Why are music festivals leading the sustainability agenda?

In 2019 the music festival industry experienced a sea change in their attitude to single-use plastic, with many large live events making the decision to ban it altogether. As the festival season draws to a close, CDP’s Matt Morris, mechanical engineer, sustainability expert and live music fan, looks at what product designers can learn from festival greening in 2019.

Matt says: The big change in the world of festivals this year was the move away from single-use plastics, all part of a general shift towards sustainability and better environmental practices at live music events.

In February 2019 the UK’s biggest festival, Glastonbury, announced it was banning single-use plastic bottles – saving the production of a million plastic bottles. Then many others followed, pledging to stop single use plastics by 2021.

Here at Cambridge Design Partnership, our aim is always to design out unnecessary waste so our clients are as sustainable as possible. So having attended several festivals myself this summer, and having seen the changes taking place first-hand, I am struck by what we can learn from these temporary communities as they strive to go plastic-free.

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Starting with a closed system

Cutting out single-use plastic and greening your market is easier in a small enclosed community where the same organisation controls both the input of products and output of waste. This is, of course, the case at a music festival, where the sale, distribution and disposal of plastic is all within the remit of the same festival organisers.

It is far more straightforward, for example, for Emily Eavis to announce that Glastonbury is banning plastic bottles given that all the drink sales points and backstage hospitality facilities are licensed by Glastonbury Festival itself. The festival also organises the collection and recycling of waste after use, which means they are heavily invested in getting the recycling and disposal right.

However, in the wider world, communities and nations are faced with a far more challenging and fragmented proposition. Traditionally supply chains are one way, from manufacturers to consumers, and are motivated by maximising sales and minimising costs.  Consumers are not encouraged by manufacturers to see any value in packaging, they often believe it is somehow free so don’t value the materials and energy encapsulated within it. In addition, waste systems are there to collect and dispose of packaging in isolation of its use and production.  This means there is little incentive to coordinate the cycle of production, use and recycling.  Although some forward thinking communities are now aiming to change this, for example via the plastic-free towns movement.

Here at CDP, we have been working with food service providers to create plastic-free packaging for closed environments such as transport systems, schools and hospitals. This allows those in charge of these institutions the choice to remove single-use plastic, and can act as a test bed for new solutions prior to more widespread adoption.

Considering the alternatives

Many festivals in 2019 chose to replace disposable plastic cups with sturdier ones that could be reused at any bar within the grounds. However, I was intrigued to see that plastic pint glasses were replaced at Glastonbury this year by stainless steel tumblers. These cost £5 each to buy and festivalgoers could either keep them or return them for a full refund on departure. It seems that the backlash against plastic has extended beyond just single-use plastics, prompting designers to consider materials that would not have been on the table just a few years ago.

However, material selection needs careful consideration. In terms of its impact on the planet, a steel cup may need to be reused many more times than a re-useable plastic one to offer a net benefit. Good design can help with this conundrum, by creating things that are a joy to use again and again. Judging by the fact that the Glastonbury 2019 stainless steel cups are now selling for £12 on eBay, leveraging the Glasto brand seems to have worked in this case!

It helps to engage with cultural influencers

Changing consumer habits takes significant effort. But at Glastonbury this year, I lost count of the performers who lent their approval to the plastic-free initiative. From rappers to rockers, many of the artists (who could only drink canned water on stage) spoke out during their sets in favour of the plastics ban, helping it to gain traction with a captive and approving audience.

What’s more, within the festival setting, there are dozens of ways to keep the initiative in the crucial ‘top of mind’ spot for peak consumer awareness. With kiosks everywhere offering free water and selling reusable cups, a festival is a great place to pioneer sustainable practices and encourage early adopters.

To replicate this in the wider economy is less immediate but not impossible. Frequent positive reinforcement through influencers, marketing and advertising does eventually have an impact.

Taking a holistic view

One of the ways in which CDP designs genuinely more sustainable products is by analysing the impact of the product through its entire life cycle. At festivals, it can be all too easy to take the feelgood option while the real environmental implications are more complex.

For example, the widespread switch at festivals this year to disposable cardboard or wood food packaging instead of plastic may create that positive vibe – but does it have less conspicuous drawbacks? It certainly reduces plastic waste, which is a very visible problem, but equally crushing a tree down into small fibres, mixing the wood pulp into a slurry and then passing it through huge rollers takes lots of energy and water. By contrast, plastic is light, durable and its manufacture is generally not particularly energy intensive. So we may be trading a plastic waste problem for an energy and water problem.

And if we rolled out this transition globally, could our forests (which, frankly, are in need of some TLC right now) support the demand for wood and pulp? It’s important to factor this into your environmental calculations before making a knee-jerk decision to switch materials or abandon plastic packaging. As designers, we have an obligation to weigh up these impacts, because it’s not fair to expect every consumer to have the necessary expertise.

At CDP we work with major beauty product manufacturers to develop packaging and products. Often, it’s important to look at the way the product is used, as well as its constituent parts, before making changes. For example, there can be as much benefit to the planet from encouraging consumers to switch off a running tap when brushing their teeth (wasting potable water and its processing and distribution energy) as there would be from asking them to switch to a bamboo toothbrush. At CDP we look at the entire lifecycle of a product, and the context in which it is used, to get a clear view of all the impacts on the planet.

This holistic view is also the key to creating genuinely innovative sustainable products and services. As consumers grow ever more discerning and the environmental movement becomes the mainstream, this approach will be critical to successful and sustainable product innovation.

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Matt Morris

Senior consultant mechanical engineer