Festivals’ plastic predicament

Dr Ashlee Jahnke, Head of Research at Teysha Technologies

According to think-do tank Powerful Thinking, UK music festivals create 23,500 tonnes of waste per year. Several initiatives have been implemented by festivals to combat this waste issue, however there is still an association made by the British public that links festivals with mass littering. Here Dr Ashlee Jahnke, Head of Research at biodegradable biopolymer research platform Teysha Technologies, looks at how festival organisers have tried to solve this plastic problem and explains that negative perceptions can be rectified with creativity and persistence.

The return of events like Reading Festival were a blessing to many after a long period of isolation during the global pandemic. 100,000 people turned up to the sold-out festival to see names like Stormzy and Post Malone perform live for the first time since 2019. However, when the festival ended, drone footage showed the large amount of abandoned tents, sleeping bags and plastic waste that had been left on Little John’s Farm.

Recycling schemes are one of the most common practices used to tackle this issue — however there is concern that recycling is not enough. According to the co-founder of A Plastic Planet, less than 10 per cent of plastic is actually recycled in the UK. The rest is either shipped to developing countries or put in landfills. Some festivals have tried to salvage items, such as tents and sleeping bags, hoping they can be put to good use for those in need. Every year more than 250,000 tents are abandoned at music festivals in the UK. Though salvaging some of the waste can be a great solution in the short term, it only pushes the plastic problem onto another location when the cheap tents eventually become unusable.

Though several green initiatives have been put in place to dim the spotlight on the festival industry, the images on social media still tug at heart strings. Despite the pushback, festival organisers are determined to change this stereotype.

How are festivals combatting plastic waste?

Since 2019, Glastonbury, which produces around 2,000 tonnes of waste per year, has required attendees to adhere to the Glastonbury Green Pledge. This pledge is to ‘Love the Farm, Leave no Trace.’ and all attendees are required to sign it as part of the festival’s terms and conditions. Festival organisers did not leave the pledge to chance, as they also ensured single-use plastic bottles were no longer available at the festival. Instead, they encouraged attendees to refill their water bottles for free at water taps. However, since the start of COVID-19, we have not been able to see how these policies have really taken off over the last few years.

The Shambala festival in Northamptonshire has one of the most prominent green initiatives in the UK. In 2018, it won the Innovation Award at the UK Festival Awards in recognition for its pioneering sustainability practices. Not only have organisers reduced the festival’s carbon footprint by 80 per cent, but they are also committed to being single-use plastic free. No drinks are sold in disposable plastic cups and there is a 50p levy per drink for disposable hot cups. In 2018, for the first time, it sent zero waste to landfill. The results seen from the festival shows that green initiatives can be incredibly successful if implemented correctly.

One unique initiative of the Shambala festival is the Recycling Exchange. Visitors pay £10 when ordering tickets and are given two bags at the festival, one for recyclable waste and one for general waste. At the end of the festival, visitors can either claim their £10 back or collect a limited edition festival pack for returning the bag. Unique ideas that encourage attendee participation are vital in limiting plastic waste because of littering behaviour. Involving, encouraging and educating attendees is crucial in the cycle of limiting plastic waste.      

Improving waste literacy

One of the best ways to tackle a problem is to fully understand it. Waste literacy can often be confusing for individuals. Terms like bioplastics, biodegradable plastics and compostable plastics can often be thrown around by companies, leading consumers to believe they are the same thing — but they are not.

For example, bioplastics are made from biological material, but that does not mean they are environmentally friendly. Instead, it is a diverse classification that covers a wide range of properties. They are just as likely to be landfilled as petroleum-based plastics. Compostable plastics, on the other hand, must be able to degrade into a compost residue that is not damaging or identifiable as a plastic. These plastics are much more environmentally friendly as they must meet a certain set of requirements.

Waste literacy programmes should be encouraged by festival organisers. As people begin to understand the different types of plastics and their impact on the environment, they will be inspired to take collective action. Visitors could receive a leaflet to read or organisers could place various signposts around the grounds to catch a visitor’s eye. Waste literacy shouldn’t be limited to visitors however, programmes should also be available for festival organisers to encourage them to come up with unique solutions.

What is plastic offsetting?

Readers may be aware of carbon offsetting, a solution for businesses and individuals to compensate their carbon emissions with schemes and projects that look to reduce carbon emissions elsewhere. For example, a company may only offer employees electric or hybrid cars rather than petrol ones to reduce carbon emissions on the road.

Plastic offsetting is similar in principle but focuses on compensating plastic pollution. Companies and consumers can offset their plastic consumption by funding or investing in social and environmental projects to balance out their own plastic waste. This money could be used towards better recycling practices or to fund research centres that are developing eco-friendly alternatives to traditional plastic.

Plastic offsetting may seem like a small action from festivals, but if a certain percentage of sales went into funding environmental projects, it could see the foundations of waste management rise faster. Eco-friendly materials, like biodegradable biopolymers, will only be able to compete with traditional petroleum-based products with more funding. Contributions will not only fund further developments into making products more durable and user friendly, but they also make a statement of solidarity in progressing towards green technology. As more events push towards sustainable products, the more options they will begin to see in the market. 

When the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) committed to banning single-use plastic from its sites by 2021, AIF CEO Paul Reed described single-use plastic as ‘one of the most critical issues facing our businesses and wider society’. Rob da Bank, the Bestival co-founder also explained that the initiative created by the AIF was ‘leading the global charge against essentially unnecessary plastic at all our festivals.’  

Alternatives to plastics that are just as endurable but more environmentally friendly are out there. Teysha, a biopolymer research platform, has developed a unique polycarbonate platform from renewable resources that can be customised for a multitude of applications. These products can even undergo selective degradation into non-harmful substances, a good solution if litter manages to get lost in the environment.

There is not one solution to tackling plastic pollution. Persistence and creativity are needed to explore different opportunities for change and improvement. While the brunt of the plastic crisis is not for festivals to bear, these events have often been about change. Music has led the way on a range of issues, from protesting the Vietnam war to raising awareness of the African American civil rights movement. Now, festivals are making a mark on the climate crisis. 

To find out more about Teysha Technologies and its research into customisable, biodegradable biopolymers, visit the Teysha Technologies website.