This is a piece that I wrote as a planned feature or newswire article for the main JamBase site but it ended up getting killed for a variety of reasons. Since the folks I interviewed were all so nice and I wanted to publicize the good work that Bonnaroo is doing, I'm posting it now on the blog--a little bit late but better than never.
Whether you love Bonnaroo or hate it, no one can argue that the festival has been a trailblazer since it first launched almost a decade ago. In every aspect of the festival experience, from the acts to the vibe to the crowd it attracts, Bonnaroo is the standard that we compare all other festivals too. That's true for ranking a festival's sustainability, too. Bonnaroo's organizers have over the years taken increasingly large and visible steps to limit the negative impacts of the massive event on the planet and nearby community. Through 2008, they'd done just about everything under the hot Tennessee sun possible to green the event, a veritable laundry list of actions that included outreach programs, massive recycling, organizing buses to bring in fans to cut down on traffic, donating space to endless nonprofits in their Planet Roo ecovillage, recycling greywater from showers and sinks as dust suppression water, and countless other actions large and small. Their efforts were rewarded with the rare "Outstanding" award from the British festival sustainability organization A Greener Festival last year.
But under pressure from "party with a purpose" competitor Rothbury, organizers knew that if they wanted to continue to be seen as leaders in the sustainability arena, they'd have to redouble their efforts. Festival managers and sustainability coordinator Laura Sohn of AC Entertainment quickly got to work figuring out what worked and what hadn't at Rothbury and got to the task of making an already strong sustainability scorecard even stronger.
They started with the waste (see sidebar) . Many fans were introduced to the idea of plant-based compostable cups, knives, and forks at Rothbury. The disposable items, instead of rotting in a landfill, can be tossed in a compost pile and in a few months will be converted along with food waste into a nourishing soil amendment that can be used to grow plants. Bonnaroo had actually been using these materials since at least 2007 and had already mandated that all its vendors make the switch to compostables, but many fans didn't know or care that they were supposed to toss their used beer cups into a compost bin instead of a trash bin. So this year Bonnaroo will have about 1000 compost bins along with 1500 recycling bins and 1500 trash cans spread in clusters throughout the venue and campgrounds, and the festival clean-up specialists Clean Vibes will manage an army of volunteers called "Trash Talkers" who will help fans get the compostables, recyclables, and trash into the right bins. Clean Vibes owner Anna Borofsky says, "
"It takes a huge volunteer base to get the coverage that you need to really do the composting. One of these days it will be second nature to people that they can compost a beer cup or a fork, but right now we have to educate them."
The mantra of any good greenie has always been to reduce, reuse, and recycle. While the organizers are recycling and reusing (as compost) as much of the waste as they can, they still needed a plan to help them reduce it. As any festival-goer knows, one of the biggest sources of waste at these events is from bottled water. According to Sarah Haynes, who runs the sustainability efforts at Rothbury and teamed up with Bonnaroo to reduce bottled water use in Tennessee, the average festival attendee goes through a staggering 24 bottles of water over a 4 day event. Of course, festival promoters and vendors love the revenue stream from water, but with bottled water getting an increasingly bad name in environmental circles Bonnaroo decided to forego a big chunk of change and invite fans to bring in their own refillable containers. The festival has always offered free water, but this year it has greatly expanded and improved its availability and taste with four locations offering free filtered water from new wells inside the main concert area. For people who want the convenience of bottled water all over the venue without having to find one of those four water stations, Bonnaroo is teaming up with Stanley nineteen13 for its Bottle-less Water Program. In addition to the usual free high quality well water, patrons who buy a limited edition reusable Bonnaroo water bottle will be able to get free filtered drinking water from beer stations throughout the festival. Stanley and Bonnaroo will donate one dollar per bottle sold to Global Water Challenge, an organization that is generating an international movement to meet the urgent need for safe water and sanitation.
