National media images and drone footage of tonnes of rubbish, including thousands of abandoned tents, discarded at festival sites is not a good look for an industry that has fought hard for the return of full capacity events. Access explores what is being done to tackle the problem.

This article was published in the October edition of Access All Areas. Read it here, and/or subscribe for free here

Shocking images of the debris left strewn across the sites of some of the UK’s biggest and best-known festivals have been widely published across the media. Festival waste is not a new issue but having overcome huge hurdles to secure the return of full-capacity events, incurred the significant cost of Covid mitigation measured and faced many supply chain dramas, the industry could surely have at least expected punters to play their part and take home their belongings.

While some media outlets, including The Sun, blamed the mess on “shameful” and “lazy” festival-goers, it was nonetheless a PR problem the festival sector could have done without, not least at a time when there were reports of festivals being associated with spikes in Covid cases.

“The retailers are taking in the profit while the festival organisers have to deal with the consequences and the environment pays the price.” Chiara Badiali, Julie’s Bicycle

Among the festivals highlighted in the media reports were Festival Republic’s 105,000-capacity Reading and Leeds (75,000) but it is certainly not limited to the Live Nation-owned companies events. Festival Republic MD Melvin Benn was a key player behind sustainability charter Green Nation, which was adopted as global Live Nation policy in 2019.

Among the initiatives Festival Republic has in place to tackle litter is enabling charities and not-for-profit groups to access its festival sites post-event to salvage tents and camping equipment. It has also run public-facing campaigns in an attempt to discourage people from leaving tents and equipment behind.

“This year has shown that we can’t let up on the public engagement campaigns, it’s not enough to do it once – it’s something that has to be ongoing,” says Chiara Badiali, knowledge and sector intelligence lead at music industry environmental action group Julie’s Bicycle.

She points out that the huge focus on the threat of Covid-19 has not helped matters: “Every new generation of festivalgoers has to be reengaged and reminded and I think what’s happened this year, in part, is that a lot of that public engagement and communications bandwidth has been taken up with all the Covid messaging and the waste reduction message has got a bit lost within that.”

In May 2019, the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) launched its Take Your Tent Home consumer-facing campaign, with the slogan Say No To Single Use.

“It’s a couple of years ago now but all the messages of that campaign remain very pertinent,” says AIF CEO Paul Reed. “It’s an ongoing campaign, we share the assets with members and they use them on site. We need to continue pushing it year on year to try and drive that message home.”

The AIF estimates that 250,000 tents are left at music festivals across the UK each year, and with the average tent weighing 3.5kg and being made mostly of plastic it is the equivalent of 8,750 straws or 250 pint cups per tent. In 2018, the organisation published the result of research that found 9.7% of people attending its member events had ditched a tent during that year’s festival season, equating to around 875 tonnes of plastic waste.

“It’s heart breaking to leave bluedot where it looks like nobody’s ever been there and then a week later leave Kendal Calling where in certain fields it looks like nobody has  has left.”

From The Fields co-founder Andy Smith

Reed believes there is a common misconception among festivalgoers that if they leave their tent at a festival it will be repurposed, when 90% of the time that isn’t the case. While that is another issue that needs to be emphasised via consumer education, the underlying problem is the fact consumers are able to purchases tents for as little as £20 from supermarkets that advertise them as festival tents, and therefore could be interpreted as being single-use.

Amanda Campbell and James Molkenthin, two design students at University College London, set up a company called Comp-a-Tent in 2016, a service designed to encourage users to take care of their tents and return them so they can be used again and again.

Comp-a-Tent enables festivalgoers to buy pop-up tents that can be collected from its on-site stall. After the event, it buys back any tent stock deemed reusable. They are then used for another season, and then retired to charity partners such as ABC and Gift Your Gear, for a second life as shelter for refugees, outdoor youth programmes and pre-pitch campsite provider Camplight.

It found that 18,500 tents were abandoned at one festival alone, equating to 44% of those used during the event. The organisation, launched in 2016, suggests that with less than 5% of abandoned tents getting salvaged, around 1 million are being incinerated each year, and some festival organisers pay up to £100,000 per year to collect and incinerated them.

Research by Comp-A-Tent found that as many as 36% of tents left at festivals are bought from either Argos or Tesco. Argos is currently selling them for as little as £25, while at ASDA you ca pick one up for £20, and Tesco has a four-man tent for £50.

Reed is among many who believe that retailers are at least partly responsible for the problem, and his organisation has suggested to them that they should include the Take Your Tent Home messaging at point of purchase.

“A lot of these retailers, such as Tesco and Argos, have festival season ranges where they run cut-price bundle deals that include items such as chairs and mattresses, which often also get left behind at festivals because they are so cheap.”

Badiali says that Julie’s Bicycle and the wider industry has been trying to engage with retailers to stop them marketing and selling festival tents effectively as single use items but to no avail. As a result the focus has now shifted to addressing government.

She says, “We are continuing to try and engage on a policy level with things like extended producer responsibility legislation because that should really apply to bad quality single-use tents where the retailers are taking in the profit while the festival organisers have to deal with the consequences and the environment pays the price.”

