Music Festival Impacts

2022-09-13

 |  Making a Difference

In July, over a thousand volunteers made their way to Guelph Lake Island to help operate the 39th annual Hillside Music Festival for its thousands of attendees and 70+ acts.  They handled the countless responsibilities typically expected of event volunteers, from checking tickets to serving food and drinks to patrons. They also took on some more unorthodox roles, including washing the thousands of reusable dishes served to guests in lieu of single-use alternatives and managing the festival’s compost and sustainable waste systems. All of these little jobs, and many more, contribute to Hillside’s longstanding and extensive commitment to sustainability that has defined the festival since its inception in 1984. In addition to implementing eco waste management systems and banning single-use plastics, the festival has planted a permanent living green roof over its Main Stage to restore green space on the island, replaced some of its electric infrastructure with solar power, encouraged attendees to travel via bike to the festival by offering complementary bike parking, and consolidated vehicle travel emissions by providing free shuttles between the festival and downtown Guelph. Hillside clearly isn’t a typical music festival – it’s an extraordinarily eco-conscious festival. Unfortunately, the vast majority of festivals don’t go to such lengths to protect the planet and end up having devastating impacts on local and global environments.


A music festival requires huge amounts of electricity to keep all of the lights, performance equipment, vendors, medical services, and their other essential elements running. This requires a lot of energy – generator manufacturer Bellwood Rewinds reports that a large music festival can use over 30,000 megawatts of energy in a single weekend of activities, which is enough electricity to power a small city! This energy has traditionally been supplied by diesel generators, which produce significant carbon pollution. A single 200 kW generator, a somewhat standard, medium sized generator for music festival purposes, uses around 11 gallons of diesel per hour running at 75% of its capacity- this equates to about 244lbs of carbon dioxide pollution every hour per generator.  Most musical festivals need many of these generators to run.  The Summer Camp Music Festival, a mid-sized  American festival averaging 20,000 attendees and a few dozen acts, used 19 generators including 12 generators of at least 210 kW ove the course of its 2011 festival.  Multiplying this rate of carbon pollution by the long festival days, it is easy to see how quickly CO₂ pollution adds up from the generators alone. To address this, some festivals switch to renewable and less carbon-intensive energy sources like biodiesel, solar panels, and other creative sources. Human-powered stages are one such non-conventional solution, being both renewable and popular with audiences. Hillside Music Festival’s pedal-powered stage and Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival’s human hamster wheel stage, for example, have proved to be both entertaining and sustainable solutions.

However, reducing onsite CO₂ production doesn’t address the source of the majority of music festival emissions – audience, staff, and artist travel generate significant carbon pollution. A 2015 analysis of music festival impacts in the UK found that 80% of a festival’s carbon footprint can be attributed to audience travel, owing only 13% of its footprint to energy used on-site and just 7% to waste generated. This pollution is out of festivals’ control, making it difficult to reduce. To address this crisis, many festivals, such as Hillside, promote sustainable methods of travel to the festival including cycling, encouraging carpooling through parking restrictions, and providing shuttles for attendees to limit the number of cars driving to the festival. Unfortunately, it is near impossible for festivals to prevent carbon emissions from non-local artist and equipment transportation and long-distance travelers who must fly or drive to reach the event.  Some festivals have acknowledged this difficulty, instead opting to try and offset the carbon pollution generated by these attendees and artists. They have taken to purchasing carbon offsets, like Hillside’s organizers, to achieve carbon neutrality or investing in green energy, like British Columbia’s Shambahla Music Festival.

But carbon pollution is only one part of the picture – music festivals typically generate massive amounts of waste. Music festivals encourage patrons to purchase products, such as food, beverages, and merchandise in single-use plastic containers, and many festival goers leave behind garbage like tents, cigarettes, and discarded packaging. In 2017, Coachella created a whopping 1,612 tons of waste, only 20% of which was recyclable. To combat this, many festivals are working to reduce waste generated at the source by banning the sale of single-use packaging on festival grounds. Sustainable waste disposal, such as comprehensive recycling and compost systems and collecting waste cooking oil for use as biofuel, is also practiced by many eco-conscious festivals.

Of course, carbon pollution and waste generation are not the only environmental impacts of music festivals. Festivals, especially those located far from urban centers areas and near waterways, can also disturb local environments through chemical pollution, ecosystem destruction, waterway pollution and disruption, and noise and light pollution. Fortunately, it seems that festival organizers across Canada and abroad are becoming aware and taking action to reduce their impact. Hillside is far from alone in their commitment to environmental responsibility, with many music festivals pledging to devote themselves to sustainability.

British Columbia’s Shambhala Music Festival, one of Canada’s largest EDM festivals, prides itself on its commitment to sustainability. Since 2009, the festival has been working towards their goal to “reduce pollution and contaminants” that result from the festival. A 2017 report from a UK-based climate nonprofit journal, Julie’s Bicycle, details the festival’s achievements in sustainability, highlighting its usage of 100% renewable fuels for onsite energy, 79% reduction in energy-use related emissions, offsetting of audience and artist travel through investments in green energy projects, and significant reductions in waste production and water usage despite the festival’s growth relative to the 2009 baseline.

The world’s largest concert promoter, Live Nation, based in the US and operating in over 40 countries, has made several pledges in recent years to reduce their impact going forwards.  Citing 2018’s critical IPCC Assessment Report and the UNFCCC’s Paris Agreement as their motivations and guidelines, Live Nation published their 2018 sustainability charter vowing to reduce GHG emissions, pursue low-carbon energy alternatives, and end the sale of single-use plastics in their venues, among other goals. More recently, they have doubled down and announced their Green Nation Touring Program promising to give concert goers and artists more sustainable shows through increasingly responsible tour planning. 

Despite their best efforts and cautious planning, festival organizers can’t ensure their festivals are perfectly sustainable. Some responsibility also falls on festival goers – while festivals certainly must adjust their practices, there are many ways attendees can reduce their impact. Here are some ways festival goers can do their part:

  • Choosing to attend local festivals 
  • Using sustainable travel methods
  • Being cautious of waste practices

While there’s still a long way to go, there’s clear progress being made by festival organizers to secure a sustainable future for live music.  However, only through continued diligence and a joint effort by all those involved can music festivals avoid causing permanent damage.

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