Festivals: Warming to the power of the summer’s sun

Many festivals are taking steps to become more eco-friendly. Elisa Bray reports on the trendsetters
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The Independent Culture

Looking at a festival site in the aftermath – the acres of rubbish strewn between forgotten or unwanted tents – you'd think you were looking at a landfill site. But that's just the surface. The festival calendar's effect on the environment goes far deeper than that.

Just think of the amount of energy needed to power the mega sound system and light show of a band like U2. Then there's the transportation of festival-goers, food and equipment. Not to mention the water. At Glastonbury six to seven litres per person is shipped each day onto the site, where there is no natural water supply. With 140,000 ticket-buying festival-goers (and an extra 30,000 people working and playing), you're looking at millions of gallons, which, transported for several miles by a few thousand tankers, makes for some hefty carbon output. It's not something we think about when we enjoy the best time in the musical calendar. But it's a problem that festival organisers have started to notice and respond to.

If you've been to a festival recently, you might have heard about the car share schemes now in place, or the coach travel which some organisers have integrated into the ticket price. Rockness offers free coach travel from several cities, while the Big Green Coach company runs services to 18 UK festivals, including Bestival, for which the ferry crossing is included in the price.

Gradually, composting toilets are replacing Portaloos, and recycling has become more common. Many festivals offer a range of recycling bins and hire companies to clear up. One is Network Recycling, which has specialised in outdoor festivals since 1994, and is operating at 24 music festivals this year, including Womad. The company enables festival-goers to separate their rubbish, and it also provides composting systems. "We were very small and marginal, but over the past eight years we've quintupled in size", says managing director Ed Cook. "It's nice to see more commercial festivals making enormous inroads into improving their sustainability." A new sister company (Festival Recycling) was born three years ago to provide all of Glastonbury's recycling.

This year, the UK's biggest festival has taken other measures to be more environmentally friendly. Worthy Farm now boasts the largest privately owned solar power station in the UK, its cowsheds covered with enough solar panels to produce 200 kilowatts of power.

But it's the smaller, newer, festivals that are setting the standards for true sustainability. Sunrise Celebration, a Somerset festival of folk and leftfield dance with Lamb, Johnny Flynn and System 7 on the bill, has won the new Green Parent award for Best Green Festival, and was one of five British festivals to be deemed "outstanding" in the Greener Festival 2010 Awards for the most eco-friendly festivals in the world.

"It's always been important", says founder-director Dan Hurring of Sunrise's eco-friendliness. "We started out in 2006, when Glastonbury had a year off, so part of our aim was to produce a green alternative to Glastonbury, based around the green fields of the event."

Since then, Sunrise has shifted towards more advanced forms of sustainability, based on the idea of transition towns and permaculture, whereby a festival community can exist solely off the natural resources around it.

Sunrise uses waste vegetable oil to power its generators around the site as its main power source, because solar and wind technology alone would not be enough to meet the festival's demands. One of the challenges is changing the mindsets of those involved, from the bands themselves to the caterers.

"The potential you have there is that people think you have an unlimited supply of power and actually that's not the case," says Hurring. "We have to impose such things as you can only use low-energy lighting. The main thing we are focusing on is traders. Large caterers are still very high-energy consumptive and we have to make hard choices sometimes." One of those choices this year was to say goodbye to the pizza restaurant that had been at Sunrise for the past three years, and replace it with a wood-fired pizza oven restaurant, which consumer less energy.

Sunrise has also taken steps to reduce water consumption. "It's becoming an issue for everyone and there's no control on consumption. It's incredible the amount of plastic bottles people get through at a festival, and even if they're recycled it's better they don't get used at all." This year they are introducing spring water refill sites, from the natural spring onsite. The organisers expect that within a couple of years there will be no need for festival-goers to buy bottled water.

But are enough festivals making such efforts to be eco-friendly?

"While festivals are becoming greener they're still in many ways less green than what you get out there in life", says Hurring. "I think festivals have a lot of catching up to do – they're very much based on oil, for instance. Most festivals don't think about their power consumption except perhaps in the sense that it costs them money to use more. An artist might turn up and expect to plug in two tour buses and each one uses 100 watts of electricity and then they'll want the best possible light show and the biggest possible sound system without any consideration for the consumption that goes into it. What we've tried to do is look at these things."

Like Sunrise, Standon Calling now supplies all its water onsite rather having it transported. The festival will also be using 100 per cent biofuel in all its generators this year, as well as providing compostable trailer toilets and festival coaches that will run from Bristol, London and Reading to the site. The tiny, family-friendly Wood festival in Oxfordshire, which took place earlier this month with headliners Willy Mason and Eliza Carthy, is another green pioneer, winning awards for using only renewable energy and for recycling 90 per cent of all its waste onsite. It also boasts a cinema powered by cyclists and a stage built from wood.

The Larmer Tree and Kendal Calling festivals require their caterers to use only biodegradable trays and wooden cutlery, and they use only local suppliers where possible. Larmer Tree has a "no glass" policy aimed at reducing the impact on gardens and wildlife after the event, and the festival boasts award-winning toilet facilities. Others have invested in energy-saving solar panels. Kendal Calling has a mobile solar PA to entertain festival-goers all around the site, and a solar-powered acoustic stage. All these are positive steps towards a sustainable festival. Wychwood uses LED lighting throughout and all catering is locally sourced.

So can festivals be truly green? "It's arguable, isn't it", says Hurring. "I would say in general yes: as a visitor you're probably using less energy and water than you would do if you were at home because you'd put the kettle on 10 times a day. It's fantastic when festivals are sustainable, and they need to go that way for their own survival, but they're such an important part of our calendar, and, for our spirits, that outweighs the environmentalist side."