What are Irish festivals doing to be eco-conscious?

The Electric Picnic site. Picture: Aerial.ie

As we dust off our gladrags for the summer’s festival calendar, Ellie O’Byrne asks what Irish music festivals are doing to go green this year.

It’s almost time to get out the flower headdresses, wellies, and fake tan: Yes, folks, festival season is almost upon us. But while we excitedly scan the music line-up for our favourite summer bash, we need to spare a thought for ensuring our partying doesn’t result in a massive hangover for Mother Nature.

The past two years in a row, shocking footage from Electric Picnic, Ireland’s biggest music festival, showed campsites full of tents and air mattresses bulldozed after punters departed, leaving a shameful mess in their wake.

Partied-out festival-goers, it seems, walk away from the site without a thought as to the detritus they leave behind. But while punters must change their tune, festival organisers need to pull their socks up too.

Music festivals can be a sustainability nightmare. From the power it takes to run mainstage speakers and lightshows to thousands of fans arriving by car to the waste streams generated, a big festival can be an eco-disaster if the will isn’t there to go green.

Avril Stanley, founder of the 15,000-capacity Body & Soul, held annually at the summer solstice in Ballinlough Castle, argued recently in the press that government needs to regulate festival sustainability; relying on the good will of organisers isn’t enough, she said.

Avril Stanley
Avril Stanley

Body & Soul works with green production company Native Events on the three-day music and arts event, has launched a comprehensive sustainability policy for this year, its 10th anniversary, and is the first Irish festival to receive a Highly Commended Award from the UK’s A Greener Festival Awards.

This year, Glastonbury, the world’s biggest festival, announced a ban on plastic water bottles at its five-day event, which attracts 175,000 people. 

The UK, with a significantly larger festival-going population than Ireland, has taken the lead in going green, with 40 music festivals signing up to Festival Vision: 2025, a roadmap for sustainable festivals.

Irish newcomer All Together Now is expecting 20,000 punters in 2019, its second year. Its numbers are small compared to Glastonbury, but it’s plotting a similar course to the English behemoth and has banned the sale of all plastic water bottles on site.

Instead, the festival, run by POD productions, sells its own branded eco-packaged water to keep their crowd hydrated. Each 500ml container, like a Tetrapak but apparently “fully recyclable”, costs €2, but punters are encouraged to reuse one container all weekend, at the 100 drinking water refill points on offer.

All food stalls at All Together Now, which takes place in Curraghmore, Co Waterford, on the August bank holiday weekend, with headliners including The National and Patti Smith, will use only compostable packaging.

Vanessa Clarke is the woman behind All Together Now’s food policy, plastic water bottle ban, and other waste initiatives. 

“From our perspective, putting on a festival means ensuring we take measures so people can recycle, so they don’t have to buy plastic water bottles,” she says, “that there are plenty of drinking water spots on site to refill your own containers, properly marked bins for recycling. That we all work together to make sure we leave the grounds exactly as we found them.”

Vanessa says increased awareness of environmental issues has meant All Together Now festival-goers don’t think organisers are party poopers for taking eco-friendly steps; quite the reverse. 

“When you provide proper bins and eliminate plastic glasses and bottles, people appreciate it,” she says.

Attendees want to have a great weekend but not at the expense of the environment. They appreciate that we really do care.

Last year, ATN generated 60 tonnes of waste, including recyclables. This year, it’s target is 80% recyclable, 20% residual. The residual waste is collected by waste firm Panda and incinerated. 

Some 13,000 people attended the festival in 2018, meaning ATN punters generated 4.61kg of waste each, almost equivalent to what an Irish person would bin in three days at home, at an average of 1.56kg per day.

Electric Picnic punters generate more than double this: 10.69kg of trash per day, with only 24% recycled. A report compiled for Picnic owners Festival Republic by UK sustainability NGO Julie’s Bicycle revealed that in 2017, the 55,000-capacity festival generated 588 tonnes of waste — 449 tonnes of this was incinerated.

