Understanding The Reality Behind Festival Sustainability
Greetings, June Jammers!
Festival season is upon us, my friends and you can certainly feel it in the air. Artist line-ups are dropping, your usual squad is making their “roll call” posts and information is flying through the digital airwaves and into your devices like what seems by the week. It’s time to prepare yourself. Where to go, who’s in charge of locking down the dusty tapestries to hang from your easy-ups and of course the DJ line-up for your renegade camp is certainly on the list of things to do. But the real question is: what are you going to bring? I’ll go a little deeper here…what are you NOT going to bring?
I don’t think it’s much of a secret anymore (at least I would hope not) about the real facts of ecological sustainability in regards to festivals and the true impact they make…on literally everything. There are serious effects to the Earth from irresponsible and massive quantities of improperly sorted waste/recycle/compost, carbon emissions spikes due to so many vehicles driven to and from the events and generators used to power all sorts of things. It’s crazy. We, the June Jam team, really take this stuff seriously. I mean, come on – Playa Ponderosa in Northern Arizona is a location that is inarguably breathtaking and full of an energy that embraces what we all are up to out there. The fact that we get to use this incredible space to create the experiences we share together makes all of the hard work we do WORTH IT to come together creatively, authentically and absolutely ready to get down on the dance floor with each other to some of our favorite talent.
So why am I going on about something we already know? Simple. To make sure we all really understand it. To create and share conversation and awareness amongst ourselves so that we really live and practice what we preach. It’s the right thing! And it’s the biggest thing we can do to really make a difference in the longevity of our unique gatherings. I had the opportunity to pick a few brains of some real movers and shakers in the sustainability and trash realm of the festival circuit and i’m pretty excited to share some of their insights with you.
Meet Tynan Hartzell and Ali Gibbs – both trash pirates by nature AND choice. I asked them a few questions about awareness of the subject and things that we as participants of the gathering culture we can take with us, especially to this year’s June Jam.
Tell us about yourself! Your name, where you are from and where you are living/community involvement now.
Ali: “I’m Ali Gibbs, I use they/them pronouns, and I currently live at Arcosanti in Arizona. I grew up in Massachusetts, but made my way west 5 years ago. I’ve lived at Arcosanti, which is an experimental architectural community in central AZ, working in a bronze foundry for the last few years. I entered the festival waste management scene 2 years ago, and really dove into this past summer.”
Tynan: “Hi! My name is Tynan Hartzell, and I’m a Tucson AZ native. I’m currently living and working in San Francisco, after 4 years traveling for work on the festival / event circuit.”
What is you background in sustainability: history and involvement – any special training or education and any particular projects or affiliations that you currently work or have worked in the past OR future projects coming up!
Ali: “I’ve always been an advocate for making sure you put your waste where it needs to go (my parents love to tell stories about me picking up litter on the beach when I was very small), and studied agriculture, and by extension composting, in college. I dipped my toes into the festival waste management scene a couple years ago, helping a group called the Trash Pirates at the Form event at Arcosanti. I spent my summer in 2019 on the road working events in AZ, OR and NV with Wastenaught Events doing waste management work, and I’m writing this on-site with Wastenaught for the 4xFar festival in Coachella Valley, CA.”
Tynan: “I’ve always had a huge love for the outdoors, which translated easily into a calling to environmental work. When I was 18, I had a depressive crisis from “climate anxiety” / “environmental anxiety” and dedicated myself to working in service of the natural world. I obtained my Bachelor’s Degree from U of A College of Architecture studying Sustainable Built Environments. In that same period, I began going to regional music festivals in my off time and volunteering with the “green teams’ sorting recycling and recovering usable materials that were abandoned at events.
I ended up touring with a group known as the “Trash Pirates”, and worked closely with them for years, focusing on administration and supply line logistics. We tackled some pretty epic projects, including running the recycling system for the massive Oregon Eclipse Gathering.
