Glastonbury 2013: a celebration of waste or green thinking?

By Nilima Choudhury

With cloudy skies forecast for this week at Glastonbury, weather is not the only issue that will dampen the spirits of the thousands flocking to the festival to see the Rolling Stones, Arctic Monkeys and Mumford and Sons.

People have made the journey today to the 900-acre Somerset-based festival by car, public transport and even bicycles. The environmental impact of Glastonbury causes concern before attendees even reach the gates.

Festivals can also be inspiring. Many, including Glastonbury, now have dedicated sites for climate change groups to educate and engage festival goers to think about the impact these events have on the environment.

Almost 180,000 people are already setting up camp, but many will not have given a second thought to the dirty emissions from their vehicles, high levels of electricity needed to power Glastonbury and waste disposal. Bins will be overflowing. Before the first day is out. Disposal of all that rubbish can cost up to £780,000 to dispose of.

Putting this into context, if Water Aid – one of the charities supported by Glastonbury – were given that money it would allow 52,000 people in poor countries to access safe water.

Overflowing bins at UK festivals can cost approximately £780,000 to dispose of. (Source: Abi Skipp)

A refugee-style campsite surrounded by empty bottles and food waste is not unusual to the organisers of Glastonbury: “Any event with 177,550 attendees will generate significant levels of litter”.

Music industry campaign group A Greener Festival (AGF) argues that UK festival goers actually offset the carbon footprint they generate at these events because they use less energy than they would if they were at home watching their favourite artists on TV.

“So potentially – you can ask the question – are festivals actually carbon negative?” argues Ben Challis, co-founder AGF.


With more than 100 festivals taking place in the UK between now and October, it is no surprise environmentalists are concerned.

Experts agree that transport to and from the festival is the main cause of greenhouse gas production, so staying at home might actually be preferable from a climate change perspective.

“Policy makers and researchers put most effort into urban journeys for commuting and the journey to school despite the fact that the latter accounts for less than 2% of all distance travelled by surface transport modes,” said Dr Jillian Anable, Centre for Transport Research at Aberdeen University.

“By contrast leisure activities, largely ignored, are responsible for around 40%.”

Of this, 24% of emissions are a direct result of people traveling to festivals, according to a report by pressure group Julie’s Bicycle.

The group states the complexity of the situation requires the music industry to come up with more innovative solutions “taking into account transport infrastructure, audience attitudes, commercial pressures, and local concerns”.

A Greener Festival acknowledges transport initiatives take up the bulk of an event organisers’ funds, but a report it published last year found that almost 70% of festival goers would travel by public transport if it was provided as part of the ticket price.

Glastonbury noticed almost a 50% decline in the number of cars on site from 60,000 in 2000 to 36,000 in 2007 thanks to its Green Traveller scheme. Every person that arrives by public transport is rewarded with money off at food stalls, discounted memorabilia and newspaper and magazine subscriptions.

Other initiatives include Bestival’s Swim to Bestival to make travel more exciting and beat ferry queues to the Isle of Wight.

“Reduce, reuse and recycle”

This is Glastonbury’s motto in the hope it can encourage festival goers to help it cut the amount of waste currently produced each year.

One year, the number of tents and reusable items at Glastonbury hit 20,000. (Source: flickr/Mr Giles)

A report by AGF showed 86.6% of fans said they would recycle in 2012 – up from 62% in 2008 although industry experts do not all agree that fans are being completely honest with their answers.

“Whilst fans say they will recycle – we know that a substantial minority – probably one in five – leave tents and other camping gear behind at festivals which causes a huge headache for organisers,” said Claire O’Neill, General Secretary of the Association of Independent Festivals.

One year, the number of tents and reusable items at Glastonbury hit 20,000, according to Resource Magazine.

