An alternative festival by and for friends

It’s not all about fun

Festivals of all types are a great way to have fun, relax, meet friends, see your favourite artists live, learn something and get one (or several) bad sunburns. However, they come with a heavy price for the environment and sometimes even for those that attend them; massive festivals, in particular, tend to be an ever increasing commercial endeavour with little regard for its consequences.

The online magazine Diss estimated that only in the UK in 2014 close to 3.2 million festival goers produced 23,500 tonnes of waste, with only 32% being recycled. In comparison, in 2016 New York (with a population of 20 million and arguably the city that creates the highest amount of garbage) produced 92,7 tonnes per day… The situation in festivals has improved since then, but there is still much room for improvement! In particular, tents appear to be on the spotlight at the moment: around 250,000 are left behind in British festivals alone every summer, most of them (if not all) are made out of plastic. In 2014, the British Association of Independent Festivals estimated “that 1 to 2 out of every 6 tents is left behind”. This is, at least partly, due to the biggest British retailers advertising tents as “festival tents”, encouraging people to perceive them as single-use. The circumstances are so dramatic that a group of festival organisers decided to set up a petition to urge stores like Argos, Decathlon, Sports Direct and Amazon to stop their senseless advertising. You can sign here. In addition to tents, other camping equipment and diverse objects are also abandoned, including boots, chairs, clothes, sleeping bags and leftover alcohol and food. Needless to say, the overall carbon footprint of such events is too large and therefore unsustainable.

Photo: The – ugly – view after a festival. (Photo credit: Charlotte Packaging)

A lot remains to be rethought. For example, a more general problem which also affects festivals and is perceived to be innocuous is glitter. The latter is traditionally composed of microplastics and small fragments of aluminium; fortunately, biodegradable alternatives currently exist and are slowly becoming more widespread. The awareness is luckily increasing thanks to the work of NGOs and a diversity of campaigners: tens of festivals in the UK do not sell non-biodegradable glitter anymore, some large supermarkets have pledged to stop doing so by 2020 and others are trying out biodegradable versions. In March, 38 Degrees started a petition to ask the government to ban plastic glitter from being sold in the UK. You can support them here.

Furthermore, festival goers’ issues range from long queues, overpriced food and drinks, boring line-ups, extreme entrance control, cancelled events, bad sound, lack of infrastructure and staff, disgusting toilets, long traffic jams in the middle of nowhere, accidents, dangerous conditions and exit chaos, amongst other aspects. For examples of festivals gone wrong in the UK in 2017 and 2018 see here and here, respectively. Not all festivals are bad but there seems to be an emerging trend of events that are just too-big and where money-making appears to be the sole focus.

Small and self-made: two beautiful characteristics

I was lucky to be invited to an alternative festival last weekend. It was the second year it was organised. One of the organisers had always dreamed of arranging a festival. He and his flatmates began organising open-airs in their city. In total, around 10 took place over the space of three years. They were a success; the organisers enjoyed the planing as well as the celebrations so much that they decided to bring it to the next level.

Around 50 people, only friends, were invited to the first festival and two people did all the preparations. The location for both years was the summer house of one of the organisers’ parents. The 19th century building is huge and has a beautiful extended garden. It is less than 40 km away from Leipzig, in a quiet little village. This time, around 20 people took part in the arrangements and about 150 were invited, including friends of friends. The organisers met already in May in order to divide tasks. The price for the weekend event was 60€ and it included vegetarian and vegan food, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, performances, music, games, decorations, camping space and toilets. As a means to alleviate the work of the organisers, which already did so much before, during and after the festival, everyone had to take a shift of one or two hours in one of the teams: awareness, bar, cleaning, welcome, etc. Some people were responsible for taking pictures. Moreover, to include the villagers, the latter were allowed to join the festivities for free but were asked to give a small contribution for each drink they consumed.