Four years later, I’m the founder and managing member of WasteNaught Events, an event services company that provides sustainability management services for event productions in Arizona and California. Our bins and signs just saw Anderson Paak and Kaytranada (for the second time!) and will be at Coldplay this week in Hollywood.”
Tell us about your very first run in or “ah-ha” moment with your passion for working/researching in this field – what happened that made you realize this was something worth sticking with and continuing to educate yourself AND others about?
Ali: “As I mentioned above, I have always been an advocate for making sure waste reaches the proper receptacle, but in middle school, I took that further. I learned about a company called TerraCycle, who collect and recycle or repurpose items like chip bags, Crayola markers and cigarette butts. I spearheaded the creation of a collection system at my middle school to send markers, chip bags and mechanical pencils in to be recycled by the company. In high school, I read the book Cradle to Cradle by Michael Braungart and William McDonough, which lays out a blueprint for creating products that go from cradle to cradle, rather than cradle to grave. This means creating products that can be reused over and over, rather than being used once and then thrown into the landfill.
This book really opened my eyes to the fact that there is no “away”, we cannot throw things “away”, they are always put somewhere, and that waste is causing a multitude of problems all over our planet. Festivals offer a unique opportunity to educate people about waste, as they are an environment in which people are generally more open to new and different ideas than in their day to day lives.”
Tynan: “You know the whole, go into nature, find yourself cliche? That was me. I discovered a serious calling to the natural world and started to learn as much as I could about the state of the global environment. I actually got really depressed about it for a while. The more I’ve learned, the more I realize that WE HAVE the tools and technology and knowledge to DO BETTER and build new systems. We just have to break the cycle and derail the momentum of the old, unsustainable systems that threaten our future. It’s kind of a big deal right now…”
Let’s talk sustainability particularly in the festival circuit:
What does “leave no trace” mean to you, and how would you define it to someone who has no clue what it means?
Ali: “Leave no trace is originally a code of ethics created for outdoor enthusiasts, in which the goal is to leave no lasting mark on the natural spaces being used for outdoor recreation. This code of ethics has been adapted to festival culture to mean that no trace of activities held on the event site are left behind. This means no trash, no micro-trash, no spills of grey water or motor oil or other persistent liquids, nothing at all left behind on the site; as the saying goes “take only pictures, leave only footprints”.”
Tynan: “Leave No Trace is the guideline from wilderness camping — where man is a visitor, but not a resident. It means leaving the world exactly as you found it to preserve the place for the nature that lives there and for the visitors that come. It means holding yourself accountable and containing your bits.
This is the Modus Operandi for festivals now — instilled into the core of festival culture by Burning Man, where the entire site must be clear of every speck of human activity after hosting many thousands of people. It’s a responsibility. And one to be held accountable to. I encourage you to make it fun, instead of an “annoying” responsibility or chore. Don’t You Leave No Fuckin Trace!
If you do leave your trash behind, you are condemning another human to have to come pick up your shit for you. I feel sorry for your mom.”
In your time spent working these particular events, have you seen a shift in awareness or ideas circling around sustainability? How about the general mindset of participants of the gathering? Are you seeing any cool ideas or a major shift in awareness? How about any statistics changes you know about or have seen that have shifted over the years?
Tynan: “Producers are definitely shifting paradigms. In fact, in California, there is now legal guidance for event productions that mandates waste diversion planning. There is more pressure, more awareness, and more accountability for being trashy. Honestly, I’ve seen two distinct camps of events — one that has a growing awareness, sustainability programming, actual engagement with attendees on proper behavior on eco-education… and one that is more just “come party bros!” that frankly encourages destructive and trashy behavior. I’ve noticed that shows at return venues with large, cheap labor forces, that appeal to more mainstream audiences tend to set a very low bar. Worst I’ve ever seen was at The Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington, where attendees just absolutely thrashed the campground. It was depressing. Ask me for the photos.
