The Pitchfork Music Festival generates about 20 tons of waste each year. Credit: Rosario Zavala

Environmental consciousness barely registered at the recent Democratic presidential debates, and climate-change deniers still seem comfortable ignoring science and evidence. But sustainability issues increasingly have come to bear on music festivals.

Pickathon, a boutique event held in Happy Valley, Oregon, just southeast of Portland, recently announced that it’s aiming for zero waste, while noting that the goal is a bit lofty. In Somerset, England, the Glastonbury Festival has experimented with using only fully compostable packaging for sandwiches. And closer to home, Mamby on the Beach, which is moving to Montrose Beach for 2019, has to accommodate the endangered piping plovers that are laying eggs in the vicinity of the August event.

The Pitchfork Music Festival has been the steward of Union Park during several days each July for the past 14 years. But according to the festival’s planner, limitations in the area’s infrastructure and a shortage of available services mean it isn’t set to feature any new sustainability initiatives this year.

“It’s Chicago, and it’s also how the industry works,” says event producer Mike Reed, discussing the festival’s sustainability efforts. “Each region has its own issues, and across the board, I think there’s not a unified approach to how this is supposed to go.”

The Pitchfork Music Festival generates about 20 tons of waste in total each year, Reed says, and the percentage of it that gets recycled averages in the mid-40s. While this is vastly better than Chicago as a whole has ever managed, it’s not extraordinary for a festival. At the Treefort Music Fest in Boise, Idaho, which in 2018 hosted around 24,000 people over five days—less than half the number who attended Pitchfork last year—about 45 percent of waste is either composted or recycled, according to the event’s sustainability coordinator.

Reed, a notable jazz drummer who also owns or co-owns Constellation and the Hungry Brain, says he frequently brings a bike with him to Union Park during the festival. He also notes the event’s proximity to a bevy of public-transportation options as well as the ample bike parking available.

The Pitchfork festival, though, doesn’t currently have a person overseeing sustainability, instead delegating the relevant tasks to several staffers who oversee other aspects of planning.

Stephanie Katsaros, founder and president of Chicago sustainability consultancy Bright Beat, says that can be a workable arrangement, depending on how deeply ingrained sustainability is in the planning process. She thinks the best way to mitigate waste at a festival is to have a dedicated person, contract or otherwise, to deal with the matter—but staffing is hardly the only issue that can significantly impact an event’s ability to achieve sustainability.

“You are beholden to the local infrastructure that you can access—or your budget,” she says. “The transportation footprint of taking something [out of the area for recycling] is unwise. You learn the infrastructure first and build your plan—your purchasing, your logistics—around it.”

Katsaros says that it’s achievable but “really challenging” for an event to divert 90 percent of its waste from landfills: “40 to 60 percent is real-world.”

At Pitchfork, the onus of materials procurement and composting is left to vendors, who work on a relatively small scale. Reed says they’re briefed on the festival’s expectations regarding sustainability. He points to beer sold in cans, as opposed to plastic cups, as a positive step for the event’s waste management.

“Recyclable and compostable is nice,” Katsaros says, “but we need to be moving toward reusable.” Steps to get there could include banning plastics, devising incentives for people to bring their own cups or water bottles from home, and implementing a food-waste plan aimed at festivalgoers.

Waste Management of Illinois is working with Pitchfork to deal with its trash. A spokesperson says that the company will collect food waste at the “back of the house,” and that if the event’s organizers want to give festgoers the option to compost, that’s available.

The market continues to help define new initiatives—biodegradable body glitter, for instance, or recyclable cardboard tents for festivals that offer camping—and Katsaros sounds a reassuring note.

“I appreciate that there is coverage of festivals, and there seems to be notable comments on sustainability,” she says. “There’s definitely more awareness than in 2010.”  v