Bonnaroo Goes Green, But Aims to Go Greener

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With an innovative "Trash Talker" program and focus on local sourcing of food, the massive Tennessee music festival has gone a long way towards becoming the cleanest it can be. Photo: Flickr/the camera is a toy.

Bonnaroo isn’t the festival it was a couple years ago. Instead of Phish and Widespread Panic at the top of the bill, it was Jay-Z and the Dave Matthews Band in 2010. Instead of The Dead and String Cheese, it’s Stevie Wonder and the Kings of Leon.

But remnants of Bonnaroo’s hippie origins abound. Throw up a high five while pushing through a crowd and a dozen strangers will slap your hand. Lose your wallet at the Silent Disco, but have faith you’ll get fed, some way, some how.

Benevolence is all around at the biggest and best music festival in America, but probably nowhere more apparent than in the organizers’ celebrated efforts to be the most sustainable festival on earth.

The attack on waste is apparent as soon as you drive through the gates at the 700-acre “farm” in Manchester, Tenn. If you’re a camper (the vast majority of Bonnaroo’s 75,000 attendees are), you’ll be handed two trash bags as soon as you get to the campgrounds.

Recyclables get tossed in blue, or else at any one of more than 50 recycling and compost stations located throughout the grounds.

Landfill trash, of which there’s a substantial amount (329 tons at Bonnaroo 2009), goes in black. As of date of publish, the festival’s cleanup crew was still collecting the remains of Bonnaroo 2010. It takes the crew a full ten days to clear the grounds.

Trash reduction is priority number one for Bonnaroo’s green team, which is led by Superfly Productions festival sustainability coordinator Laura Sohn. In 2009, Bonnaroo diverted 33 percent of all waste by weight from the landfill and into recycling and compost. By contrast, in 2006 Milwaukee diverted 24 percent, Boston 16 percent and Houston just 2.5 percent, according to a 2008 article in The New York Times.

The rest filled the approximately 7,000 landfills scattered throughout the United States. Bonnaroo’s 2009 waste numbers are the best the festival has done in its nine-year history. Thirty tons of organic waste was composted in 2009, three times as much as was composted in 2008. And the improvement has nothing to do with a lack of Kanye West rotten tomato tossers at Bonnaroo 2009.

According to Sohn, 2009’s improved numbers are due mainly to the new “Trash Talker” initiative. Blue-gloved trash traffic controllers now stand at waste stations and guide garbage into recycling, compost, or landfill bins. In exchange for three six-hour shifts, Trash Talkers receive a free pass to the four-day festival, which costs about $240 for most in attendance.

It’s a worthwhile trade-off for the “volunteers” who effectively earn almost twice the federal minimum wage. And Trash Talkers are surprisingly enthusiastic and helpful, even after baking in the Tennessee sun for several hours. That might have something to do with the fact that each volunteer is assigned shifts around a few “can’t miss” bands that he or she pens into the application. (One young lady I spoke to said she couldn’t miss Mumford & Sons.) Or maybe Trash Talkers are just happy to be doing a good thing.

Among the recyclable and compostable items available throughout the festival, there was one that caught my attention. It looked like a plastic cup. It felt like a plastic cup. It was a “plastic” cup, according to a vendor who poured me a Georgia microbrew.

But the cup wasn’t just recyclable, it was compostable. Made of Ingeo biopolymer, a corn-based material made by NatureWorks LLC, the cup could be tossed along with watermelon rinds and grilled cheese crusts into the festival’s compost bins. Bonnaroo has been using Ingeo for six years, says Sohn, and although they’re more expensive than traditional plastic cups, the benefits just might be priceless.

“Since we’ve been composting on site, we’ve been able to test them,” Sohn says of the Ingeo cups. “They break down pretty much entirely over the course of a year in a compost pile.” The cups are not, however, officially “biodegradable” as designated by the United States Federal Trade Commission. Ingeo does not break down in nature in a “reasonably short time,” as per the FTC Green Guide’s specifications.

As green as it is, and despite widespread (and false) rumors that the festival is approaching a zero carbon footprint, Bonnaroo is far from being as sustainable as can be. That was never more apparent than during Jay-Z’s explosive Saturday night set at the What Stage. The massive hi-def cityscape of light towering behind his band (the third greatest band in the world, according to Hova) must have consumed enough electricity to power Chattanooga for a week.

And the power, like much of the power consumed on the festival grounds, streams in through the Tennessee Valley Authority grid – the same TVA you might remember from High School US history class that was responsible for displacing more than 15,000 homes and damming some of America’s most beautiful rivers during the Great Depression.

At an entertainment bonanza like Bonnaroo, zero impact is impossible. “The scale of Bonnaroo is so large that even the smallest project could easily be a ten to twenty thousand dollar project,” Sohn says. Bonnaroo organizers understand, perhaps better than any other mega-party planners, that a music festival devoid of waste isn’t much of a party at all. “Fan experience is always the number one priority,” Sohn says. They know which eco battles to pick, and every year they’re picking more.

Next year, it might be renewable energy generation. As of this year, the festival’s main stage will become a permanent fixture of the festival grounds. But, that doesn’t just mean artists like Kenny Chesney will drop by year-round. It clears the way for the installation of a solar array, which Sohn says is just a signature away from taking in sunshine.

Don’t expect windmills at the festival grounds any time soon (or those spectacular light bulb drift lines that extend into the night sky at several other festivals). According to a US Department of Energy wind resource map, the area offers only poor potential for wind power generation.

Sohn also sees great potential for improvements in food sustainability. Already, vendors are encouraged to source locally and use eco-friendly products, and this year, Centeroo (the main area of the festival grounds) featured a pair of dinners where strictly local fare was served. Sohn wants Bonnaroo to serve food that is closer than local.

“We have some land that could be a garden,” she says. “During the festival we’d be able to get some early greens and strawberries so we could do an actual Bonnaroo dinner at some point. Just imagine being in a field with a beautiful table and Bonnaroo going on all around.”

As if we needed another reason to look forward to Bonnaroo 2011.

Story by Sam Brand, originally published on June 18, 2010 on Tonic

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