Among the initiatives to attempt to tackle the issue include the Download Ecocamp, which has been a feature at the Festival Republic-run event since 2018. Hosted by Greenpeace, it accommodated 1,400 campers who sign up to leaving zero waste. Meanwhile, the company’s Electric Picnic festival in Ireland introduced ‘Greta’s Campsite’, a zero-waste campsite in the main camping grounds of the festival dedicated to environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg.

“We realised that it needed to be a joint approach because we were all suffering with the same problem.”

AGF co-founder Claire O’Neill

Andy Smith, the co-founder of the 27,000-capacity Kendal Calling festival has been left so frustrated by the number of abandoned tents left at the Lowther Deer Park site in Cumbria that he is preparing to launch a tent deposit scheme that would involve all attendees.

“We are open to any suggestions, I’m open to any alternative, it’s the last resort,” he says. “We have tried and tried, and the industry as a whole has tried an awful lot to enact change via communication – explaining why people need to take the tents home and talking about the environment, but for certain segments of the audience it just isn’t hitting home.”

The proposed system would involve a label being attached to each attendee’s tent bag, which is then scanned on entry and exist. If the label is scanned on entry and exit, the holder is refunded £10.

With attendees willing to spend money on a tent for single use, Smith acknowledges that losing £10 may not be a sufficient deterrent to persuade the majority of people to take their tents with them, but it will help pay for the clean-up and redistribution of abandoned ones.

“The £10 charge will allow us to avoid a large amount of the waste going to landfill,” says Smith. “We are working in partnership with a company that will turn the tents into a reusable product. The money will allow us to take the tent down, clean it and take it to somewhere where it can be transformed into a hammock, bag or a wallet.”

With Kendal Calling having been cancelled two years in a row, around 70% of the ticket holders for the 2022 event have held their tickets over and so Smith says it would not be possible to introduce the initiative until new tickets go on sale for the event in 2023.

The festival organiser says his team is looking for partners to enable the initiative to be rolled out more widely: “It’s not easy thing to do, it’s quite a complex thing when we are already doing something complex – running music festivals, but if any other festival operators are interested in helping us to tackle this then that would be great.”

Interestingly, Smith says that the problem doesn’t exist at his company’s other festival, bluedot (21,000).

“It’s heart breaking to leave bluedot where it looks like nobody’s ever been there and then a week later leave Kendal Calling where in certain fields it looks like nobody has left,” he says.

While the blame could easily be laid with younger festivalgoers and a generation of attendees who perhaps are going to festivals for the first time, Badiali says it’s important to not simply demonise young people.

“It’s interesting when you look at the different festivals and their audience breakdowns, I don’t think this is purely an issue that comes from the first time and young festival goers, some of the older generations of festival goers are as guilty of leaving their tents behind. When someone leaves a tent behind it causes a weird social effect ­– if you see someone else doing it, it becomes more normal.”

Claire O’Neill, co-founder of the A Greener Festival sustainable festival certification scheme and organiser of the Green Events & Innovations Conference (GEI), was one of the founder members of the Campsite Roundtable. In 2018, the annual campsite aftermath all over Europe led 36 festival organisers, and six festival industry associations and sustainability groups from 10 countries to get together at Eurosonic Noordeslag in Holland to find ways to tackle the issue. The initiative continues to be led by A Greener Festival and GO Group – the green operation division of the European festival association, Yourope.

The group convenes at key festival industry events throughout the year including Eurosonic Noordeslaag ESNS, GEI (UK) and Reeperbahn (Germany). It is open to all festival organisers.

Among the resulting international initiatives have been Love Your Tent, which as well as campaigning for behavioural change and a more considerate approach by campers offers Love Your Tent zones at events including the Isle of Wight Festival.

Attendees reserve a pitch for their tent in a dedicated field. They must commit to taking their tent and all belongings home after the festival, and pay a £30 deposit. While not a festival-wide scheme such as the one suggested by Smith, it has proven to have a positive impact at the events it is involved in.

O’Neill says pre-pitch camping services are also a great solution if there’s a service in place to clean, pack and reuse the tents again: “I’m not talking about boutique camping, just having a standard tent provided. That also reduces how much stuff you’re carrying to the site and that makes the argument for travelling by public transport easier. There are some organisations that do this really well such as Pitched For You and Camplight, which give the tents and waste camping equipment a second lease of life.”

She also highlights a company called Circular Camping, which runs a reclaimed camping equipment shop at events including the Lost Village Festival, which as well as selling used equipment carries out camping kit repairs. It also has an eBay shop where abandoned equipment is sold on.

While these initiatives are chipping away at the mountain of waste left at the hundreds of festivals each year, O’Neill says it’s important not to give people the impression that if they leave items behind they will be collected and reused.

“The scale of resource required by festival teams to deal with it is huge when their time is limited as they have to get packed up and out of the campsite. That means that generally you can only just scratched the surface, especially when coupled with the problem of poor quality equipment, and that many of the tents will be broken,” she says.

With behavioural change being the key goal, O’Neill says the Campsite Roundtable is very much an ongoing initiative where European festival organisers talk about what kind of solutions they are working on and how the sector can best communicate to audiences and change things going forward.

“We realised that it needed to be a joint approach because we were all suffering with the same enormous problem.

This article was published in the October edition of Access All Areas. Read it here, and/or subscribe for free here