Trash dominates the landscape for as far as the eye can see. Tens of thousands of plastic bottles, drink cans, glass, even bits of old chairs and tents. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a municipal waste dump or landfill but it’s actually the site of a music festival just a few hours after the crowds have gone home. This is not an uncommon site, and indicative of a much-overlooked issue surrounding concerts, events, and festivals — what to do with all that trash. 

It’s an issue that is finally attracting attention and, more importantly, becoming integral to the work of event organizers and promoters around the world. Since the days of the legendary Woodstock Festival in 1969, where up to half a million people simply walked off and left huge mountains of waste, to contemporary festival organizers and attendees that are taking a more responsible approach to sustainability, here, we examine how sustainability can take center stage at all kinds of concerts and events. 

However, before we look at some of the solutions to the issue of trash at large gatherings, including getting artists and local communities to buy in to more sustainable behaviors, it’s worth looking at the scale of the problem — and understanding why this has so often been overlooked until now.


The problem of waste at concert venues

Major music festivals and concerts are important cultural events. There are very few occasions and events around the world where tens of thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of people can gather in the same place to celebrate music, art, dance, or simply the joy of a shared experience. However, these big events such as Coachella and Stagecoach in the US, and Glastonbury in the UK, can generate up to 100 tons of solid waste every day.

Across the US at its peak in 2019, music festivals were responsible for producing 53,000 tons of waste. That’s roughly equivalent to 450 blue whales. Figures for the UK were even more shocking, with 23,500 tons being created. That’s half as much waste created by a country with one fifth the population of the US and equivalent to 78 fully loaded 747 airplanes. Worse still, it’s thought that up to 70% of this waste ended up in landfills.

A significant part of the problem was plastic bottles. Festival goers in the hot summer months were naturally and sensibly keen to stay hydrated, but this resulted in millions of single use plastic bottles going straight to landfill. Other issues included abandoned tents, with an estimated 250,000 left at UK music festivals each year.

It was clear that something needed to be done, and several festival organizers, events spaces, and waste management companies decided to lead the way.


The impact of diversion and recycling initiatives

Today, there are numerous examples of how event organizers are beginning to integrate sustainable practices into the festival experience. Glastonbury Festival in the UK, the largest of its kind in the world, banned single use plastic bottles from their site and instead encouraged festival goers to bring reusable bottles and fill them for free at taps located around the site. Emily Eavis, one of the festival organizers said: ‘With more than one million plastic bottles sold in 2017, we felt that stopping their sale is the only way forward.’ 

Other event organizers have been setting up similar schemes. Live Nation Entertainment pioneered a reusable cup system that included collection bins and mobile washing stations. Each reusable cup could replace 100 single use alternatives and would break even on its environmental impact after just three uses.

Here at RTS, we have also worked with event spaces to help manage waste and enhance sustainability. Working with the Barclays Center, a major league sports stadium, we helped organizers to effectively sort and separate recycling streams, customizing equipment to increase stream efficiencies. We also helped to train staff and implement diversion metrics to meet sustainability goals.

It is through major event spaces, and organizers taking the initiative, that we can help to change attitudes and create a new culture that looks to reduce waste and improve recycling rates. Tens of millions of people around the world each year visit sports stadiums, concert arenas or festivals, providing the perfect opportunity to drive new ways of thinking about sustainability and waste management.


Building a culture of change

Of course, it’s one thing to have the right message but another to make sure people are hearing it, taking it in, and practicing it. Organizers can introduce new initiatives to try and change behavior, as with things like refill schemes, but until people understand the reasons why change is needed, there may not be the required paradigm shift that organizers are hoping to engender. 

One way to do this is to encourage the artists to buy into the idea of zero-waste concerts, using their voice to promote these ideas . This includes artists like Jack Johnson, who has racked up two decades as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador working to protect the planet. Johnson told the UN Environment Programme (UNEP): ‘As a music community gathered around an artist or music event, fans have a powerful voice to promote environmental issues such as climate action, plastic waste reduction, and food security.’

Similarly, in 2022, Coldplay attempted to make its world tour as sustainable and low carbon as possible. Targeting the reduction of emissions by 50% , the award-winning band also intimated the importance of its role in promoting sustainable thinking within communities along its tour   schedule.

Earlier in this article we mentioned the Woodstock Festival, perhaps the most famous music event in history. Interestingly, while piles of waste were a common sight over this three-day counter cultural event, new evidence suggests that clean up efforts were actually pretty impressive, and archeological teams looking for buried Americana on the site have been left disappointed. 

However, an ideal approach means engaging both temporary and permanent communities, (festival-goers and local resident groups) in planning decisions to limit impact and avoid environmental degradation proactively. This means that less trash is left on site at the end of an event, with more recycling facilities and less single-use materials helping to minimize landfill. 


Simple Solutions – Major Impact

Recent initiatives have shown that small changes can have a big impact, and event organizers are embracing many different kinds of sustainable practices. Decisions such as banning single-use plastics, investing in biodegradable packaging, and developing refill schemes can make a big difference over the course of any event. 

Additionally, instituting systems such as temporary public transport, using renewable energy, and introducing effective recycling streams can help to battle the inconvenient truth that these kinds of events have for too long been getting away with disguising their impact. It’s finally time for sustainability to take center stage and for both event organizers and festival-goers to start reducing waste and improve recycling at events of any size.

One example of how simple ideas can make a big impact can be found at the Live Nation’s Sustainability Program at Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island. Taking stock of waste generation at the events staged in 2019 and 2021, which recorded 34% and 61% diversion rates respectively, the sustainability program decided to switch its primary waste hauler to RTS. 

There were a variety of reasons behind the decision to do this, however, among the most pressing was a lack of confidence in tracking and reporting provided by previous haulers. In 2022 then, the venue ended with a 72% Overall Diversion Rate and 51% Show Day Diversion Rate, marking three seasons of consecutive growth, and a significant improvement on 2021’s figures. 

However, more than the reliable hauling and increased transparency provided by RTS, Huntington Bank Pavilion’s goals were boosted by a truly collaborative effort to increase sustainability. In fact, with RTS aligning with the Live Nation’s Environmental Charter to build a more collaborative and less business-oriented client based relationship, it is hoped that  diversions rates will be continuously improved well into the future. 


For more information on sustainability and zero-waste systems to help you deal with waste across all types of events, contact a member of the RTS team today to discuss your specific requirements. Additionally, stay tuned to the RTS blog for the latest insights into sustainability and recycling.

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