Walking through an abandoned campsite after a music festival feels like wading through the beginning signs of an impending apocalypse; a puddle of tent poles and forgotten morph suits submerging your wellies, a rain-sodden “woaaaaah Jeremy Corbyn” sign bobbing miserably in a murky puddle.
It’s well known that festivals are messy affairs, but for once, we’re not talking about the amount of Jägerbombs you downed when Alex Turner lost his train of thought during an Arctic Monkeys headline show. According to the think tank Powerful Thinking, UK festivals produce a whopping 23,500 tonnes of rubbish every year, with two-thirds of that being sent off to the landfill. And besides the immediate issue of punters leaving their litter behind, sifting through the whole lot is a job that can take weeks.
UK festivals produce a whopping 23,500 tonnes of rubbish every year, with two-thirds of that being sent off to the landfill
“People leave the most ridiculous things,” says Molly, a 24-year-old musician from Gloucestershire. She volunteered as a litter picker at Glastonbury to earn herself a free ticket, and was shocked by the sheer volume of belongings people gladly left behind on site. Like many other festivals, Glastonbury is working hard to tackle its big environmental footprint; they ask attendees to adhere to the ‘Love The Farm, Leave No Trace’ pledge and leave their campsite as they found it. However, punters still aren’t heeding the requests to pack up their tents.
When Molly helped with the clear-up operation she says she found “entire tents with masses of belongings in! I was very lucky as I was doing back-to-back festivals that summer so I just nabbed a load of yurt candles, camping chairs and booze that people had abandoned. I think the funniest thing I found was a series of inflatable fat suits that had been personalised to look like One Direction.”
One particularly common misconception is that tents left behind at festivals are packed up and donated to those in need. “Sadly, this is a bit of a myth,” Liam Mayet, who heads up eco operations at Bestival, tells me. In reality, your abandoned supermarket one-man is more likely to find its way to the landfilll; in Bestival’s case, Liam says, a team of volunteers only have a seven-hour window to sieve through thousands of tents in various states of disrepair before the waste contractors arrive.
“It’s Monday morning, you and your friends are a bit hungover and you have to pack up your tent,” Liam details. “It takes maybe four of you about 30 minutes, as a rough estimate. Now consider the logistics that charities and festivals face when attempting to salvage tents at a festival.”
“In reality charities walk about with roughly 100 tents maximum. This is certainly nothing to be scoffed at, and it’s something we always do as we know how valuable they are to the people who need them. But environmentally, it’s not much of a dent on the total number of tents left at a large festival. If you want your tent to be donated to a charity, the best thing you can do is pack it up and donate it in person!”
“There was a near-perfect pyramid of human shit in the very centre of the tent”
NME’s very own Andrew Trendell discovered the real fate of many abandoned tents when he was working at Leeds Festival in 2008, volunteering on the’Oxfam Green Messengers’ team. After two wholesome days helping revellers set up their tents, handing out recycling bags, and generally having a fairly lovely time spreading environmental wisdom, thee clear-up operation eventually rolled around. One word that springs to mind is harrowing.
“Monday morning saw us begin the task of taking down the left-behind tents to send to countries in need – as well as packaging up any leftover food for hungry families,” he explains. “At first we were baffled by the sheer volume of left-behind tents, but we were glad that a great many of them would be sent to where they were needed most.”
“However, this was not always the case. You’d be surprised by how many tents had been slashed open or burned out by people who can only be described as total twats. At one point, we came across a vast 16 man tent. This was the big bastard cathedral of camping,” he says, pointing out that, had the tent been left behind in good nick, it could’ve been hugely useful to people in need.
Except it wasn’t. Instead, “every previous occupant had taken it in turn to defecate in the communal reception area to form a near-perfect pyramid of human shit in the very centre of the tent,” he recounts. “We dry-heaved, and marked the tent to be disposed of.”
“I must say that my faith in humanity was a little dented,” he concludes. “Nothing but love and respect for Oxfam, The Green Messengers and the huge good they make of the aftermath of festival to home the needy, but to those who think it’s fun to wreck a tent or mark their territory with their own poo – stop it. You’re a twat.”
