Music festivals strive to be more environmentally sustainable in a throw-away society

Music festivals in recent years have been shamed on social media for the garbage left behind when everyone goes home. But Hillside Festival and Riverfest Elora organizers are stepping up to reduce garbage and be environmentally sustainable.

'We’re always looking for ways in which we can improve,' Hillside executive director says

Hillside Festival has a dishwashing station where volunteers clean plates, bowls, cups and cutlery for the food vendors to use. There's no plastic allowed on the site, which is just one green initiative by the music festival. The water to wash the dishes is heated using solar energy. (Hillside Festival)

Hillside Festival is one of the greenest music festivals in the province with it's no plastic policy, dishwashing volunteers and use of solar power.

The festival has long taken steps to be environmentally sustainable — it's even in their mission statement to be environmental leaders, says executive director Marie Zimmerman.

"Hillside was founded 36 years ago by musicians and environmental advocates, so environmentalism has been a key part of our vision," Zimmerman said while standing on the site of the festival as crews put up various tents ahead.

The annual festival, which takes place this weekend, is on an island at the Guelph Lake Conservation Area.

The most obvious green initiative is right above the artists: a living roof over the main stage with plants native to the area.

But there are other programs: they don't allow plastic anywhere on site including from food vendors, volunteers wash dishes onsite and use solar power to heat the water and cellphone charging stations are also powered using solar panels.

Volunteers also move band equipment using rickshaws and police and security get around the site on bicycles rather than golf carts. And those same volunteers, along with the musicians, are served home-cooked, plant-based meals.

Volunteers check on falafel, which was made to feed the volunteers working at Hillside Festival in 2016. Hillside volunteers and musicians are provided with plant-based meals during the festival. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Those attending the festival are encouraged to take a shuttle bus, either from downtown Guelph or Toronto, or even bike to the festival. For those who choose to drive, Hillside is purchasing carbon offsets to make up for it.

In recent years, Hillside hasn't been as financially stable as it might like to have been. These kinds of green initiatives can cost a lot of money, but Zimmerman says the board of directors never really considered backing off of them.

"No. We've always said this is who we are and that's never been questioned," she said. 

Plastic may be cheaper to use, but Zimmerman says if you're making the earth "a less friendly place for people to live, that's a false economy."

'An education process' for musicians and attendees

The example Hillside sets in Ontario is inspiring to other festivals. Down the road, Riverfest Elora has taken some cues from their neighbour.

Shawn Watters is the site director for the music festival, which next month will see musicians like City and Colour, Jessie Reyez and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

They've turned to tech when it comes to telling the audience about the artists. Rather than having paper pamphlets with a schedule and information about the musicians, there's an app.

He says he's been to events where the pamphlets just end up on the ground.

"Most people are now a lot more technical savvy that the phone app and all that, it's not a really big deal," he said.

The festival has also been plastic free for about seven years, Watters says.

Attendees have always seemed to go with the flow, happily toting a cup or bottle for water with them, but Watters says it has surprised some musicians.

"One of the requests would be, where's the bottled water? And we'd go, well, we don't have bottled water. We'll have lots of water for you, and they know when they come to Riverfest, that's the type of environment it is," he said, noting many in the community have launched a fight against Nestle Waters Canada taking and bottling water in Elora. 

"It's been an education process definitely for a lot of the musical artists that have come to Riverfest as well as the patrons."

Shawn Watters of Riverfest Elora, says they're looking for more ways to be environmentally sustainable. One problem they face, and are trying to find a solution, to is cigarette butts. Even when they provide receptacles, people still seem to drop them on the ground and Watters says that means volunteers have to pick them up. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

From hydrogen fuel cells to composting toilets

Claire O'Neill is the co-founder of A Greener Festival, a not-for-profit agency based in the United Kingdom that works with festivals and events to help them become more environmentally sustainable.

She says there's been a push for more festivals to take on green initiatives. There are festivals that are looking at everything from power sources — using solar, stored power and even hydrogen fuel cells - to the waste created by the audience — like using vacuum or composting toilets which reduce the amount of water needed.

"In many cases, governments or authorities and places where events might happen are starting to say, OK, what's being done to protect the environment," she said.

Over the last 10 years, she says festivals have seen an increase in waste being left behind by people attending the events — everything from plastic cups to folding chairs they've bought specifically for the festival then discarded.

But even that's changing, she says, as more images are shared on social media shaming people for leaving their garbage behind.

"This summer, actually, it seems like the tide might be turning on that again for an improvement, as in less people are leaving things behind and I'm hoping that this not just an anomaly, but a change that we're going to see increasing for the better," she said.

Challenges remain

Both Hillside and Riverfest say they can do more to be green.

Watters says they want to figure out a way to tackle cigarette butt waste. This year they're opting to have a smoking section they'll monitor and will encourage people not to drop their finished cigarettes on the ground.

They could tell people not to smoke on site, he said, but "even if you put containers or whatever, they'd drop their cigarette butts wherever and then … we'd feel compelled to clean that up," he said.

"I think sometimes people, when they think of smoking, they don't think of it as garbage or pollution," he said. "That is a really challenging one."

For Hillside, Zimmerman says a challenge for them is finding alternatives to volunteer and staff ID tags that are made out of plasticized paper.

They've opted to go with bamboo wristbands rather than plastic coated ones this year for festival goers, but there's no similar option for ID tags.

"People have tried to use a heavy duty cardstock paper, but if you walk to your car and get wet because it's raining, your thing disintegrates. So you need something that's sturdy," she said.

"We're always looking for ways in which we can improve."

Marie Zimmerman is the executive director of Hillside Festival, held each year at the Guelph Lake Conservation Area near Guelph, Ont. Behind her is the main stage, which has a living roof filled with plants native to the area. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)


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