Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard the stats: Plastic is flooding our world. Our oceans bear the burden of five continent-sized mass accumulations of plastic, and unless our ravenous consumption of it changes, scientists predict there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050.
How much garbage does a typical music festival generate? The 2015 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, with roughly 90,000 attendees in Tennessee, produced more than 679 tons of waste over four days. That's 15 pounds of waste per festival-goer — nearly twice the average amount a U.S. consumer uses daily. The biggest component of that waste was single-use disposable plastic: water bottles, beer cups, straws, utensils, wrappers and packaging.
The good news is that a movement is growing within the music industry to amend the harm being done by plastic pollution. Musicians and festivals are embracing change and committing to reduce their plastic and carbon footprints, on stage and behind the scenes.
This is not just a waste issue. The vast majority of disposable plastic is still manufactured from crude oil and natural gas — nonrenewable fossil fuels. With every plastic bottle we toss in the bin and every granola bar wrapper we tear open, we are contributing to the urgent problem of climate change.
How can we change?
Touring music and arts festivals are like miniature cities built in one location for a short performance, then dismantled, transported many miles and rebuilt in another city, where they'll be flooded with temporary residents for a long weekend and then abandoned again. They are enormous nomadic tableaus of creative energy, and they are also islands of trash, mostly plastic. But such a space for art, collaboration and demonstration — combined with a captive, energetic audience — provides an opportunity to develop and refine a model toward sustainability, and touring artists are using their unique influence to help festival organizers reach that goal.
Jack Johnson and his wife Kim have not only worked to eliminate disposable plastic on all of his tours, but the pair co-founded the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation in Hawaii to promote social change in communities. The Johnsons also partnered with RPM, Reverb and other groups to form the Sustainable Concerts Working Group, which produces guidance and best practices to help interested artists or venues do their part to reduce plastic.
Many other artists, including Maroon 5, Ben Harper, Keb' Mo', Bonnie Raitt, Dawes, Jackson Browne, Athena, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Moxie Raia and many others have reduced plastic pollution on tour through both practices on the road and policies in their riders for venues, and some talk directly to concertgoers about the issue.
Their fans are joining the movement. In 2014, Rolling Stone explored Refill Revolution, Bonnaroo's program in partnership with the Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC) and Steelys Drinkware that encourages attendees to purchase or bring their own refillable stainless steel cups, bottles and containers. Organizers invested heavily in these efforts with dedicated staff, volunteers and information-tracking. Their 2015 Clean Vibes program recovered an incredible 67 percent of the gathering's total waste output, saving nearly 200 tons of waste from going to the landfill. The first year, 2014, resulted in a reduction of waste by 400,000 bottles or cups; in 2015, that impact nearly doubled. This year they continue to scale up the number of reusable cups and bottles for attendees, while PPC continues to discuss its Plastic-Free Touring initiative with artists and management teams.
While Bonnaroo is one of the largest U.S. festivals taking such steps, it is not the only one. The Outside Lands Music Festival uses only compostable or biodegradable utensils and food containers. The recycling and composting efforts at Outside Lands and Bonnaroo are monumental, but according to the EPA, only about 30 percent of the plastic that is put in recycling bins nationally is recycled; the rest ends up in a landfill, if not blown away by wind or plucked out by wildlife.
Some festivals are not offering plastic at all. The Pickathon Music Festival in Oregon has completely eliminated single-use cups in its beer gardens, replacing them with for-sale stainless steel cups that come with a beer discount incentive, and other events have chosen to invest in water refill stations. The UK-based Glastonbury Music Festival, with over 150,000 attendees, encourages refillable water bottles and prohibits food vendors from handing out any plastic food containers or utensils.
Venues like the Santa Barbara Bowl are encouraging visitors to bring their own cups through their My Pint and Me project. Guitar string maker D'Addario, in partnership with Terracycle, has created Playback, the first-ever string recycling program. Festivals and venues are also increasingly tracking information on the waste produced and recovered, posting waste reduction statistics on their websites as a badge of honor.
Like the movement to tackle climate change, artists, festival production teams and venue management are coming together to tackle plastic pollution head-on by stopping it at its source. Let's embrace the change; we can all do something to help. Grab your tickets, plan your trip, lose yourself in a great song and don't forget your reusable cup.