Kyle, 21, is a freelance journalist who volunteered on Boomtown’s Green Team two summers ago. Much like Andrew, he says he still shudders with disgust when he remembers the monstrosities he was tasked with clearing up. “Condoms, coke and an alarming amount of abandoned shoes were scattered among the shells of flapping Tesco pop-up tents and water-wrinkled roll mats,” he remembers. “It did teach me that, even in fictional cities, humans still suck. We drop litter like no one’s business – but truth is, it’s all our business and worth thinking about when you’re at festivals and beyond.”
Earlier this year a tweet on this very subject went viral, and while it’s not necessarily fair to blame those dastardly millennials for the entire world’s refuse problems (c’mon, the Woodstock site was definitely a complete state, who are we kidding here?) the aerial campsite photos that Brian – a veteran festival worker – shared were still a shocking reminder that we all need to do better when it comes to clearing up our shit after a weekend of hedonism.
I worked at festivals for 26 years and I have to say with the help of Tescos Millets and Asda with your throw away festival tents you millennials are the filthiest bunch of fuckers I've ever had the misfortune to meet save the planet you lot need a swift kick up the arse pic.twitter.com/8jfU8j8t3G
— brian spong (@brianspong1) August 31, 2018
While it’s true that festivals are working hard to help to change people’s mindsets – over 60 independent events pledged to ban single-use plastics by 2021 this year, and many others have their own eco-minded schemes around everything from public transport to tent-rental, there’s still a huge amount of work to be done. As Liam from Bestival points out, these initiatives are gradually making a real difference. “The festival industry has recently made really significant progress, led by champions like Shambala, Powerful Thinking and The Association of Independent Festivals – I feel hopeful about the future ahead,” he says. Shambala, held in Northamptonshire, is now powered by 100% renewable energy, and aims to achieve carbon neutrality (leaving zero carbon footprint) going forward.
For Bestival, the ultimate wake-up call arrived in 2016, when a combination of stormy weather and a lot of hurried departures left behind a huge mountain of rubbish. “The campsites were in a pretty shocking state,” Liam remembers. “The weather had taken a turn and after a relatively sunny weekend it rained a lot through Sunday evening into Monday. The campsites were accordingly abandoned as customers quickly left the site, leaving us with a lot of litter and waste to clear up.”
Following the harrowing clear-up operations that followed, organisers met and introduced the festival’s eco-bond, a compulsory £10 deposit which festival-goers get back once they’ve bagged up and handed in their litter and recycling at designated points. The scheme has now been running for two summers, and it’s a resounding success so far. “We haven’t got a great amount of data to make a full assessment, but going off what we do have, we have seen a really significant reduction [in abandoned waste]. This year, the campsites on Monday morning were completely different. A serious reduction in the number of tents left at the festival and the majority of litter was either in bin bags, or at the Eco-Bond. It was incredible!”
Many other festivals have established schemes where customers put down a deposit for a reusable pint glass, and over seventy UK events – including Reading and Leeds, V Festival, and Download – have signed up to the Festival Vision:2025 Pledge. As part of this promise, festivals are looking at meeting set goals when it comes to recycling rates, sourcing sustainable food, and encouraging festival-goers to share lifts or arrive using public transport.
While we could all do with a kick up the arse when it comes to leaving behind a clean and tidy festival site, organisations like Julie’s Bicycle, which work towards a more sustainable creative industry, are reporting a substantial reduction in emissions over the last five years, with impressive predictions if we continue along these lines. And beyond supporting festivals with clear ecological plans, there are a number of other things you can do as a punter to help out with the cause..
“Avoid buying travel/festival mini toiletries – they often create far more waste than larger products, which you can take home with you and continue to use,” Liam says. ”Invest in a tent that lasts and take it with you to all the festivals you go to. And bring a reusable water bottle and fill up for free at taps around the festival.”
“I think a lot of people just abandon all their rubbish and possessions without a second thought,” reckons Molly, who says that she thinks a lot more carefully about tidying up after herself having seen the state of a post-festival site for herself. “When you see the miles and miles of plastic, cans, bottles and rubbish strewn about in real life, the gravity of the environmental impact hits you. If everybody had the ‘leave no trace’ mindset, we could make such a difference.”