Music Festivals Are Environmental Disasters

CC BY 2.0. Ivar Abrahamsen

Campers leave tents, sleeping bags, clothes, food, and booze behind after they're done partying all weekend. Everything gets sent to the landfill.

Summer music festivals are in full swing, which means that thousands of enthusiastic fans are camping nearby, ready to party. Big problems arise, however, when it comes time for them to leave and pack up, because the campers don’t pack up. They just abandon all their stuff and leave it for someone else to clean up – usually waste contractors hired by the music festival to collect everything and dump it unsorted into a landfill.

Music festivals are environmental disasters when it comes to the amount of trash generated, and this stems mostly from festival-goers’ strange disposable mentality when it comes to camping gear. An estimated 80 percent of trash generated by music festivals comes from what’s left behind by campers, and the Association of Independent Festivals guesses that 1 to 2 out of every 6 tents is left behind. They get used for a single weekend and are then abandoned, along with sleeping bags, camp chairs, gazebos, clothes, rubber boots, leftover alcohol and food.

Tucker Gumber, author of The Festival Guy blog, told L.A. Weekly:

“Sasquatch [music festival in the U.S.] was more like ‘Trashquatch.’ It was awful. The grounds are so pretty, but inside them there weren’t enough trash cans; there were no cleaning crews coming through; and the trash next to my campsite didn’t get emptied all weekend.”

After the Isle of Wight festival in the U.K. saw a shocking 10,000 tents left behind in 2011, some environmentally-minded people decided to take action. A campaign called “Love Your Tent” was started, and its aim is to make “getting up and leaving absolutely everything behind you completely socially unacceptable.”

The campaign took over a single campground at the festival and ensured that every person who wanted to camp there signed a code of conduct agreement that included promising to take their gear home. Its first year in 2012 was a success. Out of 1500 campers, only 18 tents were abandoned. This year’s Isle of Wight festival saw 1,450 campers staying in the designated ‘Love Your Tent’ fields, and no tents or garbage were left behind.

Unfortunately, it continues to be a frustrating uphill battle. When Love Your Tent did a survey of students at Buckinghamshire New University last year, they found that 60 percent of participants admitted to leaving tents behind in the past, even though 86 percent ‘recognized’ that waste has an impact on the environment. Thirty-six percent were unsure if their behaviour would ever change, and a pitiful 35 percent said their behaviour would definitely never change.

One major impediment to waste reduction is that camping gear is so cheap – in terms of both quality and price – that nobody sees the sense in packing up a filthy, muddy tent and taking it home to clean and reuse. Campers would do well to invest in higher quality gear that they can’t afford to abandon.

While there’s no easy solution to this trash disaster, it’s clear that music festival organizers need to take responsibility for what their event creates, and demand that campers clean up their act, literally. Organizers could also provide tent-recycling facilities for those people who insist on leaving them behind. Everyone could at least sign a code of conduct agreement when purchasing tickets, which would increase awareness of the problem.

Participants can also opt out of attending festivals with bad reputations for waste management and support those with good policies. Most importantly, create your own zero waste standards for camping and be an example to others. Camping, which is supposed to be a celebration of nature (and music, in this case), should never degrade into a trash-fest.