Is there a way to have fun without the mess?

For many festivals and big events there is a big build up and great celebration during the events. People party and have fun with a sense of abandon that goes with the whole festival vibe. Unfortunately the theme of abandonment stays on even after the bands have packed up and the party goers have returned home. If you’ve ever hosted a party in your own home, you’ll know the fun stops the morning after when you have to clean up all the trash and wash all the dishes. Now imagine that multiplied by 135000 people partying in a public space. Mess is an understatement.

Photographs of festival grounds show plastic bottles, broken tents, lost and abandoned clothing, and food packaging, as a few examples, usually wrapped up in a muddy mess. And it’s not just the trash that’s the problem, the impacts on the land show clearly human apathy for the environment.

While many festival goers seem to believe that all plastic gets recycled or goes to charities and homeless shelters, this is not the case. A statistic estimates the amount of waste produced annually at festivals in the UK amounts to 23500 tonnes, two thirds of which do to landfill. Most people will agree that this cannot continue and even festival organisers are recognizing that it reflects badly on them. So what can or is being done about it?

Why big events are such a big problem?

The issue of littering and masses of waste are not unique to festivals. Big sporting events see masses of trash littering sporting venues after the game has finished. Even worse is outdoor events such as marathons where hydration is provided in plastic sachets. Routes are littered with plastic waste as thousands of running focus on getting to the finish line, leaving it up to organisers to clean up after them.

Despite bins being provided and sweepers making a big effort to clean up the route near watering points, thousands of pieces of plastic are seen strewn along the route. The problem is that many runners carry these sachets with them, drinking and then discarding them a few miles from the watering points. Instead of carrying the waste with them, they discard them in drains and under bushes where they can’t easily be retrieved, even if they are seen. An even bigger issue is how the water sachets are used. Runners typically bite a corner off and spit it out. What happens to these thousands of tiny pieces of plastic? They usually get left behind to wash into storm water drains and out to the ocean.

Big events create huge volumes of waste in a very short space of time and while ideally plastic could and should be recycled, it rarely is. But plastic is not the only form of waste. There are huge volumes of food waste and unfortunately these half eaten discarded items make recycling even harder. Bins are contaminated, and food containers that could be recycled are sent to landfill instead.

Is there a solution for reducing event waste?

Many organisers and participants are recognising that the huge waste issue reflects badly on them and that they have a responsibility to curb the trash problem.  Some organisers are banning single use plastics outright, instead providing water fountains and selling reusable bottles and cups. Biodegradable food packaging is being used so that if it does end up in landfills at least it will break down easier than plastic or polystyrene packaging.

Participants are pledging to take their trash with them, recycle and be less wasteful, but unfortunately these good intentions are too easily forgotten about once the party’s gotten going. Some participants are doing their bit though, volunteering to be part of the clean-up crew that collects and sorts festival trash.

This year, only 500 of the 55,000 tents brought to Glastonbury were left behind, according to reports after the event.  It’s amazing how quickly behaviours can change.

In running events there’s a movement encouraging runners to carry their own hydration, reducing the volume of plastic sachets organisers utilise. In areas where races happen in natural areas, plastic is being banned altogether and runners have only the choice of drinking out of paper cups at specific water points or to carry their own hydration packs.  Water balls are a cool innovation, showing that there are solutions to the problems of bottled water.  I wonder if the London Marathon could go plastic bottle free.

Additionally, some entrepreneurs are taking on this messy event business, providing a full consulting service that is involved in the planning stages of an event, making suggestions on how to reduce and mange waste. This then continues on to managing the whole clean-up process after the event, often subcontracting out collection, sorting, processing and recycling.  It may not be a job many would aspire to, but it is essential if we want to continue enjoying big events without completely trashing the planet.

I guess my point is that with every problem, there is a solution, and an opportunity. Existing businesses can expand their service offering, targeting big events. Or innovators can offer new solutions that others haven’t thought of. There’s a great deal of expertise available in the industry, and opportunities to apply it in new and creative ways.  The big event trash problem can become an industry solution.