The food was prepared by a community kitchen and served as a buffet, which meant that we all ate together, sitting on the grass or on the provided wooden tables. We had all been asked to bring our own cutlery, plates and glasses, and to wash them ourselves in the shared basin. Some drinks bought sponsored social projects. There were classical and rock performances as well as DJs. The awareness of everyone present ensured a relaxed ambience, without fights nor sexism. The trust and safety of the area meant that there was no need for fences nor security control. Furthermore, many items were self-made: the outdoor shower, compost toilet, area for chilling, music scenarios, make-up and clothes swap zone, bar, mini-golf course and decoration. In essence, it was a peaceful and respectful festival where no one complained and everyone helped a little or as much as they could. The toilets were clean and the people took care of the premises, including the ancient building.

The organisers made no profit out of the festival. There were no tents left behind nor any other camping equipment, for that matter. Most people (including the artists), if not all, travelled a short distance. Many came partly or completely by bike, including me. The glass bottles were returned to the shops, as it is commonly done in Germany (through the nation’s Deposit Return Scheme). There were no (single-use) napkins nor (plastic) straws to be seen. No accidents, traffic jams nor queues longer than 15 minutes (for food) occurred. On the contrary, everyone was helpful and the quality of the concerts was fantastic.

Not all was perfect, nevertheless. The food and drinks could have been organic: the question remains how much extra would this add to the ticket price and if people would be willing to pay more for it. Signs could have been written in chalk rather than painted. The bins could have been better organised, with clear indications everywhere. Finally, I wonder if the glitter was biodegradable and if the decorations were made of re-used (and re-usable) materials and second-hand furniture – perhaps so! These are, obviously, all secondary points. I therefore congratulate the hardworking team. A small effort and it will become a case in point for other do-it-yourself festivals to replicate!

Patches of light in a somewhat dirty field

The festival industry noticed the environmental impact of their practice several years ago and began to take some action. In 2018, a report by the UK’s Association of Independent Festivals found that 93% of festivals had ditched plastic straws, while 40% banned the sale of drinks in single-use plastic on-site. Similarly, 40% replaced single-use cups with reusable cups, 67% sold branded reusable bottles, and 87% promoted the use of reusable bottles”. There are now a few non-profit organisations and small companies dedicated to reducing waste in festivals; for instance, A Greener Festival has assessed nearly 500 events across 5 continents since 2007, providing certification, training, expertise, and facilitating the exchange of best practice and Zero Waste Event Productions assists more than 30 festivals and events in the mid-western United States every year. Moreover, alternative “eco-friendly festival camping essentials” are currently available, such as waterproof paperboard tents and biodegradable wipes.

The leading example of a zero waste festival is Waterkant, a cross-border start-up festival that took place in Kiel (Germany) in July and incorporated a systematic waste reduction concept. With the Zero Waste Hierarchy always in mind, not only very little waste was produced but the event proved “that new ecological visions such as Zero Waste are a reality” and came to the conclusion that “what was done [there] can be replicated, no matter the scale”. Already in 2011, Luxembourg’s Rock-A-Field offered “incentives for reusable containers, and [mandated] all food be served in biodegradable containers to facilitate composting of food waste. As a result, the 2011 festival saw a 75% reduction in non-recycled/non-reused waste compared to 2006. They also banned vendors and sponsors from giving away frivolous promotional items; they purchased 100% green energy; and ensured that 75% of the food and drink being served was from local sources.” Other events offer greener transport to the venues, raise awareness and even use bikes to power themselves (one example, another one and a last one). Some even go further, aiming to do as much as possible on-site and carry out local habitat restoration.

It is about time for an upgrade

The festival sector generally needs to renew itself. The times are changing and there are no valid excuses. I am convinced, as the examples mentioned above have shown, that a great festival can be achieved with a reduced footprint. The opportunities for improvement and creativity are immense; the lessons learnt and best practice are recorded and available. Customers can play a role, by looking for more environmentally-conscious events, but the organisers are the ones responsible for reducing the impact of festivals. Governments ought to legislate to ensure a minimum standard, too. Alternative options are out there – yet, it is more empowering to start a project by yourself or to join one. Small is beautiful: I can only recommend that you experience a non-commercial festival once and see it for yourself.