Making Festivals Sustainable

Helen Heathfield explains how festivals compare with more traditional forms of entertainment when it comes to sustainability...
01 August 2010

Interview with 

Helen Heathfield, Julie's Bicycle


Glastonbury Sunset


Ben -   The entertainment industry has come under fire for hypocrisy with regards environmental sustainability, with some artists giving an environmental message whilst chartering private jets to travel from gig to gig.  Julie's Bicycle was setup to help the creative industry reduce its environmental impact.  Working with theatres, tour managers, orchestras and festivals, they evaluate impact and recommend how to improve sustainability.  I spoke to Helen Heathfield, Associate Director of Energy and Environment, about how festivals compare with more traditional forms of entertainment Glastonbury Sunsetwhen it comes to sustainability.

Helen -  I think in many ways they have led it. I think because their environmental impacts are so visible - everybody can see the rubbish lying around in the arena at the end of the show and everybody can see the rubbish lying around in the camp site at the end of the festival.  It's just so visible and I think also, a lot of people who are involved with festivals really do have a strong nature and earth-based approach to their lives anyway.  Camping is one of the lowest impact ways of living, even if it's just for short time.  So, I think a lot of people involved in running festivals do have a strong environmental ethos.  And so, in many ways, the festivals have led on a range of initiatives around recycling and renewable energy, and just running their events in a more aware way.

Ben -   How do you go about analysing the impact of something like a festival?

Helen -   Basically, we collect data about energy, water, waste, and travel.  So, energy is largely to with the diesel that's consumed in the generators onsite, though occasionally, rarely, a festival might actually be plugged into the grid.  And then obviously, we also collect data about any renewables that they're using, any biodiesel that they're using, so that's energy.  Then on waste, we collect information about the tons of waste that's going to landfill, that's going to recycling, and that's going to composting, and anything that's able to be re-used.  For water, we're looking at the amount of water that's brought on site and then the amount of waste water that's going off from toilets and so on.  And then finally with travel, it's a very vexed issue.  At the moment, we ask the festival organises for any information they have about audience travel.  And it's a tricky issue because it's not under the direct control of the festival organiser. They can put all kinds of infrastructure in place, they can charge for car parking.  They can do all kinds of things but in the end, people will  decide however they want to get into the site.  So, we do ask for some bits of information about that if they have it.  So those are the main areas that we focus on at the moment.

Ben -   And what sort of data were you getting from Glastonbury?  How do these things break down at Glastonbury?

Helen -   Well, we haven't yet got the information for this year's festival.  It often takes Glastonbury Festivala while for all the invoices to come through for diesel and waste, and water in particular.  So I can't say anything yet about Glastonbury this year.  What I can say of festivals in general is, audience travel is always the biggest impact, and just everybody getting to sites kind of swamps really the actual on site impacts.  But then when you consider the energy, water, and waste, all of that diesel usage is normally the largest impact on site.  And then any methane emissions from landfill are normally the second biggest, and then finally, any emissions from the water treatment is normally the smallest.

Ben -   I'm quite surprised really that people getting there is in fact the biggest impact.  Castle Cary train station was absolutely packed. So obviously, a great deal of people had done their best to travel by bus or by train.

Helen -   Yeah.

Ben -   And the people I was speaking to at the festival, a lot of them had driven because of the convenience, and when you're taking your camping equipment, people do choose to drive.  Do you think there's anything that festival organisers can do to try and discourage driving?

Helen -   Yeah.  A lot of them are already charging for car parking and also making a certain proportion of tickets tied to a coach journey, and making sure that those people actually do arrive on the coach.  But obviously, carrying all of your tent, your camping material, your beer, your food, all that kind of stuff, across lots of different public transport interchanges and then across lots of different fields is, yeah, people feel it's inconvenient.  So what we've seen some festivals do is providing pre-ordered beer onsite and we've also seeing some festivals providing a tent package onsite, your tents and sleeping bag, all that kind of thing.  It's that kind of approach, trying to provide things for people on site so that they've got less to carry, and then  they're happier to take the coach.  There's also been some interesting initiatives where they've been seeking to make the coach part of the festival experience, having bands and other kinds of entertainment on the coach.  So this really becomes part of the fun and we certainly found, two years ago now, we did some research on audience travel and we found that people who took the coaches really enjoyed it - they weren't expecting to and they enjoyed it more than they thought.  So, I think people often have a rather fixed idea in their mind that the car is really convenient and the coaches aren't, whereas actually that isn't borne out by experience.

Ben -   Obviously a large part of what you do is looking at how the entertainment industry can try  and reduce its impact.  Does the entertainment community have a responsibility to reduce their own impact, but also to encourage others?

Helen -   It definitely has a responsibility to reduce its own emissions.  So I think taking those actions to improve venues, improve festivals, and improve touring behaviour, is really, really crucial.  And then once we start to see results and you know, there's reductions that we can claim and that are robust, the artist is obviously then in a much stronger position to be able to say, "This is what the industry has done, this is what I have asked for, this is what I've got, and so therefore, what are you, the audience going to do next?"  I think there's something really important about tackling climate change which is about tackling this feeling of disconnection and being alone, and feeling powerless.  And so, I think there's really important stories to tell about how we're in it together, we can all make reductions, and improvements together.  And that it's just a lot more fun, I think, if we do do it together.  That's a very important message for me and which I think the entertainment industry as a whole is in a very strong position to communicate.


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