When the party’s over

Whatever your age or musical interests, there’s now a festival catering for your entertainment. But how can you handle the mess made by these mini (and often not so mini) temporary towns? Libby Peake visited the Glastonbury Festival site to find out

Glastonbury festival cleanup“Because we’re creating a city, the resources required for this site are the same as for any town or city in the country”, explains Phil Miller, Glastonbury Festival’s Infrastructure Manager, whilst sitting over a map of the festival’s 1,100-acre site. And indeed, during a few days in June, Worthy Farm and the other 20+ farms that provide land for the festivities temporarily house the third biggest city in the South West of England – revellers, performers and staff total more than 150,000.

Waste management infrastructure in most cities is built up organically as the city grows, but what happens with a temporary city like Glastonbury? How do they service a city-sized population for just five days a year?

Well, it takes a lot of preparation on the part of the year-round staff at the farm. I meet Rob Kearle, who’s in charge of rubbish and recycling at the festival, at the unfinished materials recovery barn, which looks to be about three times the size of the nearby barn where recycling used to take place. He explains that when he first arrived, recycling was carried out in a marquee in the middle of the site, “but as of course the event’s grown, the amount of rubbish has grown, and we’ve just outstripped all of that”. So it seems as though there’s been an element of organic growth here, as well, and that processes and facilities have evolved since 1,500 hippies first partied on the farm for two days in 1970.

There have been a few blips along the way, including ‘The Reclamator’, a mobile conveyor belt powered by solar panels (which was “just another government-funded nonsense”, according to the outspoken Kearle), vacuum machines that were meant to clean the whole site in two days (but “wouldn’t pick anything up”) and – one year – a philosophy of letting litter pickers only pick litter if they felt like it (“and of course that didn’t work out”). All that is in the past, though, and these days, recycling at the festival is a major operation involving hundreds of crew, as well as over a thousand volunteers who generally work three eight-hour shifts picking litter or standing at the MRF’s picking line in exchange for their tickets. Festival Recycling, a private company that grew out of Resource Futures’ subsidiary, Network Recycling, handles the operation during the show, including the morning litter picks and the dustbin trucks, which empty the 15,000 colourful oil drums dotted around the site and 160 skips in the rear of the markets.

Waste is collected in three categories: compostable waste, dry recyclables and landfill waste. The compostable waste is bulked up in the recycling barn and goes off to a nearby composting plant (though Kearle – quite logically – notes it’s “environmentally stupid that it can’t be fed to pigs and that we can’t treat it here where it’s created” because of the Animal By-Products Regulations).

The recyclable materials are separated into material stream on the conveyor belts, but are not bulked on site “because of the danger of a volunteer baling themselves”. You’d expect that working on the MRF picking line in general might be a bit much for a group of volunteers; while Kearle admits that “they find it hard”, he says, “I think they like it because they’re doing something positive and it’s less back-breaking than picking up litter in the field.” This year, for the first time, volunteers will also probably be picking through the waste collected in landfill containers, as “there’s very little landfill stuff in the public area”, and most of the waste from those oil drums is biodegradable – food waste or paper-based plates and cutlery that the traders must use.

All this happens 24 hours a day while the festival is taking place, but though it seems a major operation, the volunteer army doesn’t actually handle most of the waste and recycling at Glastonbury; the bulk of waste management takes place after the revellers have gone. Kearle explains: “The volunteer thing is just about keeping it tidy and presentable and collecting all the recycling that we can. Then the paid litter picking team afterwards gets everything – the fag butts, the tent pegs, everything people coming to the festival have left, the traders have left, the construction crews and fencing team have left behind – and putting it back into a dairy farm.” The paid team takes over on the Tuesday following the festival, and sweeps the whole site clean in 10 days to two weeks. Kearle explains that it used to take a small team the entire summer to clean up from the long weekend, but they seem to have a system down pat now and in fact have an application in to double their number of refuse trucks from 12 to 24 to keep up with the pace of the main litter pick. In a dry year, Kearle says they collect about 2,000 tonnes of waste and about 3,000 in a wet year because of the weight of the mud and water.

Glastonbury festival cleanupThough there are no official targets, the local authority, Mendip District Council, asks that the festival at least match its diversion rate (40.1 per cent in 2009/10), which Kearle indicates is an easy task (since 2005, the festival has managed around 50 per cent recycling each year, regardless of moisture and mud content). Kearle candidly claims: “It’s almost criminal that someone like a council that’s got fixed collection days and fixed collection points so they know who’s producing their rubbish shouldn’t have a massively better recycling rate than us.” Of course, Kearle et al are lucky in that they can reduce waste by banning certain materials from the site: “Polystyrene isn’t allowed, all food disposables have to be biodegradable. We don’t allow glass on site or bioplastics. So, we actively manage the rubbish that comes on here. We don’t allow traders who overly produce rubbish and packaging.”

