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Leave your tent behind at festivals? Here's why you shouldn't

They usually end up in landfills, and are very difficult to recycle or incinerate.
Jun 4th 2017, 10:00 AM 49,365 41


WHEN YOU HEAD to a music festival, you’re usually laden down with things – tent, sleeping bag, wellies, bags of cans, maybe even a blow-up armchair, if you’re feeling hardcore.

But how much of that do you bring home with you? Festival punters leaving abandoned tents and other items behind them is one of the banes of any event organiser’s life, and contributes hugely to waste.

Clare Byrne has been the sustainability manager for the Irish festival Body & Soul since 2011, and is also a Green Party councillor. The festival aims to be as green as possible – but a lot of that also comes down to the festival-goers themselves.

The festival takes place on a 300 acre site at the 17th Century Ballinlough Estate, which is the home of the Nugent family (who have previously told us all about what it’s like to have a festival in their back garden).

Last year 185 tonnes of waste was generated at the festival, with the campsite alone contributing over half of that. Body & Soul has a recycling rate of 52%, which Byrne says is “one of the highest in the country”.

At this year’s festival, they’ll have a cup return system run with Friends of the Earth, which will involve a refund for returned cups and plastic glasses.

Avril Stanley, Festival Director of Body & Soul, describes the waste generated at festivals as “staggering”.

“We unfortunately live in a disposable nation where there is a societal understanding that it is ok to leave waste behind at a music festival,” she says. “This is where attitudes really need to change. It is our responsibility to meet the expectations of the upcoming generation and seek to change the attitudes of all festival-goers and beyond.”

No tent left behind

Source: Luke Westbury/YouTube

One of the biggest issues for the festival is people leaving tents behind. “We are literally in somebody’s back garden, which is also a working farm as well, and I think people forget that,” says Byrne.

What they want is “to encourage people to be a bit more conscious and act more responsibly on site, and take everything they bring with them home”.

The issue with tents is not exclusive with Body & Soul, she says, and it’s down to the value people put on camping gear.

Camping gear is very cheap now and it’s not like the old days where people might bring the camping gear that they use all year around. [Today] you can pick up a tent for €20. People have no value with what they have – they are tired on a Monday and trying to pack up on Monday is more challenging. So they leave stuff behind and massive assumptions are made about scouts taking them – but they go to landfill.

Yes, if you’ve heard that your abandoned tent will definitely be taken back by a group such as the Scouts or a charity – but haven’t had that confirmed – then you can’t depend on it.

Byrne says that at Body & Soul they’ve even gone so far as to actively discourage any of these initiatives, because “if people get a whiff of someone to pick them up after them they think it’s OK to leave them behind, when in reality it’s our waste management company and us who are picking them up after them.”

And why is it so bad for tents to be left behind?

“They are incredibly difficult to recycle without needing incredible manpower on site, and taking fabric from metal [to recycle parts of them] – they are very difficult to incinerate also.”

She says that tents make up 40-50% of all festival waste. “It isn’t just the tents – it’s sleeping bags, chairs are another problem, blow-up beds, clothes,” says Byrne. “It’s an interesting mix of stuff that’s left behind.”

Eco changes

90384542_90384542 Source: graphy: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

This was one of the reasons Body & Soul set up a specific eco-conscious campsite, Us&You, where the people who stay there pre-register and sign up to a code of practice.

This includes saying they will not abandon items like their tent behind them.

This camping site will take 5000 people this year, up from around 200 people in the first year.

“It’s been hugely successful in the past few years, with only a few tents left behind. And if they do leave them behind they leave them in a bin or packed up,” says Byrne.

At Electric Picnic, they also have an eco campsite, the BYE Eco Campsite, where all rubbish is separated, while traders throughout the site must use biodegradable food packaging.

How they do it around the world

As the years progress, festivals are getting more and more aware of the impact their events can have on the environment. A Greener Festival, an organisation set up to help festivals become more green, says:

We know that not every festival can adopt every idea – although the original research for this site showed that some festivals have no environmental policies at all! But even tackling just one area – whether it’s having a coherent waste recycling plan or having policies to promote the use of public transport or to minimise land damage – will help

Some of the world’s biggest festivals have a major focus on keeping a light environmental footprint. At Glastonbury – which has nearly 180,000 attendees – they have a ‘leave no trace policy’, encouraging festival-goers to bring everything back home with them, and not to bring items that will end up in landfill.