I will say that despite the bad examples, I’ve personally had positive engagements with many more events regarding sustainability, there is a growing awareness, and a growing passion… It is really cool to see the public attitude changing, and even bands/performers drawing that line — some are only willing to perform at venues with sustainability initiatives. Also, some of the really big players in the national & international music scene, like Live Nation, have made public sustainability commitments, paving the way for a new standard.”
Ali: “I haven’t been working in the festival waste world for all that long yet, but in the last year or so, I have seen at least a couple small shifts in waste-consciousness from events I have worked. There has been a push from the crews that work waste at events to get vendors to switch to all compostable products to serve their food, and I have seen that shift beginning to take root. I have also noticed festival attendees bringing their own cups and reusable water bottles to use at events more often. There is still plenty of work to be done to reduce the impact of festivals, from reducing waste generated during build and by production, to lessening the carbon footprint of traveling to events, and increasing landfill diversion rates.”
What are some suggestions you can give to participants in order to go deeper about the subject aside from just taking your trash home? Tips, tricks or small things that really can add up to make a difference? Any websites, books or companies you suggest for further research?
Tynan: “I say this first because I think it’s very important: don’t get too muddled up in doing things perfectly. Work to make incremental changes. A few important tips:
- Try not to buy a bunch of new shit for an event that is going to be wasted, or just used once. If you do buy new stuff, remove the packaging at home before you leave.
- Make your purchases responsibly, and support the community where the event is being held whenever possible. Always opt for re-usable, instead of single use.
- Bring your own trash bag, recycling bag, and bag for compost. Learn what goes where. Most events will be happy to take your recycling and compost if it’s properly sorted.
- BRING YOUR OWN WATER BOTTLE! Holy heck. Just do it. There are two big initiatives right now — decreasing greenhouse gases and decreasing single use plastic. Say no to plastic. Dude, bring a 5 gallon of water and a water bottle. That 24 pack of bottled water is full of microplastics anyways.
- Carpool when possible
- Ask for guidance and/or for help if you need it. Need a bag? Ask your event green team.
Follow the “Trash Pirates and Waste Naughts” on Facebook — they constantly post tips and tricks about how to camp, groove, and live life in a more zero-waste way.”
Ali: “Be careful with your purchases and don’t bring that trash home or to the event in the first place! Choose to use reusable bags and jars whenever possible (i.e. when grocery shopping), buy items locally rather than online to reduce packaging when you can. Bring a reusable cup or thermos when going to cafes, most will happily make your drink in your own vessel! In terms of packing for an event, take off as much packaging as possible before you leave home so you don’t have to keep track of it when you get there!”
Can you tell us about what goes in to working trash/recycle at a festival? This can be anything from hours you work, things you have seen (that are either totally wack or really cool) the experience as a whole – do you feel like every time you volunteer/work this position at festivals, you are making a difference and learning something new every time?
Ali: ‘Working waste management at a festival obviously changes a little based on the event, but each event requires one week to one month of lead time and advance work before anyone on the waste crew even sets foot on site. Hours during build are usually 8 to 12 hour days, and during the run of show, most events require 12 to 14 hour work days.
Most crews are broken up into different positions which at minimum include – General Manager/Lead (oversees general operations, fixes issues that come up), Front of House Lead (oversees collection stations, talks to participants, interfaces with vendors), Back of House Lead (manages the sorting of all bags of waste, oversees the dumpsters, sets aside items for reclamation) and a Hauling Lead (runs a route to pick up waste generated, drops bags off at BOH).
I usually work as a back of house lead for events, and rock the sort! We put on some jams, glove up, and get dirty, ripping open every bag of waste generated by the event and sorting through it by hand to make sure that the waste makes it into the appropriate stream. Sometimes we find really cool stuff in the trash, like money, headlamps, full bottles of beverages, or cool camping gear. Other times we find not so cool stuff in the trash like dirty underwear, bodily fluids and diapers. If you have to throw something like that out at a festival, double bag it by itself and put a giant X on it (in marker or tape), this is becoming a more widely recognized symbol for “hey trash folks, don’t bother opening this one, it is gross!
