If you were designing an environmental impact disaster to last four days, a badly run music festival would tick a lot of planet-harming boxes. And with the UK last week witnessing record-breaking temperatures nationwide, climate breakdown is firmly at the forefront of the nation’s thinking.
A vast carbon footprint for travel as thousands temporarily relocate from homes to party in muddy fields, mountains of waste in the form of litter from onsite food outlets, single use bottles and plastic beer cups from temporary bars – these are all just part of the potential environmental damage.
Add to this the sanitary waste, from the infamous festival toilets and then, when everyone goes home, discarded wristbands and tents littering a scarred landscape, it all adds up to a significant impact on the natural world and a challenge to organisers and attendees alike.
Bluedot festival, based in Cheshire at UNESCO world heritage site Jodrell Bank, has aimed to change the environmental focus of musical festivals. Since 2016 the event has focused around science and progressive social culture as well as music and entertainment.
But, with the British love of long summer weekends being spent partying in fields, equally large figures can be produced to highlight the environmental downside of these cultural musical celebrations.
- Almost 1/4 million tents left at festival sites (the majority are not recycled and are destined for landfill).
- Research conducted by Oxford University showed that of the 500 UK festivals looked at in the study, 84,000 tonnes of CO2 were produced each year, with audience travel being the largest source.
- A report from Festival think tank ‘Powerful Thinking’ showed UK festivals produced 23,500 tonnes of waste annually, including 10 million plastic bottles.
On the bright side however, research by the University of Manchester showed there are some environmental gains. The study calculated that festival goers, not wishing to queue for meagre lukewarm showers, during a typical four day festival with 150,000 attendees, could save up to 37 million litres of water compared with their normal home based hygiene routine!
Hannah Cox, founder of Manchester-based impact agency ‘Better Not Stop’, which works with festivals to improve their environmental impact, is positive about the sustainability of music festivals, but stresses action needs to be taken by organisers and festival goers alike.
“I believe festivals can be sustainable. However, if you are talking about environmental impact there is lots that needs to change, mostly how audiences travel to events, using more renewable energies and reducing waste. From a social impact point of view, to hit the UK’s net-zero greenhouse gas targets, the actions that need to be taken include societal and behavioural changes. Which means that it’s a communications challenge. Festivals and how the audience are spoken to, by the artists and organisers, are an amazing place to influence this change.”
In light of the increasing public concerns, including from the festival goers themselves, some venue organisers like Bluedot are facing these environmental challenges head-on and are aiming to let their clients leave site with an ecologically clean conscience, even if their wellies are covered in mud.
Environmental initiatives at Bluedot included a voluntary ‘Carbon Balancing’ donation when tickets were bought, which was invested with Energy Revolution, a charity that works with festivals, audiences, suppliers and artists to help them tackle the environmental impacts of travelling to an event. However, perhaps a direct carbon offset scheme could be included for future festivals with clear accountable action being offered to avoid accusations of greenwashing.
Better still, for Mancunians, the close proximity of Bluedot helps with reducing the carbon footprint of audience travel. (I travelled by train from Manchester Piccadilly to local village Goostrey followed by a 40 minute hike to the entrance, not ideal if you are carrying a load but could be solved by a simple shuttle bus to site.)
“How you get to a festival is key,” Hannah points out. “Around 80% of carbon emissions come from travel to and from the festival. But festivals are typically in the middle of nowhere, and electric car costs are prohibitive. Train travel in the UK is too expensive for many, and no one wants to lug a load of gear on the train, so car shares are the usual option. The challenge is making public transport or coaches more appealing and easier for festival goers, and encouraging people to bring less, and waste less.”
Single use plastic water bottles and soft drinks are banned at Bluedot and alongside the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) the organisers are working to remove the use of plastic straws, plastic containers, plastic cutlery and single serve sachets of salt, pepper, sugar or sauce from the onsite food traders. To keep party goers hydrated United Utilities installed free refill water points across the festival and provided free water bottles for the festival goers.
