What Does It Take to Make Music Festivals (And Our Planet) More Environmentally Friendly?

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On Thursday, June 11, the Farm in Manchester, Tennessee opened its gates for the 2015 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festivalone of the largest music festivals in the United States. The camping and festival grounds, which operate as a horse farm for the remainder of the year, were green, pristine, and only beginning to rustle with activity.

Four days later, after more than 100,000 people stepped on nearly every piece of ground on the Farm, the grassy fields became dusty plains, covered in plastic bottles, empty beer cans, and cigarette butts.

Bonnaroo Trash, Ben Sisario, New York Times

Ben Sisario, New York Times

You may find it surprising that a festival started for jam-band “hippies” could end up being the worst environmental disaster to stride through Manchester — until you look at the results of Bonnaroo’s voluntary attendee census.

Of the people that were aware of the annual census and took it in 2014, only 5.7% of participants chose “Respect the Farm” as the most important part of the “Bonnaroovian Code” — a set of mostly unspoken guidelines established to enhance the experience for all festival-goers. Second-to-last, with 5.8% of votes, is “Stay True to Roo” (that is, taking the good vibes with you when you leave), with “Radiate Positivity” topping the list at 58%.

So how can people who care so much about positivity treat the environment so negatively?

The answer, quite clearly, is apathy.

When asked whether they compost at home, just 23.1% of census participants answered “Yes,” while 37.3% said they would like to. The remaining majority, 39.5%, answered a resounding “No” — they don’t compost, and they don’t care to.

While the festival’s main areas contained clearly labeled compost, recycling, and landfill bins, the outskirted campsites were typically unequipped for composting. Landfill and recycling barrels were color-coded but unlabeled, and compost bins were widely nonexistent or difficult to find, forcing the roughly 60% of people who want to compost to refrain, or to walk a great distance to do so.

However, even with trash and recycling bins stationed throughout the Farm, many festival-goers seemed to prefer throwing their trash on the ground, or tossing their recyclables into the woods.

The litter problem isn’t unique to Bonnaroo, and may even be worse at some other events. One blogger, who calls himself “The Festival Guy,” considers environmental impact when he reviews the many festivals he attends annually. LA Weekly worked with Tucker “Festival Guy” Gumber to compile a list of the top U.S. festivals, ranked by their cleanliness, based on his experience.

Festival Guy with Sign: "If we all picked up 1 piece of trash we would clean the whole place." LA Weekly

Tucker Gumber, LA Weekly

According to Festival Guy, Burning Man tops the “Good” list as the cleanest, with its attendees’ anti-MOOP (“Matter Out Of Place”) mentality; South By Southwest, the “Bad,” is deemed too large for event organizers to keep clean, with band flyers being the most prominent form of litter; and Sasquatch, re-dubbed “Trashquatch,” rounds out the list as the “Ugly” side of music festivals. Bonnaroo, meanwhile, gets its own category of “Mediocre” — it has good sustainability programs, but organizers fail to promote them effectively.

If festivals had good sustainability programs, and promoted them properly, could that reduce music festivals’ impact on the environment?

Well, yes, but… according to Festival Guy, the reason that Burning Man is the cleanest festival, and “the cleanest city you will ever visit,” despite its lack of trash cans, is because the festival’s participants refuse to let litter even touch the ground. Burning Man organizers promote a “Leave No Trace” lifestyle, with a focus on self-reliance and civic responsibility. However, if festival-goers refused to acknowledge or participate in this philosophy of sustainability, it would cease to be effective.

Minimizing the environmental impact of an event — whether it’s a music festival, a county fair, or a picnic at the park — comes down to actions taken by individuals. It is your responsibility, as a unique and sentient being, to consider how your actions may affect others and your shared surroundings.

If all of us work together, wherever we are in this world, we can seek out the litter, put it where it belongs, and leave this place looking better than when we found it.

So please, next time you see any trash on the ground, throw it in the proper bin, and turn that MOOP into MIP.

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Matthew M. Sullivan holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Grand Valley State University, with emphases in fiction and nonfiction. He lives smack-dab between some railroad tracks and Grand Rapids Michigan's third-busiest road, and spends his time studying film and literary fiction.