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A Comprehensive Plastic Free Festival Guide for the UK

Written by Fran

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Posted on July 26 2019

Music Festivals are such an iconic British tradition in the summer months, and after Glastonbury pledge this year to ditch single use plastic, we were particularly interested in checking if other festivals were following the plastic-free festival guide too. So this past weekend we headed to Bluedot festival in Greater Manchester for a weekend celebrating science, culture, music and environmental awareness and see how they were doing on the sustainability front

After spending a lovely time there in the sun and in the rain, in line with perfect UK festival tradition, we came to the conclusion that a comprehensive plastic-free festival guide should tackle both what festival organisers can do to reduce waste, but also focus on attendees best practices. A combined effort of simple changes on these two fronts is the most effective way to effectively reduce single-use plastic waste from festivals and similar public events.

 One of the big beliefs I have when it comes to societal change is that things should be moving and shifting from different angles. Individual changes are extremely important, but they can’t work alone, they must also be embraced and supported by institutional efforts to achieve similar goals, so it’s the combination of the two that can really drive a substantial improvement of how things stand at the moment.

Keeping this in mind, I have put together what I think are the most important, yet fairly easy steps in order to achieve plastic-free festivals in the UK on a reasonable timetable.

1. What festivals can do to reduce/avoid plastic

1.1. Ban sales of single use plastics

We all know how damaging plastic can be for our environment, so I was really pleased when I saw the news that Glastonbury festival had vouched to go plastic free in 2019. Even the amazing David Attenborough made a special appearance talking again about this issue, and it was amazing that no plastic bottles were available to be purchased at the event. This is obviously a bit different than the promised “plastic-free” event (as tons of plastic still ended up being left behind); however, unlike other media outlets and blogs who lambasted the festival for what they did not achieve, I find it rather more productive to start with acknowledging and applauding the massive improvement this shows from just a couple years ago: in 2017 more than 1m drinks packaged in plastic were sold at Glastonbury, and that number went down to zero this year, due to this new policy!

1.2 Run promotions and awareness campaigns

These should be aimed to incentive festival goer to bring not only their own reusable bottles but also cutlery, reusable straws, cups and why not, even reusable plates for their meals

Bluedot festival 2019

1.3 Substitute lanyards, tickets and plastic wristbands with alternatives made of reusable/compostable materials.

These could also be charged a deposit that would be handed back when the wristbands are returned, so that the plastic tags containing eventual electronic chips can be reused for future events, reducing unnecessary waste

1.4 Use reusable cups for beers and drinks from taps.

There have been plenty of success stories, from Germany to Belgium, proving that serving drinks in reusable cups can make a big impact on the environment. Customers can be charged a small deposit (ag £1/2) to encourage handing back the cups after use. This could be done by creating easy return points in the bar areas. This approach would not only get rid of single use plastic cups in favour of much more durable counterparts but would also send a strong environmental message to customers, promoting both a plastic-free and a less wasteful lifestyle. I also believe that if environmental facts and inspiring quotes were printed on the cups, this would make this change even more powerful and relevant to people.

1.5 Offer food in fully compostable materials, such as recycled paper or other plant-based materials, as well as wooden cutlery rather than plastic.

This was probably the bit that disappointed the most about Bluedot, as they had pledged to “Remove the use of plastic straws, plastic containers and plastic cutlery sold from food traders” however we were handed a plastic fork with our portion of chips! We will check again next year, Bluedot, hopefully, this step can be accomplished too!

1.6 Encourage customers to use their own reusable containers/plates.

An easy way to achieve this could be offering small discounts for those using their own kits.

1.7 Provide the public with free water refill stations.

 This was widely available at Glastonbury and replicated successfully by Bluedot. It was great to find multiple water stations around both the main arena and the other sections of the festival area! We saw so many people bringing their own reusable bottles but for those who forgot, there was the option to buy a metal reusable bottle on-site, and it was an absolute delight not to see any plastic bottle in sight.

Glastonbury had also set up a “Refill app” to show attendees where the water stations were located. This is very similar to what the Refill app does everywhere in the country and would be absolutely fantastic to see more and more festivals, especially the highly successful ones, offer this option too. In a world where millennials and young people are incredibly tech-savvy, this is a fantastic way for festival organisers to deeply relate to their audience and promote important messages such ones of sustainability, zero waste and plastic reduction.

Free water refill station at festivals

1.8 Help effective recycling by clearly labelling different recycling bins.

There are usually a couple of problems when it comes to the rubbish collection at festivals:

  • There is sometimes no differentiation at all, and everything is chucked into general waste bins which then end up all in landfills, with devastating consequences for the environment
  • The general waste and recycling are differentiated, but the labelling is confusing and difficult to understand at first glance, risking contamination and wrong materials put in the incorrect disposable containers.

The solution is quite simple: different-coloured bins with big and clear labelling. Symbols and examples of items should be placed on each container and clearly displayed.

An issue linked to what we just discussed is also that, even if most people think plastic can be recycled, the truth of the matter is that not all plastics are the same! On the contrary, some can be widely recycled, while some others are either collected for recycling by selected councils, or some are not recyclable at all.

One of the missions of festivals must then be, whenever plastic items are needed or used, to move away from plastic that cannot be recycled in the UK, in favour of better options. Raw Foundation has released an infographic showing which plastics are widely recycled in the UK at the moment and which ones are not.

What kind of plastic can be recycled and what not in the UK

(Source: Raw Foundation)

Based on this consideration, we consider PP as the type of plastic most frequently used at festivals and events, in the form of takeaway food containers, ice-cream tubs, crisp packets and so forth: we would definitely like all these items to be substituted by more eco-friendly alternatives that are better for the environment and won’t end up in landfills.

