Glastonbury 2005
Image: © Yui Mok / PA Archive/Press Association Images

How do we get festival goers to think a bit more ‘green’ and tidy up after themselves?

How green is your average festival? And why do so many people leave their rubbish behind? Tree Watson uses some economic ideas to explore this and visits Shambala Festival in the UK, which is taking a different approach

Music festivals aren’t generally known for their green credentials. Providing food, water, power and sanitation for thousands of people requires a lot of energy. Come going home time, the apocalyptic scene of abandoned tents, rubbish, and discarded wellies will be familiar to all festival goers. So what’s going on here? And is it really possible to run a ‘green’ festival?

In the words of Bjork, it’s all about human behavior

Some economists say we make decisions by weighing up the potential costs and benefits. In this case, your average festival goer has decided that the effort needed to pick up all their stuff isn’t outweighed by the benefit of leaving a clean campsite behind. After all, you’re leaving in four days, so where’s the incentive to bear the cost of the effort involved?

Well what about the incentive to hang onto expensive and perfectly useable camping gear? An economist might call this a ‘sunk cost’ - that’s one you’ve already made, and so cannot be recovered. They think that what you’ve already paid for no longer counts in the decision making process. You can’t take the tent back once you’ve used it, so all you care about is the pain of lugging it back to the car after four days of no sleep.

Other economists would disagree. They’d say human beings are 'loss averse'. So abandoning your tent, which is a financial loss, and would mean having to buy a new one for next year, is less appealing than carrying it for a bit. This is shown by the plenty of people who do tidy up, but any seasoned festival goer will tell you that by this point everyone is far too tired to be thinking rationally about the prospective costs and losses. And if we’re really so loss averse, why doesn’t everybody do this?

Either way, there’s enough waste and stuff left behind to prove enough people feel the benefits of leaving stuff behind outweigh any losses they’re making. Not a particularly ‘green’ way of going about things.

Shambala Festival

A festival with a difference

I recently returned from Shambala Festival in Northamptonshire in the UK. Here they seem to be making a real effort to run by green principles and helping people that attend to do the same:

  • It runs totally on renewable energy
  • They subsidize coach travel by a whopping 38%
  • The bars don’t give out paper cups, but charge £1 ($1.30) for plastic cups that can be swapped for a clean one every time you buy a drink
  • Food stalls don’t serve any meat or fish
  • Everyone pays a £10 ($13) recycling deposit, which you can get back at the end of the festival if you hand in a bag of rubbish and a bag of recycling

This all sounds quite expensive, but Jon, the festival’s finance director, explained to me that while some policies do push running costs up, others end up paying for themselves. Either way, money is not the organizer’s main incentive.

“Fundamentally, our environmental stance and initiatives come from an ideological, rather than economic stance. And this is simply because we put people and planet ahead of any bottom line,” he said.

It’s also important that, costs aside, the policies make people think. Jon also pointed out that as the cost of disposable cups are normally concealed within drinks prices, it’s important to make people aware that the financial and environmental cost of the cup is separate from the drink itself.

Given that Shambala is now in a successful seventeenth year, this different approach proves that being green doesn’t have to break the bank.

Discarded nitrus oxide capsules litter the ground at Glastonbury
None of this at Shambala (Image: © Yui Mok / PA Wire/Press Association Images)

How does it work?

For a start there’s the ‘soft’ encouragement - branding itself as a green festival, handing out rubbish bags on the way in, highlighting sustainability on the website and in all communications - which reinforces the need to consider these issues in the minds of those attending. There’s also a certain shame attached to abandoning all your stuff when everyone else around you is doing their bit to keep things clean.

There are also the extra financial incentives, like the recycling deposit and charge for plastic cups. Okay, so £10 ($13) for a hour of litter picking, queuing and sorting rubbish doesn’t seem like a lot, especially when at other festivals people are prepared to leave tents worth much more than that, neither does shelling out £1 ($1.30) for a cup. But again, the idea of ‘sunk costs’ might go some way to explain this. The refund is a prospective gain, and cup price is a prospective cost, and given that some economists suggest that we often prioritize future costs and benefits when making our decisions, this may be extra appealing. It’s a little hook that seems to be working at Shamabala.

Lessons to learn

Being at a festival can feel like you’ve been transported to another planet for the weekend, but ultimately the way we make decisions doesn’t change that much. Some people may only need a bit of facilitation, such as being provided with a rubbish bag or a subsidized coach, some need to be bribed with hard cash, and some people need to be denied a bacon sandwich for a few days to make them think about the impact their habits have on the environment.

Perhaps public green initiatives should take a leaf out of Shambala’s book. For instance, politicians could start thinking about a refundable bin tax to encourage people to recycle more. Or more generous subsidies for green forms of transport. What this particular festival seems to have got its head around is that people respond to different incentives. It shows on some small scale that being green can’t simply be left to chance.

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