While the work can be grueling, smelly and sticky, there’s nothing like digging through bags of trash and recycling to bring folks together quickly. I always walk away from events knowing that I have gained new friends, and trash friends are always the best, and knowing that I have changed at least one person’s perspective on what throwing something away means. Whether that is someone who volunteered for the event and sorted trash with me, or who I chatted with at a collection station, I have been told countless times that I have opened people’s eyes to the reality of trash that they had no notion of.”
Tynan: “This is changing…it used to mean countless hours of volunteer work, and sometimes feeling invisible and unappreciated. Hell, I’ve seen an event refuse to allocate meals to their green team volunteers because “They will just eat out of the trash anyways” (not giving any names). It’s easy for this part of the team to be marginalized, mistreated, or taken for granted. In turn, I’ve seen ripples of poor self-worth and trauma response result in unhealthy alcohol and drug abuse, or folks seriously overworking themselves.
Thankfully, I’ve seen the community organize more and more in recent years, and start to draw healthy boundaries. I’m happy to see more “Trash People” turn into Event Professionals, and events ensuring that their hard working greeners are properly taken care of. I’m grateful that I’m able to set this tone with the events I work and ensure the people on my team are well cared for.
I’ve also seen some of the best and most noteworthy shenanigans of my adult life take place in this “scene”. There is a whole, awesome and super-fun culture that has developed in this community. From the infamous “Aluminum Chef” challenges to “Sorting Parties” and “trashion” (trash fashion). The first time I ever ended up sorting recycling, I was invited to a volunteer sort party… “Free beer for everyone sorting!”. There was a keg and great music playing, and it was one of the most fun areas at the event, though my memory is a bit fuzzy… How’s that for community engagement?”
In your personal and honest opinion, knowing what you know and seeing what you have seen, are festivals truly sustainable to the environment for the long term? And if no, with severe changes – could they be?
Tynan: “At a baseline, music festivals are not inherently sustainable. Why? The amount of waste involved in creating a temporary environment, with infrastructure for many thousands of people, and then tearing it all down. Moreover, the fuel consumption and emissions involved with transporting many semi trucks of equipment & supplies, many thousands of attendees (plane, train, automobile) and massive amounts of generator-supplied power for the lights, equipment, and sound systems. You could run a perfectly zero-waste event, but you still have the issue of emissions and pollution. And it’s very difficult to address these issues because they are ripples of greater issues with our society in general.
There are many notable events that are working to be not just “sustainable,” but actually “regenerative”. This means leaving the place better than it was found. This can mean permaculture design and ecosystem restoration, or even events organized around beach cleanups and disaster recovery.
We can continue to hope for a better model — there are many great minds working on it all the time.”
Well, there you have it June Jammers. Coming from personal experience of attending festivals all over the US, it is absolutely clear that although we know very well the rules and the repercussions of throwing our environmental duties in the trash (no pun intended) the same issues still remain. No, this is not a blog post to make you feel bad about that one piece of gum wrapper trash that blew out of your pocket on a windy day years ago, but it is a blog post to really make the issue clear and tangible: we work hard, all of us (you included) to create these pop up environments to experience the magic in our community and the sharing of space of like minded individuals. To display our art, our craft and especially our love for music and now to display our love and passion of our ability to do so through the care and awareness of our environment.
From the June Jam crew and High Road Production team, “Leave no trace” is not just something we throw around on the announcements to meet some sort of “industry norm” – it is an order. Be smart, carpool to the event, leave any unnecessary trash you can behind at home and bring your own water bottle. Sort your trash wisely, and if you don’t know how – ask someone who does. Show some love to yourself, your camp neighbors and our beautiful property of which we get to collaborate on so that we can keep this going and really stand out to make a real, tangible difference. There are people out there who are truly working hard behind the scenes like Ali, Tynan and many others who put in the effort of waste management so that it doesn’t go by the wayside. However, we all don’t have to work waste management at an event to instill the practices of a good humanitarian and steward of our environment. It starts with you!
– Shelby Athouguia