My Call to Action on Plastics for Festivals and Events

Melinda Watson is the founder of the RAW Foundation, a sustainability charity focused primarily on education. She is also a designer, teacher, speaker and consultant on sustainability, consumerism and waste.

The plastic pollution crisis is riding high on the environmental agenda at long last! From Davis Attenborough’s Blue Planet II to the work of many organisations like us at RAW Foundation, the message is getting out there and the motivation to act is gaining traction.

Following the launch of our Plastic Free Festival and Event Guide on March 6 at the Green Events & Innovations Conference, and my call for action to boycott throwaway plastics, this article summarises the problem with plastics with a focus on some event-based solutions.

Festivals consume vast amounts of single-use plastics and other throwaway items such as coffee cups, but what’s the problem with that?

Plastic pollution has reached a crisis point globally, especially in the oceans. Despite growing awareness of the problem, the flow of plastic waste continues to increase exponentially across the world. The vast majority of this originates from land. This is threatening marine life by contaminating precious water systems, passing up the food chain and affecting human health, infiltrating other cultures, impacting wildlife and encouraging a throwaway consumer culture across the world.

Plastics production has soared globally. If the projected growth of plastic production and business-as-usual trends continue, warnings indicate the oceans will contain more plastic (by weight) than fish by 2050. By that time, the production of plastic will account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption and represent 15% of the global annual carbon budget.

Frustratingly, most of this waste is primary micro-plastics, such as microbeads, and secondary microplastics originating from single-use plastic and packaging.

But how does this relate to events in the UK, where waste is captured for processing? Whilst the majority of ocean pollution may emanate from developing nations due to the lack of effective – or any – waste systems in place, there are a wide range of other concerning impacts derived from plastic production and use.

Ninety five percent of all single-use plastic is thrown away every year. Appropriate clean recycling and recovery systems are not keeping pace with the sheer quantity or mixture of plastic produced. Since China’s ban on imported plastic from Europe in January, this has led to a crisis for UK recycling efforts and risks plastic waste being stockpiled or ending up in landfill. An overwhelming 72% of plastic packaging is not recovered globally at all. Forty percent is sent to landfill and 32% leaks out of the collection systems, where chemicals can leak from the plastic into surrounding habitats, fresh water and marine water systems.

At least 61% of priority pollutants listed by the European Union are associated with plastic debris. Since 2013, scientists from the US, Japan, and the UK have been calling for the most harmful plastics to be reclassified as hazardous.

The festival industry consumes millions of single use items. Recycling is important, but it is far from the solution. Many of our impacts are embodied in the materials we use. The actions I’m urging everyone to take includes a commitment to ban or phase out the use of single-use plastics, instead prioritising reusable packaging and developing innovative delivery systems to encourage high levels of reuse or high quality recycling.

There is hope on the horizon and things are changing in the events industry already. Festivals such as Shambala have successfully eliminated single use plastics entirely; Glastonbury have been providing reusable, 100% stainless steel water bottle and ‘free’ water refill points across their site, and are also exploring banning plastic bottles; Bestival are leading the way on a Final Straw Campaign in 2018, encouraging many events to take that important first step; and RAW is working with the AIF and AFO to develop strategies to support their combined membership of 310 festivals to take action.

Festivals can do a great deal to reduce single use plastics, and to increase awareness about this critical issue. In 2018 audiences expect action in any case. Most actions take the form of replacing disposable items with reusable ones, such as bar cups and water bottles, but events can also talk to audiences about the actions they can take in everyday life.

Festivals can take the first steps by removing straws and single use sauce sachets. Water and drinks sold in single use plastic should be replaced with better water infrastructure, the use of reusable water bottles, and aluminium cans. Reductions can also be achieved by introducing bar cup reuse systems. If delivered well, it is a tried and tested method, having been the norm in parts of Europe for over a decade.

The great side effect of such changes has been much cleaner festival sites. It is often reported that 60% or more of litter on the floor at events is bottles and pint cups. Remove the source, and the problem starts to disappear.

Whilst I understand that changes can take time due to agreements and contracts in place and so on, taking a first step can make a big difference – whatever it is!

The Plastic Free Festival guide is published by Raw Foundation, a not-for-profit committed to raising awareness about the hidden consequences of our everyday stuff, in partnership with Kambe Events (the company behind Shambala Festival) and is available to download for free.

The second edition of our guide provides background information on the issues arising from plastics use, and also includes practical advice for festival organisers on how to implement prevention strategies for positive long-term change. Covering everything from the stark reality about plastics and useful resources to festival-specific advice, tips and case studies, the guide aims to give organisers a single reference point for the things they need to take into consideration when putting on and managing an event, but without being prescriptive.

It is not hard to see that this is an issue that affects everyone. It is a clear message for compelling change. Plastic pollution has been described as ‘the apocalyptic twin of climate change’. In my opinion, that is no exaggeration. There is no time to waste.

For further information about Raw Foundation please email or visit For an interview with Melinda Watson, founder of Raw Foundation (an expert on the issue of plastic waste) please email