And indeed, as in any city, it is the commercial sector that produces the most waste, but so attractive is a pitch at Glastonbury that the 1,000 market traders, including 400 food stalls, can now be induced to play by the rules. They’re told that if they don’t listen, “We’ll consider sacking you.”

It wasn’t always so; Kearle notes: “When I first started to do the big litter pick, it would be quite common to see half a tonne of fish left in a pile rotting or lots of pigs trotters and heads rotting in a pile – traders just going ‘I don’t want this’ and dumping it on the ground. The first year I took over, in the mid nineties, I think we managed to get rid of about 20 traders because of the crap that they left behind.”

All this isn’t to say that the public don’t play their fair share in waste generation or dictate how much waste the traders produce. And as the demographics of the festival have changed from the original ‘green’ hippies, to include more commercial types, their waste generating capacity has increased – until the recession hit at least. “Until then, the amount of rubbish had been getting bigger every single year”, Kearle says. “Oddly enough, the amount of rubbish standing in the campsites had gone down massively because I think people had just turned up with a wodge of money in their pocket and bought everything from the traders. Now, we’re noticing that the amount of rubbish – particularly food waste rubbish, so food cans, bottles, wrapping bags, Tesco bags, all that sort of stuff – is actually now increasing in the camping fields, as, I suppose, the recession’s bit into people’s disposable incomes.”

But it’s not just packaging waste that’s left in the fields once the party’s over. Emblemising a throw-away mentality, every year, thousands of tents and other reusable items are left behind. One year, this figure reached 20,000 – a group had put up signs asking for tents to be donated to Africa, but then “buggered off back to London with about 50 tents”. Last year, a local woman collected about 1,000 to use to make clothes, and groups like the Boy Scouts and Air Cadets also get to pick through the leftovers. Asked if any tents wind up in landfill, Kearle replies: “Yes. Because quite a lot of them have either been ripped or actually used as toilets. So, no one wants to recycle those.”

A video on the Glastonbury website calling on festival goers to ‘take it home’ highlights the depressing state the farm is left in once the revellers leave: in 2009, roughly 400 gazebos, 9,500 roll mats, 5,500 tents, 6,500 sleeping bags, 3,500 airbeds, and 2,200 chairs were abandoned. Kearle adds that on a wet year, lots of wellies get left behind, and there are always nitrous oxide canisters, fridges, freezers, and televisions (!) left in the camping fields. Fortunately, those can all go to the local scrap yard or WEEE reprocessors.

Educating more than 100,000 festival goers about recycling, some of whom clearly
don’t care about the issue, is a daunting task. The festival sends emails and has information in the programme and ‘The Fine Guide’ and all the bins are labelled with colour-coordinated tops, but Kearle admits that there’s not a lot he can do to change some people’s ways: “You’ll get those that will do it perfectly every single time. You’ll get those that don’t give a f**k about recycling. They’ll just chuck it on the floor. And you’ll get those that just don’t get it at all because mummy’s always done it for them.” (That being said, he notes: “Most people do go up to the bins, have a quick look at the labels, and tend to select the right one, even really pissed people who are struggling to stand up and focus.”)

And just as Kearle dismisses – good naturedly and perhaps in part to be provocative – some of the festival goers, so too he dismisses the very work that he does: “Waste reduction is the key, isn’t it? Recycling doesn’t really save a lot of resources or energy, does it? What we do isn’t very green with these quantities of waste. What we do is just a veneer.” It’s hard not to admit that he’s got a good point.

But others at the festival are also working on ‘green’ issues and the word ‘sustainability’ seems to be an important one here. Sitting in a wood-beam-ceilinged room in his farmhouse, the festival’s founder Michael Eavis explains that sustainability has always been important at Worthy Farm: “About 40 years ago, all my hippie friends that came here originally were the first green thinkers, and the green initiatives started there, really.” He admits that “loads of nasty things happen here” in terms of environmental impact, but insists they “bend over backwards trying to alleviate the problems”. In addition to all the effort that goes into recycling, the farm has recently installed over 1,000 photovoltaic cells that produce around 200 kilowatts of energy on a sunny day; Eavis intends to replace 10 of the vehicles in the festival’s Land Rover fleet with electric cars; and plans are afoot to install an on-farm anaerobic digestion unit (à la those in Germany) to handle cattle waste and other agricultural residues (but not the festival food waste as it wouldn’t be worth getting an additional licence to process such a short-lived waste stream). 

Ultimately, Eavis insists: “The festival is still a bit of a party, really – it’s very light and it doesn’t really matter that much. The farm comes first.” The green motto here is ‘Love the farm. Leave no trace’, and regardless of how difficult some attendees might make it, you can rest assured that the organisers will do their bit for the sustainability of the farm and the event.

Related Articles