Their toilets include compost loos,while they only have compostable or reusable plates and cutlery on site, and have no plastic bags. They even ask people to make sure they don’t pee in the river that runs through the site, because it can affect local fish and wildlife.

And echoing Byrne’s comments on tents, they say:

‘A tent is for life not just for a festival’, we want people to not just buy the cheapest tent, spend a little extra and buy yourself a tent that is going to last you a lifetime of camping experiences rather than just a festival or summer.

The US festival Bonnaroo produces a yearly sustainability report – in its most recent report it said it saved close to 800,000 water bottles from going to landfill, by selling refillable bottles. In 2016, it also diverted 65% of all waste by weight from the landfill. In addition, it donated 9 tons of food recovered from vendors and caterers on site to a local food bank.

90384534_90384534 Source: graphy: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Body & Soul has a dedicated ‘Monday Morning’ team to assist campers to pack up their belongings and take them home, and a team of Earth Guardians, stewards who monitor bin stations, and police the traders.

They’ll also be selling Body & Soul refillable water bottles and introducing more freshwater drinking taps on site to reduce plastic bottles.

They are also focusing on the work done by traders to reduce waste, by introducing a reward for the most green conscious trader. It was also introduced this year that all kitchenware and any packaging used by traders should be compostable. The greenest trader this year will be rewarded with a cheaper pitch fee next year.

The festival will also be examining its energy output this year, and trying to minimise’ over-specing’.

“Nobody wants a main stage that might fail and nobody wants to compromise on production values or performance,” says Byrne. “But there are ways of making it more energy efficient, like using LEDs.”

Policy and regulation

In its Vision 20:20 report, the festival organisers call for the government to introduce sustainability regulation in the festival sector to ensure they are hosting responsibly.

“I think it is a sector that really isn’t looked at and at Body & Soul we are trying to be the leading light,” says Byrne. The festival has already won three Greener Festival awards and has been nominated for green awards in the hospital sector.

“I do think there needs to be more input from a policy perspective in terms of things like energy,” says Byrne. “And more incentives, financial incentives. Looking at the waste side of things as well, possibly being a bit more stricter on the regulations that are there. They are great at health and safety and in terms of food waste it is very rare we would see [checks]. We do our own checks on that.”

Body & Soul is the first festival in Ireland to use biodiesel as an alternative to traditional fuels, but this must be imported from the UK as it is not currently permitted to use biodiesel in a commercial entity in Ireland.

This year they are creating an art installation that asks festival goers to tweet the Minister for Climate Action and Communications about the issue.

“Most of the biofuels grown here are for export – I think that’s wrong,” says Byrne. “We have something like 364 festivals in this country. If we could introduce policy changes that make them all environmentally friendly, that would be a huge step.”

90191329_90191329 Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

She would like to see in particular regulation put in place so that all traders can use only compostable kitchen ware, and a ban on plastic bottles at festival sites, along with more water taps put in.

It’s the mindless disposal attitude that we have that we’re all guilty of, we are all busy and convenience wins.

As a Green Party councillor, Byrne believes that being green is something that the government needs to prioritise. She hopes that changes can be made at a council level and carried forward.

Ireland has “very clear energy and climate targets we need to reach”, points out Byrne. “We need to be looking at where we need to make changes and I really feel that the events sector is one we need to be looking at strongly and immediately.”

Body & Soul isn’t the only Irish festival to have a sustainability manager or to keep a focus on recycling, but Byrne says she is “pretty sure we are streets ahead” of others in this area.

“Our whole team is on board – it has taken a few years,” she says. “That’s very important that everybody is invested in the journey and buys into it. That’s certainly a very core part of the wider landscape, that it doesn’t come across as being ‘rules-y’, that it’s just part of the overall vibe of the festival really.”

Body & Soul will take place at Ballinlough Castle from 23 – 25 June. For more details, visit the Body & Soul website

Read: What’s it like letting people run a massive festival in your back garden?>

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Aoife Barry


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