At the end of the Woodstock movie, the camera pans over the empty grounds of Max Yasgur's farm and reveals an enormous sea of garbage that seems to stretch for miles. The live-music industry has advanced in countless ways in the 45 years since that scene was shot, but little has been done to reduce the enormous carbon footprint that concerts leave behind. One huge contributor is the widespread use of single-use containers for beer, water and other drinks, and Dianna Cohen — environmental activist, artist and co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition — is determined to do something to change that.
She calls the project Plastic Free Touring, which is part of her broader Plastic Free Living initiative. In just a couple of years, the Plastic Pollution Coalition has worked with Jackson Browne, Ben Harper and Crosby, Stills and Nash as well as Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival to provide fans and artists with reusable, stainless-steel containers to use instead of disposable cups. Seventy-five hundred of them were made available to fans at Bonnaroo, and everyone that bought one got one dollar off every beer they purchased throughout the weekend. There were also water refill stations all across the festival grounds. "After they sold out, people actually started stealing them from each other," Cohen says. "They were very coveted."
Cohen's focus on plastic began nearly a quarter-century ago, when she began using it to create three-dimensional works of art. "Some of my work started to fissure and break down," she says. "I thought that it meant that plastic was organic and ephemeral, but I did the research and found out that wasn't the case. All the plastic we've ever made is pretty much still around, either as micro-plastic or incinerated in particulate pollution."
Horrified at what she was learning, Cohen began educating herself further. "I learned there was a lot of plastic in the ocean," she says. "In 2008 I came up with a proposal to go out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with a cargo ship, two decommissioned fishing trawlers, a cold molding machine and a crane. I had this idea I could venture out to an island and begin collecting the plastic in the ocean, which I assumed was an island."
It turns out it wasn't quite that simple. "In talking to people that had been in the ocean, I learned that I'd pick up a lot of organic life when I scoped up this plastic," Cohen says. "I realized this was a fool's task."
She decided to switch gears and focus instead on eliminating the need for single-use plastic in the first place. "I decided to back up, look at the bigger picture and figure out how to bring awareness and source reduction rather than trying to clean up what's already there," she says. "Not that I don't think we're going to have to figure out how to clean up the oceans."
Her ideas about reducing plastic at concerts have already spread to groups and festivals unaffiliated with her organization. "Phish has a reusable cup and bottle program," she says. "But they use aluminum bottles, which I personally don't recommend because I can taste the aluminum. I'm also not sure about the safety of drinking liquids from aluminum. I'd rather drink out of glass or food-grade stainless steel."
She's also trying to convince smaller acts and venues there are simple measures they can take to reduce their plastic footprint. "If you're in a car or a van you can use a Britta," Cohen says. "It may be made of plastic, but you can use it to refill reusable bottles. Also, you can ask for things on your rider. Just tell the promoter you don't want any disposable plastic backstage. As more artists ask for these things, we will change how people present things."
Cohen does keep coming up against one persistent roadblock. "One of the ways that venues gauge how many beverages they've sold is by seeing how many cups are gone," she says. "We need to break that model. It would lead to less waste and will save people money."
Over the next couple of years, she hopes to see all the major music festivals hand fans a reusable container when they enter the grounds. "This can be extended to sporting venues and schools," she says. "I'd also like to see venues offer more people options of producing beverages from kegs, large containers and soda fountains."
Her longer term goal is to break people from their addiction to bottled water. "The majority of it is tap water from somewhere else," she says. "They're not even held to the same safety standards as municipal water, which is checked multiple times by the city. Millions and millions of bottles are sold every minute. It's insane, just collective madness."