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Can a festival like Glastonbury ever really be ‘green’?

By Louis Shankar

Jun 25, 2019

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Summer has, nominally, arrived and with it comes festival season. The ongoing climate catastrophe is on many people’s minds when it comes to planning summer holidays—flying long distances is inherently unsustainable and stay-cations are increasingly encouraged. But how sustainable is the festival economy?

Tent cities emerge from remote British fields; mounds of rubbish and recycling are left over at the end of a hectic, debauched weekend. Diesel generators are often used to provide electricity; drinking water has to be transported to the festival site. Temporary toilets tend to be used instead of traditional plumbing, which often utilise chemicals and require complicated transportation and disposal methods. It’s estimated that the U.K. festival industry produces around 23,500 tonnes of waste annually, which equates to 2.8 kg per person per day. The total carbon emissions, excluding travel, for the industry comes to an estimated 19,778 tonnes.

Glastonbury, the largest and most famous of the British festivals, descends on Somerset this weekend, with around 135 thousand ticket-holders on top of several thousand staff and volunteers. In many ways, Glastonbury is setting a prime example of how to be sustainable. Since 2004, all food and drink has been sold in wood and paper packaging—they have now also banned single-use plastics.

This year Glastonbury is also prioritising clean energy, as stated on the festival’s website, “In 2010 Worthy Farm installed 1,500 square meters of solar panels on the roof of the cattle shed. The 1,316 roof-mounted solar panels makes this one of the largest privately owned solar photovoltaic systems in the country.” An entire area of the site, The Green Fields, which includes the 1,000-capacity Croissant Neuf stage, is run purely on solar and wind power. This year, single-use plastic drinks bottles will be unavailable at the festival. They also have over 1,200 “eco-friendly compost toilets” which yield “over 500 tonnes of horticultural compost every year.”

But the organisers can only do so much. Festival-goers are encouraged, for instance, to use biodegradable glitter, as conventional glitter is a micro-plastic pollutant, but there are no active restrictions. They are, politely, asked to use the toilets provided and dispose of cigarette butts responsibly, in an effort to reduce water pollution and land contamination—of course, these standards are difficult to enforce throughout the duration of the festival across the 900 acres site.

While people are encouraged to travel to Glastonbury by coach in an effort to reduce carbon emissions and traffic on the rural roads, the website does also note how to arrive by air. They include a link to Winding Lake (previously Fly Glastonbury), an enterprise that provides guests with chartered helicopter flights and hotel accommodation.

And what of the festival wardrobe? The rise of fast fashion is environmentally disastrous—cheap outfits bought in haste and worn once, twice, then discarded. Vintage clothing and charity shops should be encouraged, too, but festivals like Bestival, who encourage fancy dress and themed outfits, complicated matters.

Love Your Tent is an international campaign that encourages people to invest in high-quality tents and to reuse them year after year, instead of buying cheap ones and abandoning them at the end of a weekend. This is in no way enforced, though. And this typifies the problem with making festivals more sustainable: it requires investment, effort and compromise, both on the part of the festival and the consumers. Festivals are meant to be a time to let loose, to leave the outside world behind. People don’t want to be thinking about politics or about climate catastrophe—at the end of a heavy weekend, they just want to go home.

Disposable products make life easier while effective recycling schemes take effort and thought. A truly sustainable festival requires a lot of work, the sheer scale of Glastonbury actually helps the festival in implementing the policies outlined above while smaller, newer festivals aren’t able to do the same. As with many issues of sustainability, it comes down to cost—and raising costs affects accessibility. True sustainability means changing minds and changing habits, not merely implementing policy. Large scale change is needed within the industry and many festivals are committed to green policies in the next decade. The truth is, festivals can be green—as green as you want them to be.