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Music Festivals Offering a Greener Listening Experience

• April 16, 2010 • 9:00 AM

Music festivals, like the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, provide a model for reducing the carbon footprint of large events.

When you put thousands of people in one place, whether for the Republican National Convention or Bonnaroo, things are bound to get ugly — for the environment, that is. Between the energy employed to power sound equipment, the paper products used to feed the masses and the water bottles necessary to keep people hydrated, concerts and political rallies are hardly climate-friendly events. And that’s not even taking into account the fuel it takes to get attendees, staff or performers to the venue.

Although some assemblies, like President Obama’s inauguration, have been criticized for doing relatively little to offset their impact on the environment, in recent years the mantle of eco-consciousness has been taken up by musicians and politicians alike.

This year, music festivals may provide valuable clues as to how large gatherings can offset their carbon emissions without sacrificing the lights and glamour that draw crowds (and profits) in the first place.

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., this weekend is just one example of the environmental ethos of the 2010 festival season. The three-day jamboree, which last year attracted more than 160,000 guests, boasts numerous green initiatives, ranging from “Carpoolchella,” which rewards a few lucky carpooling concertgoers with VIP access to Coachella for life, to the Energy Factory’s “Sweatshop Mixer,” a chance for aspiring DJs to perform people-powered 30-minute sets.

At an event known for heat exhaustion and dehydration — in 1999, temperatures reached 120 degrees — keeping a crowd hydrated (but not swimming in disposable water bottles) is a tall order.

Coachella takes a two-pronged approach: one, provide incentives for recycling, and two, sell reusable water bottles. To encourage people to pick up trash, the promoters, since 2007, have teamed up with Los Angeles-based nonprofit Global Inheritance to offer thirsty attendees one free icy cold water bottle for every 10 empty bottles they turn in for recycling. And to promote reuse, Coachella sells souvenir water bottles that can be refilled at water stations throughout the venue for free.

The Sasquatch! Music Festival at the Gorge Amphitheater in Washington state is another gathering-gone-green. It has paired up with Esurance to offer carpooling incentives; in 2009, this partnership brought recycling to the venue, keeping 4.5 tons of waste out of landfills.

For 2010, Sasquatch! has been certified carbon neutral by Carbon Harmony, a clean-energy consulting firm. It will be 100 percent wind-powered, and Carbon Harmony will offset the greenhouse gas emissions the event produces by funding methane collection and combustion projects in the Pacific Northwest that convert methane gas from animal waste into clean electricity.

As likely a candidate as any to go green, given its location, San Francisco’s Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival boasts an “Eco Lands” component. What the program lacks in name, it makes up for in substance: The 2009 festival included a solar stage, solar-powered cell phone charging station, refillable water program and cell phone recycling drive. It also had a TRASHed recycling store where festivalgoers could swap bags filled with compostable cups or plastic bottles for Outside Lands merchandise, concert tickets, Odwalla juice, Dasani water and other treats.

Last year’s two-day Golden Gate Park takeover included something for locavores, too. The festival hosted a farmers market, and its prepared food came from Bay Area restaurants. The Outside Lands Web site notes that even the burgers sold there were made of organic farm-raised meat and topped with locally grown lettuce and tomato.

These standouts are hardly alone. Explicitly green music festivals include Chicago’s Green Music Fest and Project 30-90 in New Orleans, both set to take place this year. And festival circuit staple Bonnaroo boasts a “greening” page, too, as does 2010 returnee Lillith Fair.

The economic climate may have postponed the super-sustainable Rothbury Festival, but eco-friendly politicians up for re-election in November might want to look at the music-festival model before they plan rallies to discuss their plans for improving it.

Elisabeth Best
Former Miller-McCune Fellow Elisabeth Best is currently pursuing a Masters of Pacific International Affairs at the University of California, San Diego School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, where she is the editor in chief of the Journal of International Policy Solutions. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara in June 2009 with a BA in global studies and a minor in professional editing. As an undergraduate, she wrote for The GW Hatchet and Coastlines magazine and hosted “The Backseat” on WRGW.

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