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Cleaning Up The Act

8 mins read

Are Music Festivals Failing the Environment?

The environment is sometimes taken for granted. Climate change is the world’s biggest threat. But what does the music festival industry think about all this?

Glastonbury is a word that is immediately associated with the UK’s biggest and most iconic music festival which attracts some of the world’s top musical acts. The epitome of rock and pop music, it attracts thousands and thousands of people from across the country.

It takes place on private farmland, in the middle of the scenic Somerset countryside. Similar festivals such as Reading, also take place in the countryside, often away from hustling urban city centres. While some smaller music festivals such as South West Four and TRNSMT take place on recreational grounds in the suburbs of major cities like London, and Glasgow.

The UK festival season takes place every summer, with an estimated 975 festivals taking place. 98% of UK festivals are greenfield festivals. Immediately what comes to mind is that all festivals taking place on greenfield sites have the potential to cause environmental harm.

There are many ways in which festivals have an environmental impact, which, with the ongoing climate emergency, must be addressed effectively and appropriately.


The UK festival industry generates around 25,800 tonnes of waste every year. Much of this waste lies with the responsibility of the festival, such as waste being produced from catering outlets, food trucks, or a lack of appropriate bins on the festival site.

Other waste contributing to festival litter often comes from external sources. Festival attendees tend to bring their own consumer products onto the festival grounds. Some campers leave tents behind when they leave the site. In 2018, there was an estimated 875 tonnes of plastic waste caused by tents being ditched at festivals. This is the equivalent of eight blue whales.

Festival management does account for this, and rules are in place to stop drugs and dangerous items from being brought into the site. Some tents have in the past been donated to charities and homeless shelters. Broken tents however, are left for landfill or parts will eventually find their way to water sources. Any hidden drugs or chemicals that make it on site unnoticed, could leech into groundwater and soil, causing pollution and loss of biodiversity.

But that leaves the often thousands of plastic cups, food packaging and cutlery, and food waste generated from the catering outlets and food trucks. This is waste that can, and should be controlled. A lack of bins on site suggests issues with either bin supply, or financial management.

It is of no surprise that festivals involve alcohol. This explains the large amount of plastic cups, glass bottles and bottle caps., in both rural and urban settings. Similarly, the cigeratte butt is one of the most abundant pieces of litter on the ground today, and one which can remain for hundreds of years.

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Carbon dioxide emissions

The UK festival industry generates 22,876 tonnes of metric carbon dioxide emissions every year. Due to the rural setting of many greenfield festivals, and the popularity of these festivals across the country, one of the biggest sources of emissions comes from car use. Festivals know this, which is why they implement strict and often high-cost parking to dissaude attendees from bringing their cars onto the site.

In addition to car use, red diesel is used on cranes and machinery that help with the set up of the festival ground. Red diesel is also used for heating applications, particularly to power the cooking appliances used to supply hot food at the festival, which makes festival management and catering outlets responsible.

The Government is also responsible for fuel duty. Any changes to the fuel duty amount could incentivise or de-incentivise the use of greener fuel alternatives. A transition from red diesel to more cleaner fuels would require a reduction in the rate of fuel duty on biofuels, but this is not currently the case. And so, red diesel remains the cheaper option.

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The UK festival industry consumes around 185 million litres of water every year.

Water usage comes from multiple sources. One such source is plastic bottles. It’s no surprise that a festival in the summer means dehydration is a real possibility without adeqaute fluids. So water must always be available.

But campers also require water for showering, and other purposes such as cleaning and washing. Additionally, the toilets on festival sites are also using the water supply. That comes with potential environmental issues. Where wastewater is improperly addressed, it can pollute the water sources in the local area.

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What is being done to help?

Huge festivals like Glastonbury do have mitigation measures in place. Hundreds of volunteers tend to sign up for the clean-up after the end of the festival. However, that requires the individual to act for the festival, which is not enough. The festival should also act for the individual. In other words, changes from festival management are also essential.

Festivals have pledged to end single use plastic consumption this year, which is a good sign that changes are slowly taking place. This was possible as a result of the “Drastic on Plastic” campagin in 2018, in which festival websites were ‘wrapped in plastic’ for 24 hours. This was largely impactful, and most festivals now offer resuable drinks bottles, and have significantly reduced single use plastics on site, including banning sales of drinks in single use plastic cups.

Every year, around 20,000 tents are left behind at UK festivals. An average tent is the equivalent of 250 pint plastic cups or 8,750 drinking straws. In 2019 the Take Your Tent Home campaign was launched which was aimed towards individuals in advance of the festival season. It also took aim at retailers which marketed ‘festival tents’ as being single use, resulting in 900 tonnes of plastic waste annually.

As a whole, members of the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) have accepted the Vision 2025 pledge to half all environmental impact in the events sector by 2025.


AIF Ten Year Report

Vision 2025

Feature image credit: Pexels

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PhD - Environmental Science. Aspiring research scientist. Like to blog things science, and how it affects us.

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