There will always be the peace, the love and the music, but the legacy of any large music festival will also always include a heap of trash. For 50 years, oceans of waste have washed over fields from Bethel, New York to Indio, California to Somerset, England. And though this garbage isn’t the worst driver of climate change, it’s only in the past few decades that festival organizers have committed to keeping things cleaner.
This year, Glastonbury, the U.K.’s biggest festival with a five-day annual attendance of 200,000, will ban the sale of single-use plastic bottles and eliminate them entirely from their backstage areas. Vendors, instead, will be allowed to sell canned sodas and water; and though attendees will not be prohibited from bringing their own plastic bottles, officials are strongly encouraging them to bring a reusable bottle instead.
To make sure attendees stay hydrated, Glastonbury will set up hundreds of free water taps around the Worthy Farm site. This includes 37 new WaterAid kiosks, made from recycled plastic, as well as 20 purpose-built bottle filling units with six spouts each.
“I think primarily we want to be more eco-friendly because it’s the right thing to do and because the planet really, really needs it,” says Emily Eavis, the festival’s co-organizer and daughter of founder Michael Eavis, in an e-mail. “But we definitely also want to use the platform we have to encourage festival-goers to make the small-but-meaningful changes that can really make a difference.”
Most major music festivals have strong sustainability programs that involve everything from composting to volunteer recycle programs, and many have been trending towards plastic-free. Glastonbury, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits are among the festivals that have dumped plastic straws and cutlery, while the presence of more water refill stations has significantly decreased the amount of plastic waste. In 2018, Lollapalooza saved an estimated 1.1 million single-use bottles, while in recent years Bonnaroo’s Refill Revolution project has reportedly diverted over 2 million plastic cups and water bottles from landfills.
But the sale of single-use bottles still creates a significant amount of waste, with Glastonbury alone selling 1.3 million plastic bottles in 2017 (the festival took 2018 off). Smaller festivals, such as Pickathon outside Portland, Oregon, Borderland in upstate New York and the Kate Wolf Festival in Laytonville, California, have already banned the sale of single-use plastic bottles, but Glastonbury is the only festival of its size to take on the challenge.
“We’re going to continue our efforts to reduce the impact that we have at our festivals as far as plastic on site,” says Farid Mosher, the Senior Guest Services Manager for C3 Presents, the company behind Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. “All plastics, not only plastic bottles, but plastic cups and plastics back-of-house too… Our focus has really been on the promotion of reusable and compostable products. What we’ve seen over the years is that focusing on those efforts has allowed us to increase diversion rates, whether it’s increasing our composting efforts year over year, or increasing our usage of our water refill stations.”
Laura Sohn, the Director of Bonnaroo Sustainability, tells Rolling Stone she was thrilled about Glastonbury’s announcement and hopes Bonnaroo would soon follow suit. “I think it takes one person or organization making a bold move like that for there to be a tipping point and that it becomes unacceptable to hopefully sell single-use water bottles. We aren’t there quite yet. Since Glastonbury’s doing it, it will start the conversation for the rest of us and that’s very exciting to me.”
Dianna Cohen, the CEO and co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition – which worked with Bonnaroo on Refill Revolution – also commended Glastonbury for demonstrating that eliminating single-use plastic is possible on a large scale. Though Cohen acknowledged that reaching that point requires a close examination of how water is distributed both backstage and to the festival’s general population, at its core, creating the infrastructure for a plastic-free environment is fairly simple.
“You’re still moving the same quantity of water or liquids and providing it to people – it’s just a question of will it all be individually packaged, or will it be served to people in a way that they can refill things,” Cohen says.
Considering transportation tends to be the biggest contributor to the carbon footprint of most festivals, trucking in tankards of water to fill up cisterns on-site isn’t a perfect solution, but it is a means to a plastic-free end. Some festivals, however, are already uniquely positioned to ban single-use plastic bottles, including Glastonbury. The Worthy Farm site features several reservoirs, each of which holds approximately 800,000 liters when full; the water is supplied by Bristol Water and is pumped in via a pipeline.
Bonnaroo has a strong infrastructure in place, as well. Not only does the festival own its own land in Manchester, Tennessee, but it supplies its refill stations with water drawn from a system of on-site wells. As for urban festivals like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, they source their water from their respective cities then treat and filter it on site.
While eliminating single-use plastics from all major festivals would be an environmental coup, there’s significant work that needs to be done at all levels of the live music industry. The Plastic Pollution Coalition has made this a key component of their work, creating guides for plastic-free events that can be used by everyone from stadium acts to indie bands touring out of a van. In recent years, many big name artists, including U2, have pushed reusable cups over single-use plastics, though none have been more devoted to this cause than Jack Johnson.
Born and raised in Hawaii, Johnson has seen firsthand the damage that improperly disposed plastic can do, with debris frequently washing up on the northern and eastern shores of the islands. As a musician, he’s also looked out from the stage after a big show and seen fields littered with plastic. Over the past 10 years, Johnson and his All At Once organization have worked to make his tours as eco-friendly as possible, traveling with vehicles that use biodiesel fuel, testing out bike valets to get people to the show and using green riders that have often spurred venues to make their own changes.
Johnson has also pushed to have water refill stations at most of his shows, and in 2014 he launched the Reusable Pint Program to provide fans with stainless steel cups. Three years later, Johnson headlined two completely plastic-free shows at the Santa Barbara Bowl in Santa Barbara, California, handing out reusable cups to every person who’d bought a ticket.
“It was great; it was one of the best shows we ever had,” Johnson says. “As a surfer to look out in the crowd and see everybody toasting with these reusable pint cups was a great feeling for me.”
And afterwards, the view from the stage was practically litter-free.