The tents, rubbish, and belongings willingly left behind at EP are bulldozed in the clean-up effort
The tents, rubbish, and belongings willingly left behind at EP are bulldozed in the clean-up effort

Although the follow-on 2018 report has been prepared by Julie’s Bicycle, it wasn’t available by the time this article went to print. 

A press officer said Festival Republic’s sustainability co-ordinator wasn’t willing to give an interview to discuss what measures the festival was putting in place this year. No one from the festival was available for comment.

Is it that the larger a festival is, the less likely punters are to feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for cleaning up and jumping aboard tasks like waste separation?

DOING THE DIRTY WORK

Husband and wife team Benny Taaffe and Louise Tangney are celebrating ten years running Vantastival, a 5,000-capacity campervan-friendly independent festival held each June bank holiday weekend in Beaulieu House and Gardens, Co Louth. This year’s headliners include King Kong Company and Afro Celt Soundsystem.

They say the strong sense of community and older demographic of their crowd makes their annual clean-up a relatively easy job.

“We have a loyal following amongst campervan clubs,” says Benny. 

They’re used to cleaning up after themselves at every campsite they pull up to, so it’s kind of ingrained in them. Our site is pretty clean when they pull out on a Monday morning. They drop off their rubbish at designated areas, so now we’re asking them to go a step further and separate the waste too.

A total of eight tonnes of waste was produced last year, of which 2.75 tonnes was recycling: the happy campers at Vantastival produced just 1.6kg each of waste, less than if they’d stayed home drinking cans on the sofa for the weekend.

Cans are a huge factor: Vantastival retrieved half a tonne of aluminium for recycling last year, thanks in part to initiatives like Every Can Counts, a partnership between drinks can manufacturers and the recycling industry, which sends reps to festivals to encourage punters to recycle their bag o’ cans.

It’s not all about packaging waste. There is the serious, and off-putting, issue of human waste to tackle too. Most festival-goers just hold their nose and dive into the nearest and least offensive Portaloo when nature calls at a music festival. 

Julian Swann with his daughter Clara, 7, and their 1978 VW Combi at Vantastical. Picture: Nick Bradshaw
Julian Swann with his daughter Clara, 7, and their 1978 VW Combi at Vantastical. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

They’d prefer not to think about what’s going to happen next, especially when feeling a little delicate after hours on the session the night before. 

But it’s a huge, stinky problem. The wastewater, containing, let’s face it, pretty much everything the human body produces, plus the addition of tampons, condoms, and those non-biodegradable baby wipes that appear on every festival-ready listicle, all soaked in chemical treatment agents, is an ecological disaster.

At Electric Picnic 2017, 1,131m³ of wastewater, almost half an Olympic swimming pool’s worth, including this nightmare fluid, was created.

Benny is more than happy to talk s**t. Last year, Vantastival had 85 Portaloos on site, as well as three disabled toilets and three standalone urinals. This year, it’s piloting replacing 20 of the regular Portaloos with compost toilets.

“That should significantly reduce the amount of waste going off-site to treatment facilities,” says Benny. “All going well, next year we’d like to increase the initiative and have half our toilets compostable.”

The compost toilets have separate compartments for urine and faeces, and a bucket of mixed ash and sawdust is provided to layer over solid waste. 

In theory, as long as the compost isn’t contaminated with sanitary products or trash, the resulting waste can be composted on site and will be ready for use on farm land the next year. It’s an approach that will require co-operation from punters, so it’s just a trial for now.

Waste and wastewater considerations are just the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg: Festivals need to consider emissions, on-site power usage, and even the materials used to build stages, set pieces, and props.

Vantastival has set a two-year goal to work towards the UK’s A Greener Festival Award. It’s a big ask for a small event that doesn’t generate huge profits. 

One key to going green is good data, so this year Benny and Louise are focusing on recording the minutiae of their festival’s ecological footprint and will work with an environmental consultant and other stakeholders.

And what about the abandoned tent debacle? 

Last year, six tents got left behind at Vantastival. Four were in good condition and were taken home by festival crew and volunteers. Meaning that a grand total of two broken tents were trashed. Now that’s more like it.

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