With trash and water firmly under control, the festival was also able to do something this year that had been on organizers' wish list for a long time--it got a permanent electrical hookup for the Centeroo area. Having a grid connection means that the festival has been able to cut back on the number of generators it needs by 70% and slash the amount of biodiesel needed. While fans will still see generators in the camping areas, the concert area and backstage sections will be largely generator free. This cuts down on noise, opens up space, improves festival air quality, and removes a huge number of sources of heat that make an already sweaty festival even worse. The festival is currently recalculating its carbon footprint to account for this change and will purchase green power certificates and carbon offsets to make up for any extra emissions. The festival is also planning a solar installation that will generate power all year long.
The last item on the checklist was sourcing products, especially festival food, locally. Bonnaroo buys as many supplies and utilities from its own Tennessee area as possible. The festival has also compiled a list of local food purveyors and farmers and handed it out to all of its vendors with strong encouragement to use it. Vendors who don't get the hint may find themselves facing a mandate to buy locally in future years. This is great news for foodies, as locally-procured vegetables are almost always fresher and tastier than the stuff that gets shipped across the country.
While organizers know that they have more work to do to become truly sustainable, they are also justifiably proud of the job they've done so far and the improvements they've made this year, especially with keeping the spending local. As Laura Sohn says, "
"Being able to buy local offsets, being able to support local vendors, rural farmers...it's an amazing thing." It certainly is. If you are lucky enough to head to the farm this year, make sure to check out all the new improvements. Read all about the complete sustainability efforts of the festival and get more info on carpooling, buying your own offsets for the festival, and more at http://bonnaroo.com/festival/greening-facts.aspx
A day in the life your festival trash.
Ever wondered what happens to the mountains of waste generated by the city-sized population that descends on Manchester, TN, every June? Handling that waste is one of the organizers' biggest challenges, and over the years they've developed a range of strategies to help deal with it all. Most of the heavy lifting is done by Clean Vibes, the well-known festival and concert cleanup outfit that has a history stretching back to Phish's It and Coventry festivals and beyond. Clean Vibes organizes teams of paid employees and volunteers to handle all of the waste and leave the festival grounds looking as good as new after the event. They maintain more than 4000 trash, recycling, and compost barrels around the festival and also run the Clean Vibes Trading Post where fans can turn in recyclables to get points for items ranging from a Butterfinger candy bar to an autographed Phish Poster.
Clean Vibes relies on fans to properly sort their waste. Educational signage and about 400 volunteer “trash talkers” will coach patrons on which kinds of trash belong in which bins at the festival. Compostables are handled onsite on a gravel composting pad with special drainage--after a year about 90% of the compost's volume will have disappeared leaving behind a rich organic mulch that is perfect for gardening and is reused on the farm. Volunteers pull out any noncompostable materials from the bins as they're dumped on the pad, a nasty job made even worse by the hot Tennessee sun, so if you're attending do them a favor and don't contaminate the compost!
To manage all that extra compost, the festival has doubled the size of a backstage composting area. According to Sohn, after a year the festival waste is completely broken down except for the occasional fork, the utensil she says seems to take longest to degrade. Planet Roo will host a small demonstration garden using some of the compost generated from last year's event while Sarah Bush of Knoxville gardening outfit Edible Revolution will hold workshops on how to successfully make and use compost in your city apartment so that fans can carry on the good work at home.
After it's all over, a second group of 400 volunteers cleans the site. Recylable cans and plastic bottles are shipped off to Orange Grove Recycling in Chatanooga, a facility staffed by mentally challenged adults. The crew at Orange Grove will return any compostable cups they find to the farm in Manchester to be composted. Recyclable paper and cardboard are handled by local businesses in keeping with the festival's decision to support the local economy wherever possible, and the remaining waste, unfortunately, ends up in a local landfill.
Clean Vibes owner Anna Borofsky says that in prior years approximately 20% by weight of the festival's waste was diverted to compost and recycling, and notes that while this sounds low compared to Rothbury's claim of over 80% diversion, Bonnaroo measures reduction in weight while most other festivals measure by volume. This year they are hoping to raise the amount diverted by almost half to over 30%.