US music festivals are tackling tons of trash with environmentally friendly initiatives

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

After music lovers party it up at some of the most popular festivals in the United States, they bring home unforgettable memories, but they often leave behind mountains of waste and forgotten personal items that litter the festival grounds.

A 2017 environmental report from Indio, California, revealed that Coachella, Stagecoach and Desert Trip festival attendees generate 107 tons of waste daily, yet only 20 percent of that is properly recycled.

To make matters worse, attendees at various festivals are notorious for forgetting to take with them all kinds of items, including wallets and car keys.

Trash left behind at a festival camping site - Getty Images

(Photo/PeopleImages/Getty Images)

“There are always lawn chairs, coolers, shoes, clothing, signage that people have created, sunglasses and sunscreen,” said Jennifer Lutz, an independent event manager with more than eight years of experience planning conference events and outdoor festivals. “Anything that someone brings, you’ll probably see an example of it left behind.”

Fortunately, many festivals are actively working toward improving sustainability and providing a cleaner, greener festival experience for festivalgoers.

Organizations lend a helping hand to keeping festivals clean

Groups like Clean Vibes, which handles on-site waste management of outdoor festivals and events, help festival organizers tackle the waste issue by educating attendees on best practices for dealing with garbage and recyclables as well as cleaning up during and after events.

The company works to tidy up music festivals including Bonnaroo, Firefly, Governors Ball and Outside Lands. Since Clean Vibes was founded in 2000, it has diverted more than 16 million pounds of waste from landfills across North America, said Clean Vibes co-owner Anna Borofsky.

“The reality of music festivals is that when you’ve got 40,000 people standing in front of a stage, it’s not uncommon that there’s going to be waste left on the ground,” Borofsky said. “They’re not going to hold on to every single beer cup and walk to the right receptacle.”

Clean Vibes makes recycling easier by ensuring that there are plenty of the correct receptacles available.

“When we’re composting, we have volunteers standing next to the receptacles and letting folks know what material goes in which bin, but at the same time, we’re also cleaning up the mess that’s left behind from the folks that don’t participate on the level that we’d like,” Borofsky said.

“We’re also focused on making sure that we leave sites cleaner than we found them, and that in that process, we’re also recycling as much of that leftover waste as possible,” she added.

In addition to partnering with Clean Vibes, Firefly Music Festival enlists the help of Code Purple, a Delaware-based organization that works to find shelter for the homeless during harsh, cold-weather conditions.

Infographic - Music festival waste by the numbers

“Code Purple sorts through everything before Clean Vibes goes through and decides what gets recycled and what gets put in the trash,” said Firefly’s senior director of operations, Michael Coco. “They take items that they can reuse at the shelter or [use to] help fund the shelters.”

Following 2017’s festival, Code Purple collected over 450 sleeping bags, over 400 tarps, over 150 pairs of shoes, over 100 towels, 1 ton of non-perishable food, 130 camping chairs, 15 coolers and 45 inflatable air mattresses, according to Coco.

“In our opinion, the best way to recycle is to reuse it, but it’s a direct use for somebody who actually needs it,” he added.

Chicago’s Lollapalooza Festival has implemented a number of initiatives to keep Grant Park clean during the festival, including Rock and Recycle. The incentive program encourages fans to hand in bags of recyclables in exchange for prizes.

Lollapalooza promoters have also joined forces with Loyola University Chicago's Institute of Environmental Sustainability for its Divert It food composting initiative. The partnership helped the festival win a 2017 Illinois Sustainability Award.

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“It was the first time the festival received recognition from the Illinois Sustainability Center for our work,” said C3 Presents Senior Guest Services Manager Farid Mosher. “It helps us continue to do things that we want to do from a festival management standpoint.”

Overall, promoters and organizers seem to be moving in the right direction in hosting environmentally friendly festivals.

"I think everyone is putting forth an effort and doing everything they can within their means to offset their footprint, recycle and reuse as much stuff as they can,” Coco said.

“Hopefully, we’ll get to a point where we’re not throwing anything away,” he added. “I don’t think anyone’s there yet, but everyone’s working toward it.”

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