In 2009, roughly 400 gazebos, 9,500 roll mats, 5,500 tents, 6,500 sleeping bags, 3,500 airbeds, and 2,200 chairs were abandoned. Rob Kearle, who manages waste disposal at Glastonbury, said that on wet years, “lots of wellies get left behind, and there are always nitrous oxide canisters, fridges, freezers, and televisions left in the camping fields”.

“We want all festival goers to think ‘zero waste’ and to take home what they bring onto the festival site,” said Glastonbury on its website.

“The festival commits to continuing its policy of reducing the percentage of waste that goes to landfill by placing controls on what is brought on site by staff, contractors, sponsors and traders.”

Less waste also equals less landfill tax.

At Glastonbury, 1,300 recycling volunteers work on the site, most of them giving their service in exchange for a ticket.

Once the festival is over, a paid team takes charge and cleans the site in 10 days to two weeks. In a dry year, Kearle says they collect about 2,000 tonnes of waste and about 3,000 in a wet year because of the weight of the mud and water.

Since 2005, the festival has managed to recycle around 50% of its waste each year.


UK events used almost 12 million litres of diesel in 2011, according to a guide advising festival organisers how to create a sustainable event from AGF. The guide notes that power is generally one of the five largest single production costs for a festival and inefficient generator use is common at events in the UK.

The guide recommends festivals increase the use of biofuel and renewable energy generators.

Glastonbury and Melt! in eastern Germany have installed permanent solar arrays on their sites which is fed back into the national grid all year round.

Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis stands in front of Glastonbury’s new solar PV system. (Source: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Intriguingly, last year four girls exhibited a urine-powered generator where 1 litre of urine provided six hours of electricity at Maker Faire Africa, a pan-African gathering of manufacturers and inventors, in Lagos.

Kate Jackman Island Producer at Bestival said she preferred biofuel due to high costs associated with solar power. “It would help if alternative sources of energy were more accessible and cheaper,” she said.

Do old habits die hard?

The idea of educating so many festival goers about recycling is a daunting task, but Glastonbury has risen to the challenge.

This year, Greenpeace has been allocated a field at Glastonbury to bring the North Pole to festival goers. Bestival has over 20 environmental charities as well as interactive games on site to educate festival goers.

“Festivals remain a great place to engage with music fans on environmental issues,” said O’Neill. “It’s clear that most fans are prepared to listen and learn. But not all do, and event organisers have to be aware of mixed audience opinions with a small percentage quite opposed to change”.

Environmental concerns however are not at the top of a festival goer’s priority, according to a survey from A Greener Festival and Buckinghamshire New University. It said that although “the public is increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of events, when it came down to it, they would prioritise getting to see their favourite band over environmental issues”.

Event organisers, fans and experts agree that festivals are certainly aware of climate change issues and making steps to curb their carbon footprint, but cost factors are holding them back from reaching their potential.

“Events are becoming greener and each year we have been contacted by more organisers keen to take the first steps on this journey,” said Helen Innes, Awards Co-ordinator and Co-Director, A Greener Festival.

A Greener Festival Awards 2012 awarded “Outstanding” to Croissant Neuf Summer Party, Shambala and Sunrise Celebrations. Those that were “Improving” included Wireless, Hard Rock Calling and T in the Park.

“It’s not something that can be done overnight,” said Innes, “it takes time and dedication to evaluate, implement strategies and review success. It also takes resources to do this but festival audiences can make a difference.

“By only bringing what they need and then taking it home, considering their travel options and their behaviour at the festival they could improve ticket prices, their experience and the role of the festival in lessening its impact and securing a sustainable future for events.”

Organisers understand the importance of mitigating the negative effects of their activities on the climate, but they can only succeed if attendees pull their weight and work with them.

Festivals present a uniquely positive atmosphere to demonstrate how cutting carbon would make the event cheaper for organisers allowing them to do more, and make the experience more enjoyable for everyone. As Glastonbury has proven, it doesn’t have to be to the detriment of one of life’s little pleasures.

Fans can contribute to a better climate but unfortunately, they can’t do anything about the weather.


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