On Friday afternoon, Diana, a volunteer "trash talker" at Bonnaroo, was picking a cup out of a trash can. "This is for the compost -- it's made of corn!" she told a bleary-eyed festival-goer. "A lot of people are surprised they can compost the cups, the plates, forks and knives -- everything," she told TreeHugger. "Zero waste is the goal."
But given the sheer scale of the U.S.'s biggest, "greener" festival, Bonnaroo's green efforts can still feel like trying to stuff a big foot into a small shoe.This year the country's biggest (and "greener") music fest is taking extra steps to lighten its ecological footprint, with a focus on the two biggest culprits: waste and bottled water. A waste-reduction effort, powered by festival regulars Clean Vibes and an army of volunteers like Diana, is aiming to cut landfill waste in half. And in addition to well water, purified drinking water stations provided by thermos maker Stanley have eliminated an estimated 80,000 plastic water bottles so far.
Add to this an increase in electric golf carts, a connection to the Tennessee grid, carbon offsets, and a slew of green educational events in the Planet Roo section, and you've got a healthy mix of green in your music diet.
Good Intentions, Bad Execution
Despite the high prices, food and drink consumption is huge at Bonnaroo, and that's where the festival's noble green efforts begin. Organizers mandate that vendors use biodegradable wraps, plates, cups and cutlery manufactured from corn, in an attempt to divert over 10 tons of waste from the landfill and direct it to an on-site compost facility. Bonnaroo's volunteer "trash talkers" are positioned at waste stations around the festival to remind visitors of what can be composted.
But a cursory look around found that by Saturday, much compostable waste was overflowing and ending up in containers marked "landfill." Sometimes it was not being sorted at all by the vendors themselves.
Ugly, Still Beautiful
Meanwhile, signs remind people to pick up their trash and sort their waste intelligently, but as a sustainability consultant on site pointed out, signs can only go so far, especially at a festival where attentions are easily worn thin (or totally decimated). In the mud near one heavily trafficked waste station (and every area is heavily-trafficked), a sign that read "Compost" lay buried in the mud.
The "trash talkers" are versed in the basics of waste sorting, but some I spoke to weren't certain about every item and couldn't even be sure about where the compost was going.
As beautiful as the festivalgoers are in their mud-tattoos, bikinis and 80's sunglasses, one morning-after look around the main stages, and Bonnaroo starts to look downright ugly. Beer bottles, cups, pizza boxes and plates are strewn everywhere amidst the mud and grass, a mess that trash-pickers will spend two days afterwards picking up, in an effort that is likely to send much compostable material into a landfill pile that totaled 377 tons last year.
The efforts to reduce the use of bottled water are important given the need to drink water in Bonnaroo's hot and dry (and tiring and beer-soaked) climate. But that effort runs up against the vested interest of vendors to sell bottled water (DejaBlue, which is owned by Dr. Pepper Snapple, is the festival's water of choice).
I could only locate one refilling station -- in Planet Roo -- and it seemed like everyone else was in the same proverbial land-locked boat. At midday on Friday, the wait for water was around half-an-hour.
Those who hadn't bought their own water bottles or purchased a $3 plastic bottle of water (a price that might help deter water bottle consumption) could purchase an official stainless steel Bonnaroo water bottle by Stanley -- for the princely and typical 'roo sum of $22. (Other prices: fair trade, locally grown iced coffee is $6, pizza is $5, and, at Planet Roo's Whole Foods store, a trail mix bar is $2.)
But all of this is not to say the environmental initiatives at Bonnaroo aren't impressive and inspiring. One great effort by Clean Vibes enlists festival goers to pick up trash in exchange for rewards: 1200 bottles or cans can be exchanged for one of those official Bonnaroo water bottles.
"We're just trying to do our part," a girl in a tank top from New York told me, a blue bag full of plastic and aluminum slung around her shoulder. Her boyfriend was picking up the trash.
"I think it's really effective," said Sarah, the volunteer, as she helped direct waste into the compost bin. "We want to get people to do this outside of Bonnaroo too. And if something like this can be pulled off, then anyone can do it."
Stay tuned for an update on Bonnaroo's greening efforts, interviews, and ideas for next year's fest.