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Millions of us attend festivals every year. It’s a chance to spend time with friends (normally in a muddy field somewhere), dance and enjoy your favourite music. What’s not to like? However, you may be unaware of the shocking volume of waste these events generate. In 2018, British festivals including the likes of Glastonbury, Wireless and Download, contributed 23,500 tonnes of waste. Only 32% of this was recycled, demonstrating how festivals significantly contribute to Britain’s growing waste problem.

How do they generate so much waste though? Well, there’s everything from transportation, for both festival goers and suppliers, fuel for transport and powering the event, and, more needlessly, the crazy use of single-use plastic like bottles, straws and food trays. 

Those working in the industry are changing their ways, though. In fact, some festivals have already taken the much preferred eco-route. For example, Boardmasters and Boomtown are just two of 61 festivals that have pledged to remove single-use plastic from their sites. One such event doing a whole lot of good for the world since it began is the Shambala festival in Northamptonshire, which operates using 100% renewable power, has eradicated disposable plastics and is meat and fish-free. Here at Bywaters, our events waste management service can handle all of your festival waste by providing suitable bins for different materials and then recycling them at our facilities. Now, we know a green event is possible, here we give you the lowdown on sustainability in the events industry.

Monitoring Emissions

As so many people flock to festivals in the UK every year, it’s guaranteed to generate considerable emissions. Of course, energy consumption levels are inevitable at some of the biggest, most popular events. However, the problem is often overlooked by organisers. As the majority of festivals are held in remote areas, they have to rely on imported energy to fuel their event. This involves transporting massive, diesel-powered generators which are necessary for the sound systems, stage lights, vendor power, and more. Shockingly, 99% of the energy used at these events contributes to carbon emissions, meaning they’re from non-renewable sources. These generators also go through over 380 million litres of fuel a year. Transportation to and from festival sites creates emissions too, with 21% of UK greenhouse gas emissions coming from transport overall.

Why is this an issue?

Energy consumption at festivals becomes an issue when power is overused or used improperly. Some festivals unfortunately do the latter due to lack of information and communication provided between contractors, suppliers and the event organisers. Generators often run at low loads, making the energy-generating process inefficient. Low loads mean that for every litre of fuel burned, less power is created, or more power is generated than is required or usable at the time. Generators that are too big for an event’s requirements will use more fuel than necessary which creates emissions and costs more. Diesel also pollutes the environment by emitting harmful toxins like nitrogen oxide — an ozone-depleting emission.

What can festivals do to reduce energy emissions?

The Power Behind Festivals Guide has outlined ways organisers can reduce their emissions. One of these solutions is to install permanent renewable energy systems onsite. Glastonbury has already adopted this by using large solar arrays to generate power which are then fed back to the National Grid all year round, meaning energy is properly used without any waste. Other alternatives to diesel fuel are biofuel (mustn’t be virgin biodiesel as it has damaging effects if made with palm oil), wind power and pedal power. These options often produce zero carbon (or very little amounts) so they can help your event reduce its carbon footprint.

Planning in detail can reduce power demand. Event organisers should ask all suppliers the minimum amount of energy they need to operate to adequately run the festival, introduce a power reduction policy and encourage contractors to find new suppliers that use energy-efficient equipment. Reducing the size of generators can also be useful. When it comes to festival visitors, organisers should encourage them to travel by public transport where possible, or ride share to reduce transportation emissions.

Reducing waste

The waste generated at festivals reaches staggering new heights every year. The amount of waste collected every year equals the same weight as 78 fully loaded Boeing 747 jumbo jets. Wristbands, fancy dress clothing, sleeping bags and tents are continuously left behind, and these are made from polymers that remain on the planet for decades, if not centuries. Tents are a big problem. Over 250,000 are left behind at events every year, many of which end up in landfill. A 3.5kg tent produces the equivalent of 25kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, while the different materials used to create these items makes it impossible to recycle.

