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After the music: The gargantuan task of dealing with festival trash

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By Beth Turner

Going to an outdoor music festival is not for the faint of heart. You brave the elements, the port-a-potties, the beer lines; exhaust yourself with dance and drink, and damn-near hurt yourself from all the fun to be had. And when the last note is strummed and it’s time to stumble home, you must wade through a lake of trash discarded by those very souls who just rededicated themselves to love, peace and environmental care.

So, what is up with all that trash? It’s easy to understand-a festival creates a temporary city for the weekend, and with it all the problems a city brings, including waste disposal.

To understand the issues, let’s look at our city.
When away from home, people tend not to recycle. Fayetteville’s Waste Reduction Coordinator, Brian Pugh, says recycling containers along Dickson Street end up filled with un-recyclable product.

“People put just anything in the bins and those located around the bars, well, people threw up in them.”

Pugh says at-home services run a little better. For residential pick-up, 18,500 residences receive trash services. These households produce12,900 tons of trash in a year. With an enormous focus on recycling, Pugh says curbside participation rate is at 57 percent, “which is high for a curbside program.” Include the 150 to 200 businesses that also recycle curbside, the community drop-off location and citywide recycling igloos, Pugh verified 7,453 tons of recycling for 2006. Just to get our trash hauled off, it takes seven trash trucks and 12 recycling trucks—keeping one on stand-by for breakdowns.

So how much trash do festivals create in relation to a city the size of Fayettevlle?

Austin City Limits Festival generated around 30 tons of trash in three days. In 2004 Bonnaroo created 600 tons in three days. Wakarusa’s numbers for 2007 total 77 tons of garbage collected in a four-day span.

The website for the Austin City Limits Festival in Austin, Tex. doesn’t reveal talk of recycling. However, managing company Capital Sports Entertainment’s Shanda Sansing does.

While on location, Sansing couldn’t verify exact trash totals but said that attendance for their September festival brings in 65,000 people over a three-day period. Sansing figures they average around 30 tons of trash, one-third of which is recycled.

“But we don’t go after the silver bullet,” Sansing said. “We’re more about the silver buckshot, so to speak. We do a lot of little things you won’t notice that make a huge impact on lessening how much trash is generated in the first place.”

One idea they’ve found effective is packaging their used beer cups after the festival for people to take home, wash and enjoy for personal use.

“We couldn’t believe how well this went over. So the cups aren’t just not trashed, people love getting them.”

Bonnaroo Music Festival’s website is littered with information on creating a cleaner earth, environment and festival. This event is held in Manchester, Tenn. in June and contracts a company called Clean Vibes to keep up with recycling efforts. Its website says they’re dedicated to efficiently cleaning up and recycling festival trash.

This year, 600,000 attended Bonnaroo, yet trash totals aren’t available. In 2004, Clean Vibes’ website shows an attendance of 90,000 generating 600.18 tons of trash. Clean Vibes recycled 120 tons of it, taking 14 days to do so. This year the buzz is that they diverted 57 percent of trash from the landfill and into a recycling bin.

Closer to home is the Wakarusa Music Festival just outside of Lawrence, Kan. This year, they hosted 12,000 people each day of their June festival. They report generating about 77 tons of trash. Wakarusa’s recycling statistics run close behind Bonnaroo’s at 44 percent. And yet their program, Recycalusa (ree-sike-ah-loo-sah), is entirely volunteer-based, student-run, and began with a guy talking trash at a party.

After Wakarusa’s first year, Kansas State University undergraduate Rylan Ortiz met a Wakarusa founding father who asked him to take on the event’s recycling needs. Now into his third year on board, Ortiz is getting hired to clean up other events’ lack of recycling.

“This is a great summer job,” Ortiz said. ”I think it brings us students closer together and is a great project for SEA [Student Environmental Association].”

Ortiz is humble about their success, but admits it takes about a month’s worth of hours year-round to make their recycling efforts even this successful. Planning to graduate this year, Ortiz is looking for another K-State student to take over his summer job.

To bring outdoor festival recycling woes even closer to home, look at the two-day Mulberry Mountain Harvest Festival near Ozark this weekend, now in its second year.

Festival cofounder Dewey Patton said that the 1,500 in attendance last year did not fill up three 30-ton dumpsters and did manage to fill the one recycling bin a few times. Patton says these meager beginnings don’t reflect how much more he wishes to do.

“Last year we were still building the roads and finishing the stage when people started rolling in. I felt lucky to pull off a festival, much less worry about how much we recycled.

“But we’re continuing to work with New Belgium Beer, who is really teaching us how to do things better not just for patrons but for the environment, too.

“We’re using their biodegradable cups again and hope to focus on a composting station for them. That way we can reuse them right here on our grounds. But if the cups do make it into a landfill, they’ll still biodegrade faster than a plastic or metal.”

Speaking of plastic, Patton says plastic is their focus for recycling this year.

“We worked out a deal with Pepsi to serve plastic bottles only instead of drinks in paper cups. It’s easier to recycle plastic over paper, which gets soggy and nasty pretty quick.” Which is something Patton experienced during last year’s thunderstorms that dumped three inches of rain on the mountain during the festival—don’t worry, it didn’t dampen the tunes.

ACL’s Sansing piggybacks that notion, saying they usually see an 80/20 split in recycling efforts.

“Eighty percent of our recycling we can actually recycle. Twenty percent of it is usually un-recyclable due to contamination.” As Pugh mentioned–people throw up in the bins.

A few other ideas that festivals are trying out include Wakarusa’s recycle prizes. If you turn in a full bag of recycling, it nets you a prize such as one of New Belgium’s bicycles.

As Patton mentioned, New Belgium offers festivals the use of biodegradable cups made from corn. They can go straight into a compost pile and serve your garden later. The beer maker also sponsors a cup re-use program, offering patrons stickers for reusing their beer cup. A sticker-laden cup also nets a prize.

New Belgium’s sustainability coordinator Nic Theison is proud of all the efforts, but said he’d love to see people get even more aggressive, taking recycling efforts into a more hard-line reduce-waste effort.

“It’s great what we’re doing and I love the biodegradable cups,” Theison said. “But, I mean, how much corn can you make? At some point it’s got to be about more about reducing than recycling.”

Finding a solution for festival-generated trash is convoluted and tasking. Luckily, most of the people putting on these incredible events do care about the environment and what happens with the trash their festival creates. All of them speak of ongoing efforts to figure out solutions to the issue of garbage.

For those attending the concerts, the best way to help is to do some planning of your own before a festival. Wakarusa’s website has helpful tips about how to pack. A few morsels mentioned include un-packaging new items before the event so you can recycle the wrapping at home. Buy in bulk. Carry a reusable water container instead of one-time usage water bottles. Take beer cans instead of glass- it protects feet and weighs less to haul away. Purchase handheld festival food instead of a meal needing utensils for less waste. And, on a personal note, don’t throw up in the recycle bin.

One Comment

Ferine Fabliau September 22, 2007 at 9:36 am

Amen, Brother! Mama Earth needs all the help she can get! How about having recycling monitors at festivals? I have instituted a recycling program where I work. I have a few “monitors” who help remind others where to toss things. Oh, and people could get their hands stamped everytime they recycle things and make some sort of incentive for it like–well, I’ll work on that idea……

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