Image: © Lars Schmidt via Wikimedia Commons

Festival tents are contributing to climate change

Festivals want people to stop abandoning their tents after the event, as most end up in landfills.

Each year, more than 250,000 tents are left behind at UK festivals. Most are made up almost entirely of plastic (as much plastic as is in 8,750 straws, in fact) and most end up in landfills. Both of these things make single use tents super environmentally unfriendly. Making plastic requires burning lots of fossil fuels which emits carbon dioxide. Landfills emit lots of methane.

Both are greenhouses gases which cause global temperatures to rise and climate change to happen. Climate change is predicted to leave the UK dealing with a host of economy-damage problems: widespread flooding, wildlife dying, more diseases, a huge refugee crisis, the chance of complete human and possibly planetary extinction… oh, and even worse weather than before.

Festivals have already tried reduce plastic waste. 93 percent of UK ones don’t give out plastic straws in drinks, and 40 percent also stay away from plastic cups. Now they’re turning their attention to abandoned tents. The Association of Independent Festivals (a group which represents them) has asked festival attendees to take their tents away with them to reuse. They’ve also asked shops to stop advertising cheap tents as ‘festival’ tents or otherwise suggesting they should only be used once.

Will it work? Unfortunately, both businesses and attendees have strong (if short term) incentives to ignore the AIF. Shops want to make money, so selling customers a new tent every year is good for business. Festival-goers say carrying a heavy tent home is a faff, as is cleaning one that’s become dirty and gross from festival antics. And while most people wouldn’t say any of these things are as important as climate change, human beings are generally pretty rubbish at prioritising abstract, future consequences over immediate, unpleasant inconveniences.

One thing that could stop most people abandoning their festivals tents is making doing so come with an obvious, personal cost. Festivals could raise ticket prices to include the cost of an abandoned tent, and refund attendees who took their tent away with them. This solution would please economists who think including externalities (basically, the positive and negative side effects of something, in this case environmental damage) in the cost of stuff we buy would help us set fairer prices.

But pricing externalities can be really tricky. How much does one landfill tent contribute to climate change? What’s the cost of each aspect of climate change in pounds or dollars? Nobody knows, and/or agrees. Plus, there’s a risk of setting up a system which basically just gives the richest a license to pollute, which many people would regard as unfair.

Read our explainer on: the environment and the economy

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