Bluedot has also committed to zero waste going to landfill with extensive recycling opportunities across the festival site and all food waste was composted (paper plates and wooden forks supplied were all compostable). Furthermore, Bluedot wristbands were made from bamboo and recycled plastics.
As for the abandoned tents and left over food, working with the AIF campaigns, ‘Take Your Tent Home’ and ‘Say No To Single Use’, there were collections for tents to go to charities and an onsite local food bank.
Hannah, who declares an interest in being an advisor for Bluedot, is positive with Bluedot’s environmental credentials.
“Bluedot and Kendal Calling are both leading the way when it comes to measuring and sharing their impact, to help other festivals do the same. A huge part of what Bluedot does is to make science accessible to all, and fun. When we all understand more, we are able to find the solutions to some of the biggest challenges that we face. Having an open mind into what is possible and how much your own actions can make a difference is key.
“Bluedot is special in that it fosters an environment that allows you to explore, learn and have a brilliant time doing it. I am in no doubt people attending this year will leave feeling inspired and hopefully more informed about what they can do to make a difference.”
Of course all these initiatives do not absolve each attendee from their own environmental responsibilities.
Hannah offers these tips for all festival goers.
- Take your tent home.
- Consider your travel.
- Use resources consciously. Only take what you need, use the recycling points, don’t waste anything.
- Let the festivals know you care. The more pressure from audiences to be sustainable, the more commercial reason for festivals to do so.
- Make responsible decisions before, during and after the festival. We have one planet, so remember every action you take is a step towards the future you want!
Bluedot this year featured its usual eclectic mix of acts, including Groove Armada, Björk with the Halle, Mogwai and Metronomy and Manchester band A Certain Ratio.
The music was supplemented by scientific and ‘cosmic culture’ talks and demonstrations for consumption across all ages and interests.
The talks, from various scientific and academic luminaries, included Astronaut Tim Peake, Dr Griffiths from the British Antarctic Survey, leading expert in human spaceflight Libby Jackson, academic physicist professor Jim Al-Khalili, professor of planetary and space sciences Monica Grady and astrophysics expert professor Chris Lintott, all informing and entertaining the crowd before and between musical sets.
Professor Richard Betts MBE, climate impacts research head at the Met Office, gave a chilling assessment of climate change and the UK’s lack of preparation in his talk to a packed tent at the ‘Mission Control’ stage. Questions from the audience ranged from the scientific interested to those who were understandably terrified about the consequences of global inaction to the climate crisis.
However as professor Al-Khalili alluded to in his talk on scientific thinking on the same stage, the Bluedot audience were probably already tuned in to the science of the environmental message. For Bluedot to achieve its aim of spreading environmental information the climate knowledge and science needs to spread beyond those listening. Let’s hope the enthusiasm projected by the speakers helps propel this message with increased vigour via those who were present.
Crowds listened in marquees intently across the festival site, albeit looking progressively jaded from partying as the four days proceeded, and engaged with questions ranging from pure scientific theoretical interest to the pressing existential threats of climate breakdown and the decline in biodiversity which endanger our planet.
Science experiments and interactive exhibitions were in abundance to entertain and inform all ages with an emphasis on the one planet to live on theme of the event.
This is where, perhaps, Bluedot can claim the ‘eco-crown’ not just by employing its own pragmatic adaptations, with regards to its own environmental impact, but by offering a genuine attempt to inform, educate and influence its audience to encourage positive social, environmental and cultural change beyond its own clientele.
Let us hope this message spreads rapidly beyond these Cheshire fields and is more emphatic than the flaccid proclamations of Cop 26. As, despite the best efforts of Greta Thunberg and the increasingly desperate pleas from the UN IPCC, the message still seems to be landing on the cloth ears of the UK government and its supporters.
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This story is part of the Creating Radical Change series
Images: Gary Roberts, Vilija Skubute and Alvaro Velazquez.