Are Music Festivals Helping Or Harming The Environment?

We talk to the experts

Photo by Christopher Polk / Getty Images

I've attended my fair share of music festivals over the past six years, so I guess you could say that I know what to expect from them. For instance, I'm sure that I'll probably have to buy expensive food from a vendor, that I might get caught up in a mosh pit, and that I'll spend a lot of time trying to avoid those awful, vomit-inducing port-a-potties. And while these experiences are commonplace for concert-goers everywhere, just as commonplace is the huge amount of waste left behind in a concert's aftermath. When festivals pack up and move on, are they leaving environmental disasters in their wake?

After a night or weekend of music-filled fun, crushed beer cans, smashed lighters, ripped clothing, and thousands of other miscellaneous pieces of trash can be found covering festival grounds, scattered about with reckless abandon. It's hard not to wonder if enjoying live music doesn't also mean compromising our environmental ethics. But instead of simply wondering, I enlisted the help of festival experts to see how different festivals are working to lower their environmental impact. 

Sean O’Connell, director of Hangout Fest, which takes place on a beach in Alabama, reports that recycling is at the forefront of his mission (he says, "not recycling is like saying a really bad word"), as is preserving the grounds where the festival takes place. “If we have any challenges, it’s overall in the cleaning, [because] stuff gets dropped in the sand and it has to come out. So we do a number of things, and we do them really well." 

"One, we have a huge staff that goes and hand picks everything up as soon as a show is done," he says. “We also work all night; we have deep cleaning equipment, so we sweep through the beach. So in the course of someone walking through the beach, if something gets buried, we’re able to get it. When we’re all done with our show, that sand is cleaner than it was before we set foot on it.” O'Connell's team even keeps a staff on site to care for sea turtles in the event that their eggs are laid. Palm trees are also planted for the festival by Hangout, and are then donated to local businesses and state parks. 

For NYC-based festivals like Governor’s Ball and The Meadowsrecycling is the biggest initiative. Both run by Founders Entertainment, the festivals are using social media and stage screens to emphasize the importance of recycling. “One of the things we do is require our food vendors to have compostable foodware," says Tom Russell, co-founder and partner in Founders. "We also set up a recycling station at each and every trash station, and encourage people to recycle as much as possible, whether it be via social media, stage screens, or through our volunteers who are walking around encouraging people to recycle, really just hammering the message about how important it is to take care of our planet and to do what we can to make a positive impact."

And over the years, free water refill stations have been integrated into Governor’s Ball and The Meadows as a way to combat waste from disposable water bottles. Founders Entertainment also partners with an organization called Clean Vibes, a waste management company whose main focus is recycling, as well as a concessionaire company called Spectrum Concessions, who ensures all vendors are equipped and are serving compostable eating utensils.

But Governor's Ball and The Meadows aren't the only NYC-based festivals partnering with green companies to create eco-friendly programs for attendees. Brooklyn's Northside Festival partners with Open Space Alliance, a park conservancy organization for the parks in North Brooklyn, which helps maintain and preserve the parks where the stages are located. Jennifer Mills of Northside Media explains, “[Open Space Alliance] basically runs the maintenance and upkeep and the cleaning of all of the parks in North Brooklyn, and since that’s where of most of our events take place, we like to support their mission. We donated the profits of our two big outdoor shows [Miguel and The Dirty Projectors this year] to the Open Space Alliance.” 

These partnerships, I learned, are necessary for maintaining the upkeep of festivals' grounds, particularly as the number of attendees continue to grow each year. Some festivals even provide goodies to those who recycle; for example, Hangout Fest runs a program where empty bags are handed out to patrons who can get free merchandise if they return the bags with empty cans and trash inside. But not every festival has an environmental-friendly impact. O’Connell tells me that the perspective varies within the industry. “The danger is that you’re gonna get people who are looking to produce festivals but aren’t willing to put the resources and the money and the care into it; in any business, people are taking short cuts,” he says. 

Taking care of a large venue or park space takes a lot of effort, and with great effort, comes great expense. But taking care of the environment and making a profit doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. Russell tells me the decision to do right by the environment boils down to one thing: the larger desire to want to take care of the earth. “I think that all event producers have to make the choice whether they want to spend more and have more of a positive environmental impact, or they want to spend less and want to have less of an environmental impact,” he says. “For us, it’s a no-brainer, that no matter how many tickets we sell, no matter how our events do, we want to make sure our event has a positive environmental impact, not a negative one.”

And how can festival-goers help make a difference? Beyond being personally aware of the impact our own behaviors have, we can choose to attend festivals that are committed to the environment. If a festival doesn't have a viable recycling or clean-up plan, don't go to it. Put your money where your mouth is—and where the music is.