Cleaning Up the Campsite

Festival organizers employ varying tactics to keep mess to a minimum

A music event or festival can declare it's as green as can be, but if a mountain of garbage remains once the music stops, that event's ecological bona fides are bogus. Concertgoers have very short relationships with beverage containers and disposable dinnerware, but once trashed, these things soon begin an eternal relationship with a solid-waste landfill. Green-leaning event planners are employing uniquely innovative tactics to diminish waste – including composting, recycling, and planning for less consumption – but counteracting the live-music culture's trashy tendencies is a dirty and difficult job.

The sound of a garbage can full of glass bottles loudly cascading into a Dumpster is common throughout the Downtown entertainment district, and a peek into any music-venue trash can will likely reveal a raft of recyclable items. Jill Mayfield, a spokeswoman for the city of Austin's Solid Waste Services Department, said that this year the 15,120 pounds of trash collected from wastebaskets around Sixth Street in the two weeks prior to SXSW more than doubled in the two weeks during the Festival to 31,980 pounds – and that's over and above the massive amounts of trash handled throughout Downtown by private contractors.

Among SXSW's 2007 far-reaching eco-initiatives, the waste-reduction efforts were less successful than others. Prior to the event, planners announced their partnership with local nonprofit Ecology Action to recycle all waste at outdoor events, as well as their intent to use biodegradable trash bags and compostable, corn-based cups, plates, and cutlery at staff hospitality areas. But SXSW operations director Eve McArthur says that when all the compostables failed to arrive on time, stockpiled Styrofoam dishware was reluctantly substituted. And the compostable items, rather than actually being composted, were simply placed in the trash. Ecology Action programs coordinator John Clement said he was only aware of recycling operations at the Austin Convention Center and at Stubb's Bar-B-Q. EA's longtime recycling cooperation with Stubb's has struggled lately, including during SXSW, due to disjointed cleanup efforts, said Clement, at times resulting in separated recyclables ending up in the trash – a common problem for special-events recyclables.

As for compostable dinnerware, Ryan Hobbs, director of operations for local trash haulers and landfill operators Texas Disposal Systems, said that while compostable disposables will decompose faster than other, nonbiodegradable landfill items, they still take much longer than other kinds of compost. TDS' massive statewide composting operations divert an estimated 150,000 tons of organic materials from landfills annually. TDS co-founder Bob Gregory said that while some substances will fully break down in six weeks, compostable dinnerware can take up to nine months. And though Gregory is enthusiastic about composting, he's among few large-scale composters in the region.

TDS may have a potentially large composting customer in New Belgium Brewing Company, makers of Fat Tire beer. The company is planning to bring its bicycle-oriented, charity-benefiting Tour de Fat roadshow through Austin this October. Tour de Fat, a green gem among outdoor festivals, aims for zero-waste events. New Belgium sustainability coordinator Matthew Kowal says food vendors are asked to serve handheld foods and to use only noncoated paper plates and napkins, which can go straight into compost bins with scraps. For beer, they use compostable cornstarch-resin cups. At last year's Tour de Fat stop in San Francisco, 3,500 guests drained 43 kegs and ended up with 16 bags of compost, 11 bags of recycling, and three bags of trash – a stunning waste-diversion rate of 90%.

Upon arrival at Tennessee's Bonnaroo Festival, guests are handed two bags, one for trash and one for recycling. Last year, Bonnaroo served concessions with biodegradable plates, cups, and cutlery; used recycled toilet paper; and along with reggae-themed waste-management contractors Clean Vibes, recycled more than 250 tons of garbage. In Chicago, when Budweiser approached Lollapalooza about doing more than just corporate branding, founder Perry Farrell said he and organizers suggested that the beer behemoth sponsor a can-recycling contest in which fans, prompted by a mass cell-phone text message, compete to deliver the most cans to a monster's mouth-shaped scale in 30 minutes. The winner gets a backstage pass. Norway's Øya Festival also employs creative waste reductions. Marketing head Arnt Olaf Andersen says a 25-cent deposit is tacked onto each beer purchase. By returning to the bar with a cup, the deposit can be refunded, donated, or put toward another beer – and by cleaning up a few littered cups, industrious boozers can get a free beer – Andersen calls it "an interactive way of getting drunk for free."

Like a song's catchy hook, carried homeward, green concert planners hope fans will retain some shred of the ecological consciousness they've tried to instill – while meanwhile doing less harm in hosting the large congregations where music-worshippers gather.

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