Thom Yorke's statement at a press conference for Friends of the Earth last week that Radiohead won't be playing Glastonbury this year, because it lacks "a public transport infrastructure", has brought home an uncomfortable truth. The churned, litter-embedded wasteland left behind the day after a typical rock festival already looks like a Friends of the Earth recruiting poster. But as the summer festival season grows more packed and varied, Yorke has identified a sea-change. Travellers to the glorious West Country, where Glastonbury is one of many festivals this year, are getting used to the fact that their trip is environmentally damaging. Traditional rock fans at Reading and Leeds, meanwhile, are being encouraged to return their beer-cups for recycling, preferably before urinating in them to hurl at Funeral for a Friend.
Most festivals claim to be taking some sort of "green" stand this year. Glastonbury's Michael Eavis, though, doesn't need Yorke to see a starker choice. "The environmental impact of festivals is disastrous," he states bluntly. "To pretend they're green is ridiculous. You can recycle like mad, you can bring people on public transport, which we do. Overall, though, with generator-diesel and travel, the greenest thing to do is not to run the event. But if we want something like Glastonbury, if it's part of our culture, that's the price one has to pay. The spiritual high that people get across the nation, and the moral integrity of the crowd, outweighs the environmental impact. We've always minimised the damage. But if you switched off everything that created carbon, we'd be bored to tears."
Smaller, newer festivals have nevertheless done their best. "We started wanting to make as little carbon impact as possible," recalls Graeme Merrifield, organiser of Wychwood, now in its fourth year at Cheltenham Racecourse. "Festivals who call themselves green actually go to a greenfield site in the middle of nowhere. They have to bring infrastructure in, and there's no public transport – cars are easily festivals' biggest environmental cost. We have a very strong alliance with Friends of the Earth, to build sustainable plans. We're creating a small community of like-minded people. We have workshops about green issues; ideas people can put in their lives if they want. But being carbon-neutral is fanciful."
Chris Tarren, production manager for both Wychwood and Dorset's End of the Road festival, has detailed green policies for both: low-energy light-bulbs, lessening the power pumped by generators; daylight sensors on lighting; over 60 per cent of waste recycled on-site. Wychwood has a solar cinema. End of the Road's food is locally (where possible) and ethically sourced, with biodegradable cutlery. Its co-creator Sofia Hagberg, coming from Sweden's micro-recycling culture, ensures even cigarette butts are sifted out. "I believe every little thing counts," she says. "I was surprised at how well the site looked at the end. People take responsibility when they see we care."
"You can try to have a carbon-neutral festival," believes the Isle of Wight's John Giddings. "With wind turbines and waves, you've got things at your disposal that you don't get in downtown Fulham. There are going to be elements of wind-power in the festival. We're also negotiating to plant 50,000 trees, one for every festival-goer. We're just wondering where to fit them on the island...."
The latter policy sounds like a benign gesture that hasn't quite been thought through, something that exercises Tarren. "There's a serious lack of understanding," he says. "Everyone thinks it's all about this buzz-word the Government keeps coming out with, cutting your 'carbon footprint'. But people don't understand what that means, or how individual efforts might make a difference. Why are we promoting the fact that we're going to be as green as possible, when we're still creating carbon? If the Government helped with costs, instead of buzz-words... I'd love to use green generators. But the green tax puts fuel costs up 80 per cent."
The attractions of the smaller festivals, though – their human, approachable scale, and personal, not corporate priorities – are having wider benefits, as Andrew Haworth, the major promoter and Live Nation's new environmental officer, explains. "Smaller festivals are incredibly useful for trailing initiatives that we can then scale up and try on a much larger scale. I could, theoretically, ensure solar panels [were in place] all over Hyde Park for our Wireless festival. But if the weather's not right those four days, we have no power. We can't take those risks. It's also easier if festivals start from scratch. If you're trying to take a big established festival in a direction it hasn't followed previously, you have to take baby steps. You can't outrun audience expectations. But it makes moral and business sense to harness live music's energy at putting over what's possible – to reduce our environmental footprint."
Hearing Melvin Benn, who as managing director of Festival Nation promotes Reading, Leeds, Glastonbury, Download and Latitude, earnestly discuss a new form of recyclable wax paper for Reading's beer cups, shows how things are changing. Suffolk's Latitude is his eco-flagship for older, family audiences, and even the bars serving its local cider are made from sustainable timber. But where Latitude's patrons have reusable beer-cups worth £2, this would, he says, get them "nicked or thrown" at Reading or Leeds, where returning one nets you 10p. More than 90 per cent recycling was the result. Two bags of recyclable rubbish got you a beer.
As Benn accepts, responsible behaviour at rock festivals is a contradiction. "Teenagers are teenagers. My 18-year-old's environmentally conscious, but can I get him to turn the light off? Work within what the audience actually are, rather than pretend they'll automatically change. They need an endgame – a can of beer. Not just the promise that they'll feel good. On the other hand, I have 70,000 young people camping at Reading. Not one has a TV, record-player, hair-drier or lights. At home, they'd be burning electricity. At festivals, their carbon footprint is near-zero. And they're seeing 30 to 50 bands at one go."
"They're all changing as fast as they can," pressure group A Greener Festival's Ben Challis admits. "The guy who used to run Download was quite brutal about it. He got a £250,000 landfill bill, went green, then worked out that some people might want a green festival, and he could make money. Then he felt a warm glow. Now, it's up to the audiences to do more. Driving to a festival without thinking about lift-share now starts to feel irresponsible. What Thom Yorke is doing is great, but he's not quite right; the real carbon footprint is from the audience, not the band."
This remains the elephant in the room for fans. Glastonbury has always been green at heart. Reading, often indifferent but in walking distance from a train station, is greener. But, though there are beautiful city festivals such as Leicester's Summer Sundae, the point of most is to experience strange music in an inaccessible, probably West-Country setting far from normal life. End of the Road, for all its shuttle-buses and lift-shares, is aptly named. But, like Glastonbury, its heart-stopping beauty is worth more, I would contend, than the carbon-benefits of central London.
"Can it be justified?" Hagberg agonises. "Depends who you're asking. Mother Earth, probably not. The people who leave full of positive memories, in a more idealistic frame of mind? Maybe so."