Sustainably Managing Events: The Greenbelt Festival

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What happens when everyone goes home?

Building a festival is a wonderful thing, but the process of turning green fields into a beautiful site and then back again involves stuff, lots and lots of stuff. As event organisers trying to create a sustainable festival we have endless choices to make: what do we procure? How much do we need? Where does it come from, how far has it travelled, how is it packaged, is it Fairtrade, plastic free, organic? It can be a little overwhelming.

I think that one of the most important questions we should be asking is this: where will it end up? Once you approach the buying of items with questions about what happens after use, it radically impacts the choices you make.

Avoid>Reduce>Re-use>Recycle is the standard waste hierarchy. At Greenbelt we do all we can to avoid buying unnecessary items, but lots of things are needed to make a great festival, so how do we make good choices with those? I thought it might be helpful to share some of the decisions we have made, all with the aim of being as sustainable a festival as possible. 

Avoid

Greenbelt has banned the sale of single use plastic bottles, to avoid them being brought to the festival site in the first place. Crew and artists will be provided with steel water bottles, with festivalgoers and volunteers encouraged to bring one from home or pre-order one from us to collect on site. Free re-fill points will be in lots of handy locations, making it easy and inexpensive to drink water.

Previous years have seen lots of single use plastic bottles going into our recycling bins, but with one million bottles being made every minute worldwide, we wanted to model a different way. As a festival we know the choices we make influence our festivalgoers for far longer than the few days of the festival itself. We are hopeful that once they have a water bottle they will use it in their daily life, maybe even encourage their friends to buy one, and so help to promote the refill revolution that is starting to take place.

 An example of the sustainably-sourced food and cutlery at the festival.

An example of the sustainably-sourced food and cutlery at the festival.

Greenbelt is also supporting the Final Straw Campaign, meaning plastic straws are banned too. This has enabled us to start impacting drinks producers, as we have told them that unless they can supply e.g. children’s juice drinks without plastic straws, we will not be stocking them.

Reduce

Our bars stock only Green Goblet re-usable cups, meaning no single use plastics being thrown away. The cups are washed and re-used many times and when they do eventually reach the end of their life they are turned into useful things such as coat hangers and ice scrapers. When we made the switch to re-usable cups it was an instant success, with festivalgoers more than happy to pay a deposit for their cup, refundable when they bring the cup back.

We have been working hard on monitoring the power we need, with our ultimate aim being to run the festival entirely from renewable sources and so avoid the pollution caused by burning fossil fuels. We still have a long way to go but reduced our fuel consumption by 16% in 2017 and are hopeful for a similar reduction in 2018.

 

Re-use

'Site vibing' is key to making festivals look beautiful, it adds colour and drama all around. We work with the very talented Saga Arpino, who has taken upcycling and re-purposing to new levels. We keep all our vibing installations and change them into new and more stunning things with every passing year. A piece of wood that was in a stage set one year, may very well be part of a sculpture or a seat the next year.

Without signage we would have lots of confused festivalgoers getting lost. As a festival we have different themes each year, but all our functional signage (such as campsite zones) is theme free, designed to be used for many years and carefully stored away after each event.

Recycle

All of our caterers use 100% compostable packaging and cutlery, whether for noodles, chips, coffee or curry. Our festivalgoers can then drop their used food packaging, along with any uneaten food, straight into our food waste bins. The contents of these are taken to a local composting facility, meaning our waste food becomes nutrients to help other plants be grown.

Compostable packaging is now high quality, which can bring unexpected problems. We discovered in 2017 that some festival goers thought it must be plastic as it looked so good, so despite all our on-site messaging, people were not putting it in the food waste bins. This year we’ve introduced a new team of Bin Fairies, who as well as bringing some glitz and glamour to recycling will be making sure all our festival goers are confident about what items go in which bins.

Donate

We use an array of sofas in the back of house areas at the festival. We buy them in from a local charity shop, use them for a few days, and then donate them to another local charity which makes furniture available at low cost to local people in need. Festivals can sometimes be muddy places, so the sofas we buy in are deliberately leather or similar, meaning they can be easily cleaned before donation no matter the weather.

Each year we ask our campers to donate their unwanted food to a local foodbank as they head home. We have a collection point in the campsite to make dropping the food off easy and have collected several thousand pounds worth of food each year, which enables the foodbank to feed many local people who are in crisis.

The future

As we look towards the next couple of years we will continue to ask ourselves where the things we use to build the festival will end up and how we can even further reduce the amount of items going into waste streams. There will of course be many challenges, especially in removing all single use plastics from site. If anyone has a good alternative to the cable tie then we’d love to hear from you!