further with this year’s Tour de Latitude initiative; which encourages festival goers to arrive by bicycle to raise money for the Kenyan Orphan Project, get reduced ticket prices and, perhaps best of all at a festival, gain free food from Marks & Spencers.

If cutting back on travel carbon emissions is key to swaying change though, surely Bestival takes the biscuit: hardy festival fiends can brave the treacherous 6km Solent and swim to the Isle of Wight event!

Along with the now tried-tested-and-much-loved novelty of giving punters a free beer for every sack of paper cups they recycle (which is surely a parental quadruple-whammy: keep kids occupied by sending them to find cups, whilst educating them of the perils of binge drinking, whilst earning green points, whilst smugly relaxing in the sun with your free, carbon-neutral beer?), a lot has now started to go on behind the scenes too.

The not-for-Profit company A Greener Festival is doing some good work in changing the way things work in this field – pardon the pun – including a ‘Festival Wood’ in Dundreggan, Scotland, which other festivals can donate to – not just an off-set scheme but an actual, physical woodland!

Melvin Benn, who is managing director of Festival Nation (promoters of Reading, Leeds, Latitude and Download amongst others) is a bit more pragmatic though and suggests that tackling sustainability has to be handled on a case-by-case basis.

For example, Latitude’s £2 reusable beer cups may not go down so well at Reading festival (where the crowd is typically young and hell-raising) so Benn suggests not bothering and, instead, finding something that will work with the audience– or alternatively keeping the bigger picture in mind.

“I have 70,000 young people camping at Reading. Not one has a TV, record-player, hair-dryer or lights. At home they’d be burning electricity. At festivals their carbon footprint is near-zero. And they’re seeing 30 – 50 bands at one go.”

An interesting argument and one which suggests that the potentially high-carbon emitting cost of a festival could actually be worth it when compared to the carbon produced by music fans going to several other gigs in its place.

As we head towards a typically busy August Bank Holiday of established and newer events involving tents, the question remains: can festivals be sustainable? Like every other industry, it looks like the answer is yes…if they want to be.