How to Festival Sustainably

It may not feel like it weather-wise, but festival season is well and truly upon us in Aotearoa. We’re big fans of festivals over here at Go Well HQ and our team is excited to attend several over the coming months. There is, however, one recurring theme that gets us down about the festival scene: the environmental impact. There’s something incredibly jarring about having a great boogie on the dancefloor and then standing in a sea of crushed cans and MOOP (matter out of place) once the stage closes and everyone wanders away, or thinking about all the emissions created through transit to the site. So, we put our heads together at Go Well and came up with our top eight tips for how to festival sustainably:

1. Investigate transport options. According to a study done by Ecolibrium in the UK, up to 80% of emissions around field music festivals are produced by audience travel to and from the venue. Reduce your impact by exploring different ways of getting to the venue. Does the festival run a shuttle to the site from a nearby city? Are there any public transport options that could get you there? Catching a bus or a train is less impactful than driving a personal vehicle, but if public transport isn’t available, then carpooling generates significantly less emissions than flying. Give preference to attending local festivals so as to reduce travel distances. A festival we are particularly fond of, Splore, has a policy whereby the reward you with a partial refund on your parking pass for cars that have three or more passengers.

2. Plan your meals. Have you ever experienced the sinking feeling of opening your chilly bin a few days into the festival and finding mould all over your veges? We have, and it sucks. Plan out your meals and only bring what you need to avoid food going to waste. If you have a chilly bin, make sure to top it up with ice daily, so your food and drink don’t go bad. Check to see if the festival has compost onsite, and if not, consider taking your food waste home with you to dispose of in a compost or worm farm. If you’re bringing a lot of dry food, think about removing the packaging and emptying it into containers, which helps helps keep your food fresh and dry while also removing the need to dispose of packaging onsite. Also, rather than bringing a whole lot of separate food items in separate packaging, try preparing ready-to-eat meals such as lasagne, quiche, or pies – you’ll be seriously grateful you did when you don’t have to wait hours in line for a feed the morning after a late night! 

3. Take care with your camping gear. Is your camping equipment good enough quality to see you through the elements and keep you comfortable? Will your tent keep you dry in rainy weather, and will your gazebo withstand high winds? According to BBC Earth, 250,000 tents get ditched at UK festivals every year, which by and large end up in landfill. If your gear isn’t up to scratch, see if you can borrow from friends or family, or look for quality second hand items online. If you can’t avoid buying new, invest in sturdy, long-lasting equipment and take good care of it. If something at your campsite does break, make sure to take it with you. Speaking from personal experience as a Green Team Manager at a large festival, wrangling broken and abandoned tents into a skip is an absolute nightmare for staff and volunteers. Not wanting to faff about with setting up a campsite at all? Look into your festival’s accommodation options and you’ll likely find a range of different options (cabins, glamping tents, etc) that’ll save you loads of hassle.

4. Green your garb. Wearing funky outfits and accessories can be a big part of what makes festivals so fun, however, buying fast fashion and wearing clothes that are liable to shed can be hugely detrimental to the environment. When you’re putting together costumes, follow the ‘Buyerarchy of Needs’ below: opt to use what you already have first, borrow and swap with others next, buy secondhand if you must buy at all, and if you’re still lacking then see what you can make. Buying firsthand should be your absolute last resort, and if you do, buy things that’ll last and that you’ll wear over and over again. Steer clear of ‘MOOPy’ clothing, such as items with feathers, sequins, and other dangly bits, as these are likely to degrade and spread micro plastics across the festival site. Say no to glitter, even if it’s biodegradable, as it can take a long time to break down and is incredibly difficult to clean up. Splore Festival has a great sustainable style guide if you want to read more.

5. Know your streams. Do your research before the festival to clarify what material streams they’ll be collecting onsite and where. Some festivals will have the whole shebang: recycling, compost, landfill, and specialist recycling (batteries, gas canisters, etc), but some will only have limited options. A lot of festivals include this information on their website, but take the initiative to reach out and ask if they don’t. Knowing in advance can help you decide what to take and dispose of onsite, as well as what to take home to recycle elsewhere. Bring different coloured bags with you to keep your materials separated at camp (clear for recyclables, green for compost, and black for landfill), and make sure everyone at your campsite knows what goes where.

6. Use (and don’t lose) your reusables. Disposables often make up a huge proportion of festival landfill waste, so do the planet a favour and ditch disposables in favour of reusables. Bring a reusable water bottle, coffee cup, cutlery and bowl or plate to use at your camp and at food vendors. Swap out the dreaded wet wipes for damp cloths, and bring a jacket over a disposable poncho. It can be painfully easy to misplace/flail your reusables in the chaos of the festival grounds, so consider nifty ways to keep them on your person, such as a carabiner on your bottle or cup, or a decent sized backpack to carry all your personal items around. 

7. Take care of the water. If you’re attending a festival that is lucky enough to have a swimmable river or other body of water onsite, then you are responsible for the health of that water. Going for a swim covered in glitter or sunblock and washing yourself with soaps and shampoos can have seriously harmful effects on the natural ecosystems, so keep everything but your body out of the water. Even natural, biodegradable products can be harmful at high quantities, so it’s best to have a makeshift shower at camp rather than risk polluting the water. Likewise, dispose of grey water well away from any waterways.

8. Pick up after yourself – and others. Litter: bad for the environment, unsightly, and potentially hazardous on a dancefloor. We know firsthand how tempting it can be to drop your empty can on the ground when you’re in the thick of a crowd with no bins in sight, but try to overcome the urge and either stash it on your person, or dispose of it promptly to avoid creating litter. Take it a step further and pick up other peoples’ litter – not only does this create some serious eco-karma, but it can encourage other attendees to get involved, and is also super helpful for the volunteers responsible for clean up.

It can feel a little overwhelming considering all the environmental implications of attending a festival, but we want to highlight that it’s not about doing everything perfectly. Sustainability is an ongoing journey of considering our impacts, doing our best to mitigate them, celebrating our wins, and always looking for ways to improve. Community, collaboration, and immersion in nature are key components of why festivals are so amazing, so let’s help each other help the planet, and make our festival seasons even more rewarding. 

Written by Kate Lodge, Sustainability Consultant at Go Well Consulting