Alela Diane performs on the Treeline stage at Pickathon 2018

It’s no secret that music festivals are big business these days, and big business often means big waste. Nationwide, festivals are beginning to pay closer attention to waste management, but most festivals have a long way to go.

Pickathon, a small, eclectic festival in the Pacific Northwest, may be North America’s first sustainable festival. If bigger festivals learn to scale up Pickathon’s sustainable practices, your music-focused travel could be as good for the planet as it is for your soul.

The Problem

When we party, we make a bigger mess than at home. Coachella produces 107 tons of waste per day. With roughly 100,000 attendees each day, Coachella is one of the biggest festivals in North America, but it is typical in its waste production. Other events held on the festival grounds in Indio, California, have similar disposal rates.

The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee produces more than 679 tons of waste over four days. That’s 15 pounds of waste per attendee — nearly twice what the average American disposes at home.

Thinking ahead, choosing events with sustainability goals and waste reduction commitments is better for the planet. You may not hear the difference in the music, but you’ll feel the results after the show.

Baby Steps

A few sustainability measures have become common on the festival circuit. Most festivals now encourage recycling, even of the hard-to-recycle plastic water bottles that contribute significantly to the volume of festival waste. Where data is available, festivals seem to be reaching a 20 percent recycling rate. That is still well below the national average of 35 percent and woefully far from the almost 60 percent recycling rates achieved by America’s top recycling cities.

However, waste reduction is better than recycling at live events. Once discouraged by security, reusable water bottles are now encouraged almost everywhere, with filling stations at most festivals. The obvious step of reducing plastic cups in the beer garden by selling festival-branded metal pint glasses is now widespread, too. Often, reusable glasses are incentivized with $1 off refills for the duration of the festival.

Next-Level Recycling

A few festivals have taken the next steps. Outside Lands in San Francisco has banned plastic straws and converted to compostable dishes, giving them the highest waste diversion rate — 91 percent — of any festival in the U.S. They are as close as any large festival has come to replicating the gold standard of sustainability set by Portland’s plastic-free festival Pickathon.

Danny Barnes Trio performs on the Treeline stage at Pickathon 2018
The Danny Barnes Trio performs on the Treeline stage at Pickathon 2018. The structure will get repurposed into pods for people experiencing homelessness. Photo: NashCo. Photography

Pickathon Sustainability

With attendance around 6,500 people (including volunteers, staff, and crew members) Pickathon is a fraction the size of festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo, which has given them the flexibility to experiment. Since 2016, their recycling rate has been roughly 49 percent. That approaches some of the nation’s greenest cities. It’s much lower than Outside Lands’ recycling rate because there is so much less waste to recycle. Pickathon has eliminated the biggest waste streams generated by festivals — single-use plastics and disposable dishware.

Since 2010, Pickathon has eliminated disposable dishware and utensils by providing reusable dishware for rent. A $10 token can be exchanged for a set of dishes from any food vendor at the festival. Once used, dirty dishes can be returned to a dish station and exchanged for a new token. You can also bring your own dishes and wash them yourself.

The festival has also installed permanent solar arrays at the venue. Over the course of the year, they offset the energy used: at the indoor Galaxy stage; by all food and craft vendors; and along 3.5 miles of trail lights through the campground.

Pickathon also reuses the materials each year when constructing the Mountain main stage and two other outdoor stages. The remaining Treeline stage is produced in a partnership with the Portland State University School of Architecture using the “diversion design-build” concept. Each year, architecture students design an original, sculptural performance structure. They design the stage to convert into a new structure after the festival, leaving no waste. The most recent Treeline stage was used to build storage units for residents of a Portland women’s shelter.

Plan Your Musical Travel

The Sustainable Concerts Working Group has produced guidance for venues and festivals striving to be more environmentally responsible. When you are deciding which festivals to attend next summer, look for sustainability information on the festival website to see how many best practices they follow. And if what you find affects your decision to attend, don’t hesitate to communicate that fact to the organizers. When concert-goers value harmony with the planet as much as headliners, festival organizers will, too.

Feature image: Alela Diane performs on the Treeline stage at Pickathon 2018. Photo: Tim LaBarge


By Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.