LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As anxieties about climate change mount, a growing number of festivals are boosting their eco-credentials with initiatives tackling everything from plastic waste and abandoned tents to low carbon transport and vegetarianism.
Glastonbury - the world’s largest greenfield festival which opened in southwest England on Wednesday - banned plastic bottles for the first time this year to prevent more than 1 million bottles going into landfill.
“We’re always trying to make Glastonbury Festival more sustainable and we’re working really hard to reduce our carbon footprint,” said Emily Eavis, whose family dairy farm has hosted the event since 1970, this week attended by some 135,000 people.
“I’d like to think that thanks to Sir David Attenborough, and amazing environmental activists like Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion group, there’s a growing consciousness around how we should treat our planet.”
British naturalist Attenborough’s TV series, Swedish teen Thunberg’s school strikes and civil disobedience by the UK’s Extinction Rebellion have made many young festival-goers more conscious about how much they consume and throw away.
Less than one-third of the 23,5000 tonnes of waste produced by Britain’s 3 million music festival-goers each year is recycled, according to a 2015 estimate by Powerful Thinking, an initiative to cut festivals’ environmental and carbon footprint.
“It has been getting worse every year,” said Andy Willcott, director of Critical Waste, which organizes litter picking at British festivals and gathers two to three tonnes of rubbish at Glastonbury’s 900-acre site each year.
“The camping fields are full of old tents and stuff that people have just left behind,” he said. “Then you have your general rubbish - stuff that people have been eating and packaging, baby wipes, and all that kind of horrible stuff.”
About 250,000 tents are dumped at festivals each year in Britain alone, said the Association of Independent Festivals, most of which end up in landfill and create a huge amount of plastic waste.
Event organizers are bringing in increasingly strict measures to cut down on waste and carbon emissions.
Global music promoter LiveNation announced it would bar single-use plastic from 2021 at all its events, including Chicago’s Lollapalooza and Tennessee’s Bonnaroo in the United States and Britain’s Reading and Leeds festivals.
Others are taking more unusual steps. England’s family-friendly Shambala festival said on its website that it banned all meat and fish from food stands in 2016 to encourage people to try new things and think about changing their diets.
Meanwhile the Boom festival in Portugal - which has been hit by drought and wildfires - limits water availability times to reduce usage and has built a water treatment system using plants to clean waste water from restaurants and showers.
Interest in sustainability among festival organizers has “skyrocketed” in recent months, said Claire O’Neill from non-profit A Greener Festival, which assesses festivals on their environmental performance.
“Previously ... if it got difficult or if there were pressures on budget, it would often be the first thing to go to the bottom of the pile or to be put off until next year,” she said. “Now we see that a lot of the stops are being pulled out.”
Festivals are also aiming to convince revelers to cycle, take trains or share cars to reach the event and booking talks on climate change as part of the entertainment to encourage festival-goers to change their habits when they return home.
But some have raised concerns over festival “greenwashing”, arguing that projects may be little more than a branding exercise.
“There is a danger that these initiatives tackle the most visible issues,” said Glen Dowell, an expert on corporate sustainability at Cornell University in the United States.
Promoting potentially superficial eco-initiatives may be seen good marketing, aimed at a young audience who are often worried about climate change and “don’t want to feel that going to a festival conflicts with their core values”, he said.
“The danger is when festival-goers see branding around this ‘greening the festival’, they can feel like problems have been tackled when maybe it’s just a small piece of it that has been dealt with, and they think we can relax,” he said.
George Zifkos, an economist at Britain’s Leeds University, has highlighted that some festivals sell themselves as sustainable while offering visitors the chance to win a new petrol car or booking artists who travel by private jet.
But Chris Spinato of Reverb, a U.S. non profit working to reduce the footprint of the music industry, said festivals do genuinely want to cut emissions - and risk a backlash for cynically using green schemes to gain cultural capital.
“I think people’s bullshit detectors have become stronger and stronger,” he said.
“When they start to see that fake environmentalism, that superficial effort towards sustainability, they know it and it’s not going to look good for the people that are doing that.”
Reporting by Sonia Elks, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org