Melinda Watson, Raw Foundation

If you’ve ever organised (or attended) a festival before, you’ll know just how much waste they can create. Plastic makes up a large percentage of that waste and sadly, very often ends up in a landfill – or worse, in the sea.

David Attenborough brought the problem of plastic in the ocean to our attention in Blue Planet II – shockingly, it is estimated there will be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050.

For event organisers, the prospect of contributing to this problem is a real one, however, according to Melinda Watson, Founder/CEO of Raw Foundation, it’s perfectly possible to eliminate single-use plastic. She’s been working alongside festivals like Shambala and Glastonbury to help them reach this goal.

“Things have really changed in the last six months,” says Melinda. “The big difference is that festivals themselves want to be seen to be doing the right thing. As part of a radical new collaborative campaign led by the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) and Raw Foundation, over 60 independent festivals (including Shambala and Bestival) have pledged to ban single-use plastics by 2021.

“While that might seem like a really big challenge, it is possible. Shambala made a dramatic change in just two years – they’re practically single-use plastic-free now. It’s purely about having the intent to do it.”

The biggest change that needs to take place, says Melinda, is a shift in focus; away from recycling and towards reducing the use of disposable plastic and other materials that are used only once and then discarded.

“About 90% of plastic packaging worldwide is not recycled, most of which is almost exclusively single-use, so we’re trying to move people past recycling because that will never be enough. If you look at the waste triangle – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – our government is focused on completely the wrong end. I advocate a fourth R; Refuse – or Avoid in the first place.

“As a festival or event organiser you should be first asking yourself, ‘what can we decide not to use?’ then look at Reduce and Reuse, with Recycle being the last option.”

So how does this work in practice? Some of the biggest culprits for plastic waste at festivals are drinks bottles and cups, straws, cutlery, and serving ware. Melinda says festivals are avoiding these by championing reusable alternatives made from durable materials like stainless steel or bamboo.

Photo credit: Andy Hughes MA RCA

Working with a reusable cup company, festivals can operate a scheme whereby attendees pay a deposit for their cup and bring it back to the bar each time in exchange for a clean one. Their money is refunded when they finally return the cup. Alternatively, festivalgoers can bring their own cup or buy a branded one, which they can keep as a souvenir.

Adds Melinda: “Plastic water bottles are another huge problem. Glastonbury Festival organisers have previously estimated that one million plastic bottles are used during the event. In 2014, Glastonbury introduced reusable stainless steel bottles and refill water kiosks in collaboration with Raw Foundation and WaterAid, to clearly signpost and provide cost-free water for any kind of receptacle.

“In the first year, festivalgoers didn’t really get the message, awareness was very low then – but the message has gained traction now; they’re bringing their own reusable bottle or buying a stainless steel one on site.”

Taking things a step further, Glastonbury introduced stainless steel pint cups designed to be ‘non-aerodynamic’, to minimise injuries from throwing in 2016. Use of these containers was optional. Furthermore, Glastonbury festival is set to implement a site-wide ban on plastic bottles when it returns in 2019.

Meanwhile, Shambala now specifies to suppliers that they must adhere to their plastic-free policy. “They’ve been brave to really explicitly state to their suppliers what’s allowed. For example, the food vans don’t sell plastic bottles of fizzy drinks; they have cans. A lot of the stall holders have ceramic mugs, just like a cafe would. The result is that there is virtually no litter at Shambala now.”

Telling suppliers what they can and cannot do is one thing, but getting festivalgoers to comply is another. According to Melinda, it’s all about education, and engaging with your attendees before the festival opens.

“You can’t dictate to festivalgoers but you can raise awareness,” she says. “Ask your attendees to remember to bring their reusable bottles or carry their reusable cup with them. Do this before they arrive and then continue to raise awareness about other single-use plastics onsite too. Shambala has been very clear with their marketing about what they’re expecting festivalgoers to do and compliance is extremely high – 96% of the audience bring their own bottle now.”

Photo credit: Andy Hughes MA RCA

To help festival owners communicate plastic-free goals with attendees, Raw Foundation is providing them with a Plastic-Free checklist via the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), which they can promote on their websites both prior to and during their event.

“Aside from food and drink packaging, some of the biggest contributors to plastic waste that festivalgoers bring onsite are wet wipes, travel size toiletries, tampon applicators and glitter. At Raw Foundation, we promote the use of alternative feminine care products like menstrual cups, plastic-free wet wipes, eco glitter and encourage people to decant toiletries into reusable containers.”

Melinda says supermarkets are often to blame for the abundance of festival waste, selling low-cost disposable items targeted at festivalgoers. Even tents are available so cheaply, and made so poorly, that it leads to them becoming single-use. Communicating with your attendees before they hit the shops is key to preventing these purchases. Meanwhile,  the sale of quality, reusable alternatives presents the opportunity to add an extra revenue stream to your festival.

“Festival owners have worked with us to produce their own branded stainless steel bottles,” says Melinda. “You could also sell other reusable things like stainless steel straws or travel kits.”

Photo credit: Andy Hughes MA RCA

Through banning single-use plastic, not only can you minimise the environmental impact of your event, you can actually help inspire festivalgoers to reduce their reliance on disposable plastic for good.

Concludes Melinda: “A festival is like a micro version of our own over-consumption society. Unfortunately, festivals get hammered a lot for their waste but it’s no different to what’s happening outside. In a way, it’s a good thing because it’s spotlighting the problem.

“Festivals can be incredibly powerful creative spaces for change. Whatever initiative or bold new steps a festival or event can embrace, whether it’s ‘The Final Straw’ or ‘Drastic on Plastic’ campaign, it really makes a difference. Essentially, it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something – this is a call to action.”

Raw Foundation has produced a free-to-download guide for festival and event organisers as well as a guide for event attendees. To see what steps other event organisers are taking to reduce plastic at their events, check out the discussion on the EventTribe forum.