A few years ago I had the misfortune of passing through Reading on the train just after their famous music festival ended. The debris left behind is extraordinary, and seems to go on for ages. Field after field of abandoned camping equipment, bags of rubbish, and strewn beer cans. It’s something of an indictment of Britain’s litter problem. It’s also a stark reminder of the culture of disposability.
It never used to be the case, but festival tents are considered disposable. We bought a new tent this year, and the showrooms have a festival section with the cheapest and most lightweight tents. You can get the semblance of a roof over your head for £20, and even if you could be bothered to pack it up and take it with you, it probably wouldn’t go another year. Gazebos are flimsy at the best of times – I’ve been at two events this year where gazebos literally blew to pieces in the wind. Might as well leave them too. And who wants to clean their boots if you could just buy a clean pair?
Glastonbury, which prides itself on its green ethos, picked up “6,500 sleeping bags, 5,500 tents, 3,500 airbeds, 2,200 chairs, 950 rolled mats and 400 gazebos” last year.
What happens to all this stuff? Well, many festivals encourage guests to pack up and donate unwanted items if they can’t be bothered to carry them off site. Some of that can then be re-used or donated. Local charities are sometimes invited to come and gather up what they can use, either selling it on or giving it away. Leeds and Reading have volunteer scavenger teams, and you can keep anything you find. Unfortunately much of the equipment is damaged, dirty, incomplete, or just not worth re-using. It ends up in landfill or incinerated.
A lot of camping equipment was passed on to refugees last year, in Calais and beyond. Since it’s poor quality, it’s probably just been thrown away in France instead. Abandoned wellies have ended up on landfill sites in a more productive way – the Small Steps Project gathers up boots and gives them to people who live on rubbish dumps.
A few companies have sprung up looking to creatively re-use post festival waste. WithIntent makes scrapped tents into ponchos and bunting. A group called Festival Reboot takes odd wellies and turns them into wallets, bracelets, and phone covers. Realistically, these initiatives can only re-use a small proportion of the waste.
The most productive way to deal with the problem is to get upstream and stop it happening in the first place. A growing number of festivals have both bins and recycling points, and some have waste teams encouraging people to tidy up after themselves. Festival caterers are often asked to only use biodegradeable packaging on site. Apparently this is more common at festivals in Europe, but drinks often come with a deposit on the container. At Reading it’s 10p for a bottle or cup, which is probably too low to make much difference. It was £1 for a cup at Greenbelt, which you could then refill, swap for a clean one, cash in or take home. At Latitude they are £2.
For camping equipment, there are various approaches. One is to encourage more people to stay in pre-erected tents, and many of the smaller or more boutique festivals have a whole range of different options, from yurts or tepees to geodesic domes. Another way of dealing with it is to embrace the disposability and create tents that are genuinely designed to be thrown away. SXSW experimented with simple tube tents that could be filled up with rubbish and used as a bin bag at the end of the festival, but they wouldn’t work in a British summer. Comp-A-Tent make a tent that looks like a bin bag, but actually costs £50. It’s selling point is that it is compostable, made from lightweight bio-plastic and intended to be thrown away.
A more robust looking solution comes from KarTent, who have pioneered flatpack cardboard tents. Based in Holland, their tents can be entirely recycled after the event. And yes, they are water resistant, before anyone asks. Among the advantages of a cardboard tent is that they are darker in the morning, avoiding that inevitable and unwelcome early start. They can also be printed with information, festival branding or sponsorship. The main downside is that they are too big and unwieldy to transport to site independently. At the moment you have to pre-order with partner events, and then your tent will be delivered and pitched ready for your arrival. They’re not available in Britain yet, but if they catch on, they may well cross the channel next summer.
Finally, one thing festivals could do is make it easier to get gear back off site. When asked why they left their tents behind, the main reason that visitors to Reading and Leeds gave was that they were too tired. If more events ran airport-style luggage trains, or had barrows or carts available, more people might take their stuff with them.
Personal responsibility is a big part of this, but festivals need to make it easy for people to do the right thing, and ensure that they have a proper waste strategy in place. Only a third of festival organisers set a recycling target, for example. If you run a festival, look up Julie’s Bicycle, an agency that works on sustainability in the arts. Their report The Show Must Go On is a good starting place.