The Association of Independent Festivals CEO Paul Reed, environmental strategist and Shambala Festival co-founder Chris Johnson and Angus Clark from charity Herts for Refugees discuss ways to tackle the “perennial issue” of belongings being left behind at festivals.

This summer’s festival season sparked widespread frustration and anger as mainstream media footage once again showed the familiar sight of thousands of tents and other belongings abandoned at festival sites across the UK.

It may be a widespread problem but thankfully there are exceptions. At Shambala festival in Northamptonshire, barely anything was left behind at the 15,000-capacity event this year. While Reading and Leeds attract a largely teenage audience, Shambala sees a significantly older crowd who tend to be more focus on environmental issues.

Despite the discernible challenge it faces at Reading and Leeds with tents being discarded, Festival Republic went strong on its sustainable efforts and messaging this year, with the promoter involving the festivals in Music Declares Emergency’s ‘No Music on a Dead Planet’ campaign, as well as funding a renewable power research project for the 2023 season.

Perennial issue

The Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) CEO Paul Reed describes belongings being left behind at festivals as a perennial issue that remains just as relevant as the day the association launched its Take Your Tent Home initiative in 2019.

One of the core messages of AIF’s ongoing initiative is Say No To Single Use, which follows its Drastic on Plastic campaign, launched in 2018 in partnership with Raw Foundation.

Reed says the campaign has a dual purpose of educating audiences but also putting pressure on major retailers, which he says are essentially marketing tents as cheap single-use items.

“The Government needs to put some pressure on these retailers to do something about that, because they also have a responsibility to promote re-use methods.

“Your average tent weighs 3.5 kilograms and is mostly made of plastic, that’s the equivalent of 8,750 plastic straws or 250 drinking cups.”

Reed says several AIF members have backed the association’s campaign or otherwise communicated the message effectively to their audiences this year. He cites Kendall Calling’s Leave Nothing But Memories campaign, which resulted in 98% of tents being collected after the festival,.

“We have made some progress since we launched the campaign, but my ideal scenario is that we wouldn’t need to reiterate this campaign every year. We’re certainly far from that point – it is likely to be relevant in future seasons.”

When it comes to particular demographics being blamed, Reed says there may be a disconnect between young people’s behaviour at festivals and their opinions about on the climate emergency, which he says many are deeply concerned about.

Leading the way

The 2017 edition of Shambala was attended by 15,000 and saw only 33 tents left behind. A year later, that figure increased 445% to 180 tents. In 2019 – Shambala’s last edition before this year – six tents were left behind – along with approximately 100 broken tents packed away and left in the campsite bins.

Co-founder Chris Johnson says this year’s edition was a significant step forward from 2019, with the general camping area left in the same condition as the family camping area, which is “always immaculate”.

Says Johnson, “This year the recycling manager from Green Box – the company that we use at Shambala – took me out to see the main field at midday on Monday and actually cried. She had never seen anything like it. There was almost no litter.

“We’re all about transparency,” he adds. “The holy grail for us is not a single tent left. We thought we’d managed that but it turns out six tents were left. Whoever was leaving them had neatly packed them up and put them in the waste area.

“We do have a great crowd but we also work hard on the culture of not leaving tents – it’s a combination of both.”

Johnson says Shambala employed ethical stewarding company Michaels this year, which involved a team of 18 members of staff educating campers on the festival’s campsite safety and ways of being more sustainable.

“It is harder to work with younger demographics, so we’ve got a head start,” he says. “But we also know that the measures that we put in place and the communications with them year-on-year have seen improvements.

“There’s a cumulative effect when you actively communicate using all channels every year, again and again.”

Tent salvages

One solution for the issue is provided by charity Herts for Refugees. Since 2016 the Hertfordshire-based charity has been removing abandoned tents and sleeping bags from festival sites and donating them to refugees in France. Working with partners Hope And Aid Direct, Eco Warriorz and FRWD, this year the charity worked at eight festivals including Isle of Wight, Boomtown and Reading.

CEO Angus Clark says he has seen a general decrease in the number of items being left behind this year: “This was most apparent at smaller events with a more diverse demographic. The larger events still have some challenges but have increased the messaging around abandoning gear.”

Clark estimates that the charity removed a combined total of around 12 tonnes of usable tents and sleeping bags from the events it attended this year. All of it has now been delivered to its partner organisations who will distribute it over the winter to vulnerable, displaced people.

“Despite our charity benefiting from the left-behind equipment, we really try to get the ‘take it home’ message over,” says Clark, who shares Reed’s frustration on how tents are marketed by large retailers.

“Ultimately, we want festivals to become waste free but until then, we will continue to help clear the sites via salvage.”