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Dublin: 10 °C Friday 26 April, 2019
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'Festival waste? It's not new - we're a disposable nation and we need to change our attitude'

Green Party Councillor Claire Byrne knows all about trying to keep festival sites clean – and says we need to stop seeing tents as disposable, and look at what we can do to clean up after ourselves.

Claire Byrne

THERE WAS A lot of shock and despair at the images of the waste in the campsites after Electric Picnic earlier this week, but unfortunately this is not a new story.

In fact, it’s an annual occurrence at nearly every Irish camping festival.

Every year at Body&Soul I walk the general campsites on Monday morning with a heavy heart as I see the mess that people leave, and wonder why they think it’s OK to do this.

We are talking about grown-ups leaving their own belongings behind and expecting someone to clean up after them, which when you think about it is really a ridiculous notion.

But we are a disposable nation, and this behaviour is representative of a systemic attitude. We have seen it on our streets, parks and beaches all summer long, and sadly we are a long way from that changing.

No value on items

There are a number of reasons why this campsite carnage happens at festivals across the globe (although I would wager that Ireland and the UK are the biggest offenders). 

Nowadays, tents and camping gear are so cheap people have no value on them. When festival season begins, we see many of the main retailers advertise ‘festival packs’ that when spilt between a group, end up being the price of a few pints.

They are so affordable now that people buy them for one event only and therefore cannot justify having to pack theirs up and carry it with them when they are tired and hungover.

Tents are becoming almost as single-use as plastics bottles. 

Then there is the “scouts and charities that will pick them up and give them to homeless people” story. It’s an easy narrative for festival-goers to latch onto and allows them to ignore their personal responsibility relatively guilt-free, or even with an added justification that they are actually “doing good” by leaving their tents behind. This is not the case.

While there have been great attempts in the past, very little of what is salvaged makes it to someone in need, mostly due to their poor condition (you would be surprised at what people can do to a tent in three days).

People also complain that they don’t have enough time, but at festivals, camping fields are often rented, and the organisers have to get off site and quickly return the land to the owners.

So the campsite clean-up is generally the first thing to happen, and therefore bulldozers are required to deal with the scale of the waste, causing huge environmental damage.

Tents are hard to recycle unless you strip away the fabric and the poles for recycling or repurposing, and this takes a lot of manpower and time. They are also difficult to incinerate, so the reality it is they often end up in landfill.

Campsite waste is bulky, heavy, expensive to manage, and accounts for 30% to 40% of all festival waste. It is a large financial outlay for the organisers, and that cost can end up being passed on to the ticket price.

So everyone is losing here.

How to fix things

However, there are ways to address this. At Body&Soul we have a dedicated green Us&You campsite, where people sign up to a code of practice and commit to cleaning up, recycling and bringing everything home with them. This year almost 40% of the festival camped here, leaving only 30 tents, out of almost 5,000, behind.

For the general campers, the message to bring your tents home forms a core part of our pre-event communications, and on site we put up “guilt signs” with images of the previous year’s waste.

We also have a Monday morning team of volunteers who walk the campsites asking people to clean up after themselves and even help them pack up their gear.

Other festivals use eco bonds, where a deposit is paid which is refundable only when you are seen leaving with your tent, but this can be hard to administer. More affordable pre-pitched camping is also an important part of the solution where people can just walk away at the end of the festival knowing that their temporary tent will actually be re-used.

There should also be an onus on manufacturers and retailers to reflect the true cost of tents in their pricing. But the real solution is people should just bring them home. This isn’t a radical request – you brought it, so take it back with you. To me it’s quite a simple but effective ask that could go a long way towards reducing waste and the overall carbon emissions of the festival.

We need a huge shift in attitude to campsite waste to help make events sustainable in every sense of the word – environmentally, socially and economically. Everyone has a role to play.

The show must go on, but not at this cost.

Claire Byrne is a Green Party Councillor for Dublin City and Sustainability Manager for Body&Soul. People interested in volunteering with the festival can email sustainability@bodyandsoul.ie.

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