1.9 Offer festival-goers an eco-friendly festival kit.

This could be either added to the ticket price as an add-on, or available to purchase during the event, and some items could include plastic-free deodorant and soap bar, reusable cutlery and straw kits, natural suncream in tin or cardboard containers, bamboo toothbrush and natural toothpaste. Alternatively, these items can be widely showcased for purchase at different stands inside the festival, together with lunch containers, reusable wipes, steel water bottles and any other essential plastic-free alternative for anybody attending a weekend out under the stars (or the rain!)

2. What WE festival lovers can do to reduce/avoid plastic when going to festivals

Well, the list is quite endless, to be honest, but here is a list of the main points to keep in mind for minimizing the impact on the environment.

2.1 Bring reusable items with you and make sure they are not packaged in plastic.

As mentioned before, there are a lot of fantastic eco alternatives to nearly every product you may need while camping and sleeping in a field. From sustainable sun lotions that are reef-friendly to toothpaste in a glass jar and even in tab form, to deodorant creams made with renewable energy and packed in reusable containers, to bamboo straws for your drinks, the list goes on. However, if the space in your backpack is limited, make sure you bring at least a reusable water bottle and coffee cup with you (the latter can easily become a pint glass if and when needed!), and a bar of solid soap if you are sleeping in a tent with someone!

Whatever you decide to bring with you, please make sure you ditch disposable wipes, they are one of the worst offenders when it comes to waste creation, and they are prevalently made of plastic! So not only they end up in our sewage system with no way of being recycled, but they also pose a very serious danger to marine life and our oceans, whenever they can find their way there. There are so many reusable wipes made of organic cotton available on the market, and they are a much better option both for your skin and for our beautiful planet!

2.2 Ditch the glitter! Or if you can’t help it, choose an eco-friendly one!

I know, glitter is such fun, who wouldn’t want to use it at a festival? Well, to be honest, probably most of the fish and plankton in our seas and oceans! The sad truth about this shiny, sparkly, seemingly happy powder is that it is in fact plastic. Microplastic, to be exact, and for this reason highly dangerous for any kind of sea creatures, as while it finds its way to rivers and sea through our drains, it ends up being eaten by fish, sea mammals and birds, posing a real hazard to their lives and even making its way up the food chain to our plates.

A study recently published by the European Association of Geochemistry found traces of these microplastics even on incredibly deep levels of our oceans, which is seriously worrying and a sounding alarm to the widespread presence of plastic contamination in the natural world.

Many campaigners have been calling for a ban of glitter for years now, but if you just can’t get into the festival groove without a bit of sparkling magic, there are some great eco-friendly alternatives out there. Just make sure what you choose is fully plastic-free and completely biodegradable!

Festival glitter eco-friendly

2.3 Stop unjustifiable waste such as single-use tents, raincoats and plastic bags

One of the things that make me very upset is to read reviews of festivals after the gates close on the last day and see photos of whatever waste and rubbish was left behind. Something I will never ever understand is why absolutely wasteful products such as single-use tents and raincoats are even a thing! The level of plastic waste generated by such items is really heartbreaking, and in my opinion, completely nonsensical. If you are a regular festival goer, please get a long-lasting tent that you can reuse as much as you like; for those who are not regular attendees, why not ask families or friends to borrow one, even just get a cheaper second-hand version to share with friends. “Single-use” is just not good. Whatever it is. It could basically be translated into “One time Waste”, so keep this in mind and pick items that can be used and reused as many times as possible, not just for festivals but also for holidays, hiking trips or weekend getaways. Also, we live in the UK, who doesn't need a reusable raincoat throughout the year anyway?! Small changes in our shopping habits really do make a massive difference, and we can all start making more sustainable choices, the second we decide to type something on Amazon!

2.4 Dressing up the eco-friendly way

This is probably one of my favourite things to do when attending music festivals, however as I embarked on my sustainability journey, the cheap plastic-based materials of widely common fancy dress outfits really have become a big no-no! However, this doesn’t mean that we should ditch fancy dressing all together!

My biggest advice is “Don’t leave it until the very last second”, this way there is definitely a high chance you will end up with some scruffy synthetic cheap stuff from Ebay. Plan in advance (this is good advice for a more sustainable lifestyle in general, I found) and search charity shops and flea markets, or places where you can swap clothes in exchange for your old unwanted ones! There is a fantastic one in Leeds, near where we live, but if you look into it you will find some similar options closer to you! Not only I can pretty much guarantee you will be able to find some great bargains, but you will also make sure to actively contribute to a more sustainable circular economy, where clothes are used and reused and reused again, in a collective effort to keep them away from landfills as long as possible! Also, resist the temptation to get plastic gadgets to go with it and maybe think about some home-made, reusable alternatives instead. Reuse your outfits multiple times, and if you want to make sure you always have something original, why not swap them with your friends, so every year you will always have an original, brand new outfit?

Conclusions:

If you, like us, are a music fan and don’t like anything more than spending summer holidays at UK festivals, there are tons of little changes you can do to make your experience a lot more sustainable and eco-friendly. Easy changes from what thing you decide to bring with you, to the clothes and makeup you decide to wear (or not to wear!), to your behavior when it’s time to leave no waste behind before coming home, these all have a serious impact on the environment when more and more people start sharing them.

But the responsibility shouldn’t only be on the shoulder of fans and individuals looking for a fun weekend. Festival organisers have the imperative responsibility of implementing meaningful changes in the products they offer, the materials they use, the way they collect waste and cater to their audience. Some have already started, but there is still plenty of work to be done!

This is a communal effort, and studies show that when those two forces come together, that’s when the magic happens! Enjoy the rest of your festival season and let’s look forward to our beloved festivals becoming more and more sustainable and eco-friendly! 

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