Festival fall-out: making festivals sustainable

If you use social media, you would have seen images of the Falls Festival fall-out. Hundreds of metres of camping gear strewn as far as the eye could see, piles of rubbish and general waste. I was devasted. I couldn’t believe people would treat camping equipment as if it was disposable or single-use.

It’s not an issue unique to Falls Festival, that’s for sure. Every major event – whether a music festival or not – has to deal with waste. Some of it is obvious (you drink a beer, there’s an empty beer can), some of it is not so obvious (where does all the poo go?).

Brandon Saul is a Director of Falls Festival and runs the Byron leg of the event and it’s his job to manage sustainability. When he speaks to Blank it’s just three short weeks out from launch day.

“We’re in the final throes,” he said. “We’re pretty practiced for it. We’re onsite. We’re building. It’s real. It’s the pointy end.”

Brandon tells me a little bit about his background and his passion for poo. We talk about those striking images that came out of Falls Festival last year and he agrees it’s a challenge for all event managers.

“It’s a universal problem. Equipment is so cheap now – it’s become a disposable item. From our point of view we do everything possible to recycle some things.”

Brandon says Falls Festival’s approach to recycling said camping equipment is very hands on. They have a team that physically cleans anything that’s useable and then engage a bunch of community groups who come through and claim what can be used. Scout Groups, for example are quick to lay claim to gum boots and tents.

“If it’s reusable, we reuse it. And then we put a lot of effort into recycling everything else,” he said.

One of the changes to camping policy this year is expected to have an impact on the volume of waste after the event. Patrons will be able to camp with their cars. Brandon expects that will mean people will take their stuff with them when they leave.

“I’ve been to camping festivals and I sympathise with trudging your gear in and out. The easier you make it for people to do the right thing, they will.”

“Credit where credit is due – a lot is done on site by patrons. What’s left at the campsite that doesn’t fit in the bins is a big issue for us.”

Brandon said this year Falls Festival is also collecting used tents to make artworks out of but the whole campsite waste thing is just one of the sustainability areas the team is focused on.

Inside the festival grounds there are waste streams that go to pigs and compost and for cardboard, glass and PET containers. There’s an enormous amount of waste self-sorted by patrons as well as teams who sort by hand.

“The biggest challenge with recycling is keeping it pure,” Brandon said. “To have things recycled – even if separated – they’ve got to be clean.”

“The food waste we collect on the inside will go to pigs and then in the campground where there is that risk of contamination of glass products we’ll be composting that.”

To hear Brandon talk about sustainability and the festival, you’d think he had a background in environmental science or engineering. But believe it or not, Brandon is a lawyer and accountant by trade.

“To be honest I have an obsession with toilets, compost and waste,” he laughed before channeling his inner composting geek and telling me about the site’s composting toilets.

“It took us a long while to get relevant authorities to allow us to use composting toilets. We actually had to create a pilot project before we were able to do it on a larger scale,” he said.

The toilets had to be ordered from China and Brandon said they’d never been manufactured there either. When the did arrive, there was a kilometre of trucks coming down the Pacific Motorway with the toilets destined for Falls Festival.

“We have the largest collection of composting toilets of any event in Australia. These things are revolutionary in Australia but they’ve been doing it forever overseas. The idea that you can compost human poo? I mean it’s a valuabe commodity in India.”

As well as closing the loop when it comes to poo, composting toilets also significantly reduce water use. Which adds to the Festival’s efforts to collect water off its permanent structures.

Falls Festival also uses Climate Friendly to offset its carbon emissions and asks patrons to do the same. In 2014 that resulted in more than 37,000 patrons offsetting their travel and therefore offsetting 5,400 tonnes of greenhouse gas which is achieved through an investment in the Tasmanian Native Forest Protection Project.

And what about the actual site that the Festival calls home? Hardly a sustainable land-use to begin with, the site was previously a cane farm.

“Depending on who you talk to – it’s either the best thing that happened onsite, or the worst,” Brandon said.

“Falls Festival runs a program where people get to plant trees in return for tickets. We also plant trees at the festival – that’s not so much about the tree as about getting across the concept and giving people a chance to interact with the place. The more people who can be involved and get their hands dirty in the soil – the more there’s an understanding that it’s an ecosystem that needs to be mainained and grown.”

“We have a groundsman and manager onsite that spend the whole year looking after habitat. Sometimes that’s the simple act of killing camphors.”

Brandon explains that a lot of the property had previously been cleared and what hadn’t been cleared are the wettest parts.

“The systemic plan there is to improve the quality of the forest blocks – it’s one thing to look at trees and bush and it’s another for it to be good habitat,” he said.

“For it to be meaningful habitat, it needs to be 30m deep. Our approach has been to expand the outer edges of the forest blocks but also the quality. We’re subject to exhaustive environmental monitoring programs – that dispels some of the half-truths people are putting out.”

“We’re three years in now and we can comprehensively conclude that we’re being a benefit to the place – and not detrimental – and that’s something that I’m proud of, to be frank.”

Falls Festival’s Byron Bay event takes place 31 December – 3 January. More at fallsfestival.com.au.

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