How can festivals reduce their waste?

Festival planners can ask everyone attending to really think about what they’re bringing to the event, whether it’s sustainable and if they’ll reuse it in the future. The focus should be placed on recycling and reusing, instead of chucking everything away, where it lands up in landfill. For example, the tent issue can be solved by hiring companies that can pitch a tent for you, such as Camplight, so that you don’t use single-use items and products are reused again and again. Some abandoned tents have even been turned into rucksacks and clothing to ensure the plastic is reused. 

Festivals can reduce their waste by providing plenty of bins dotted all over the site, having clear signage indicating what waste goes into what bin, and regularly emptying them. This waste should then be properly disposed of using a green waste management company that operates with a zero-to-landfill guarantee (like us at Bywaters). Organisers can also go as far as checking out their suppliers to find out what types of materials they use and how recyclable they are — this can help you smooth out the waste problem from the very beginning.

Banning single-use plastics

Festivals generate tonnes of single-use plastic waste, from drinks bottles and plastic straws to food trays, glitter and toiletries. More than 100 million plastic cups are disposed of yearly at UK festivals and live events, most of which are sent to landfill where they don’t biodegrade for hundreds of years. And if they do end up being recycled, the environmental impact is still higher than reusable cups due to manufacturing. A great proportion of plastic waste enters the ocean where it inflicts harm, or even death, to many marine animals. Take glitter, for instance: these microplastics are easily consumed by wildlife and can cause water pollution. 

The good news, however, is that lots of festivals have introduced site-wide plastic bans. Glastonbury, for example, doesn’t allow attendees to buy plastic onsite and encourages them to bring reusable items like wipes, bottles and tents. This is just the start, showing other event managers that an eco-friendly festival is possible.

How to remove single use plastics from festivals

Event organisers can remove single-use plastic from festivals in a similar way to Glastonbury. All food service disposables and serving equipment, including straws and hot drink lids, should be made with sustainable alternatives like paper, card, wood, and be fully compostable. Discouraging attendees from bringing plastic onsite is a good idea too. Suggest visitors wear reusable raincoats and ponchos, use eco-friendly glitter, and bring their own reusable containers to fill up. Enforcing a ban on the material may seem extreme, but many would argue that it’s the right action to take. 

Provide reusable cups for drinks — these can be bespoke to the event, using your logo on the cup for a personalised touch. To be more effective than single-use ones though, they need to be reused at least 2.5 – 3 times. Although plastic is sometimes unavoidable, festivals can combat the issue by offering the correct recycling facilities. This should involve a sustainable waste management service which can help you place the right recycling containers onsite and organise proper collection. At Bywaters, our main initiative is to reduce plastic use and correctly recycle it. Events can also improve their recycling efforts by reminding guests. This doesn’t have to be tedious in-your-face demands, but your messages can be made part of your event’s marketing campaign, placing an emphasis on taking care of the environment.

Using compostable toilets

While you might not think about it too much, the portable toilets you use at festivals tend not to be eco-friendly. This is because the chemicals needed (bromine, formaldehyde and glutaraldehyde) to break down human waste and reduce odours are highly toxic to humans and wildlife. These substances also don’t completely disinfect human waste, which can cause problems. As such, this form of waste can’t be directly released into groundwater and must be processed by a waste facility. However, sewage treatment sites use large amounts of electricity and clean water, and equipment and transport consume fossil fuels which emit nasty emissions.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative. Compostable toilets offer many environmental benefits compared to portable chemical ones. They are easy to install, inexpensive and don’t rely on water to operate, meaning festivals won’t be using too much water (depending on how the rest of the event runs). The human waste is turned into compost that is hugely beneficial to the environment, and it’s odourless. Labelled ‘humanure’, its soil structure contains nutrients rich enough to fertilise soil in plant growth. Again, Glastonbury seems to be the poster child for eco-friendly events as they use compostable loos.


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