Photo: Steve Jurvetson

It’s summertime, and festivals around the world offer a unique opportunity to explore art, creativity, music and community — allowing attendees to let loose and live in the moment.  

But what’s the ecological cost of all that merriment?

“Festivals are traditionally unsustainable because you are creating a temporary space for a large number of people,” Jenna Ansell, Director of Akasha Productions and producer for Living Village Culture, told Planet Experts. “They tend to be disposable cultures. You use a lot of materials and energy to build things up and then throw them away after the gathering.”

The environmental and carbon footprints grow even bigger when you consider the emissions from plane and automobile travel to get to the gathering and the energy used on site.

Aerial view of the Burning Man 2012 festival grounds. (Photo Credit: Steve Jurvetson)

Aerial view of the Burning Man 2012 festival grounds. (Photo Credit: Steve Jurvetson)

“Burning Man can be seen as hypocritical,” she said. While the Principles of Burning Man promote “decommodification,” “radical self-reliance” and the “leave no trace” standard, “people burn so much fuel and create a ton of rubbish from single-use items. Not to mention all the people who go to Walmart to stock up on what they need for the playa.”

Burning Man declined to comment for this article because of uncertainty surrounding a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) review.

In Burning Man’s defense, the organization recently purchased Fly Ranch, a 3,800-acre parcel in Washoe County, Nevada, on which it intends to “manage, operate, and maintain all project facilities…using innovative technologies and renewable energy…for generations to come.”

Fly Ranch will not host the festival itself, but it will be a permanent space for the Burning Man community, which they hope will improve its self-sufficiency.

Burning Man attendees at sunrise, 2008. (Photo Credit: Ariane Sims)

Burning Man attendees taking in the sunrise, 2008. (Photo Credit: Ariane Sims)

Meanwhile, other festivals are exploring ways to reduce their environmental footprints…

…On Land

“To be truly sustainable, festival producers have to make informed decisions about how things are going to impact the environment in the longer term,” said Jenna, who is planning an upcoming festival called NewEarth in Bali, where she and her partners intend to lease the festival grounds for 20 years to “build a year-round sustainable project.”

Like Boom festival in Portugal, NewEarth  will incorporate a compost system, permaculture gardens and work with local vendors to supply festival needs when they can’t be grown on site.

By having a permanent space, festival producers can minimize the impact they have on the land by maintaining the festival grounds year-round to foster true self sufficiency, rather than bringing everything in and then throwing it all away — only to do the same the following year.

A traffic jam in Delhi. (Image Credit: NOMAD / Flickr)

Photo Credit: NOMAD / Flickr

…From Transportation

It’s crucial to minimize the environmental impact on the land at festival sites, but transportation to the gathering is typically responsible for roughly 60-80 percent of associated greenhouse emissions.

To address the emissions from transport, Jenna teamed up with Chris Johnson, Director of Shambala Festival, to form a charity called the Energy Revolution. The Energy Revolution works with festivals – like Bestival, The Secret Garden Party, Boomtown and more – to help people offset carbon emissions from festival travel.

When they buy their tickets, festivalgoers have the opportunity to support offsite renewable energy projects. Energy Revolution helps attendees calculate how much carbon they will generate getting to and from the festival and guarantees a credible carbon offset.

Another way festival producers can reduce festival travel emissions is by making it as easy and inexpensive as possible for people to take public transportation, group buses or bicycles to the event, which more festivals are doing.

…From Energy Use

Another major source of potential emissions comes from the energy supply used to power the lights, speakers, screens and other electricity needs onsite.

Historically, diesel generators turned the party on, but in recent years more progressive festivals are utilizing renewable energy sources to meet their electricity needs.

An energy conscious festival-going-entrepreneur named Andy Mead created the first transportable solar/biodiesel hybrid generator system in the UK with his company called Firefly (now under new ownership).

“Andy provided festival producers with the right amount of power and saved them money, now the industry is trending towards this type of system,” said Jenna.

…From Waste

The burning man, from the Burning Man Festival, 2004. (Photo Credit: Aaron Logan)

The burning man, from the Burning Man Festival, 2004. (Photo Credit: Aaron Logan)

When thousands of people come together to get their freak on for several days of uninhibited celebration, a substantial amount of trash can be produced.

Environmentally conscious festivals like Lighting in a Bottle (LIB) are working to minimize onsite waste by giving people free water, offering reusable cups and cutlery, composting as much as possible, clearly designating recycling bins and encouraging people to pack out what they pack in.

“We were able to divert more than 50 percent of our waste stream,” said Tucker Warner, head of sustainability at  LIB. “Reducing waste and living sustainably becomes something that is associated with happiness, and it hopefully becomes a way of life for those whom it wasn’t before, not something extra or unattainable”

…In the Culture

No matter how environmentally friendly a festival is, the biggest impact it can have on people in terms of sustainability is what they take away with them.

“We are constantly looking at new ways to get out the message of sustainability,” said Tucker.

The Temple Of Joy (by David Best and crew) at Burning Man in Black Rock City, Nevada. (Photo Credit: Keith Pomakis)

The Temple Of Joy (by David Best and crew) at Burning Man in Black Rock City, Nevada. (Photo Credit: Keith Pomakis)

LIB, which prides itself on receiving the “Outstanding Award from A Greener Festival Foundation five years in a row,” embeds environmental stewardship into its culture by promoting the message of sustainability into every thing from their wrist bands to arrival guides to the Village area where they host workshops and talks on green living.

“There are certainly people who come because of our sustainability ethos. But let’s be honest, with that alone we wouldn’t have a festival,” said Tucker. “For most people, the draw of our festival is the music, the art and the creativity.”

“Our core value of keeping family together and working with family as a community creates an accessible warm welcoming way to communicate the environmentally conscious ethos,” Monica Fernandez, LIB Executive Producer, told Planet Experts.

“By showing people a sustainable way of living, we hope to develop thousands of new stewards for the environment,” said Tucker. “Hopefully those people impact others around them when they go home.”

And that’s how some summer festivals are transforming environmental challenges into ecological victories.

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