I’ve just returned from my first time at Ireland’s largest music festival -Electric Picnic, where I volunteered as a Friends of the Earth Ireland ‘Green Messenger’ and experienced the joy of four days of camping in a mud-soaked field surrounded by every kind of music my heart could desire.
Our job as the 100-strong Green Messengers was to divert as much waste as possible into recycling to reduce the Picnic’s environmental impact.
If you’ve ever been to a music festival and seen the devastation left behind, you can appreciate what a monumental task this would be. The 51,000 people who attend Electric Picnic generated at least 400 tonnes of waste. That’s over 8 kg of waste per person in just three days, excluding all the tents and clothing left behind.
- Incineration is inherently unsustainable: Burning materials perpetuates our linear, disposable economy of “make, take, and throw away” and requires us to keep generating new materials. True sustainability means moving toward a circular economy where the waste from one industry is the feed stock for another, but incineration sends us backwards on the sustainability pathway by decades.
- Incineration uses more energy: It takes 3-4 times the amount of energy to burn something as it does to recycle it. This extra energy releases more greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change. A combination of recycling and composting can reduce greenhouse gases 46 times more than an incineration plant even if that plant generates electricity (AEA, 2001).
- Incineration can hurt: There are thousands of toxic chemicals in the waste we burn. While incinerators can capture most of those chemicals before they are released into the air, it takes good monitoring and maintenance to ensure those chemicals don’t reach our lungs. Even if those chemicals are successfully captured in ash, for every four tons of rubbish that gets burned we have to dispose of one ton of ash, 10% of which is toxic fly ash. Disposing of toxic ash means more energy consumption and greater risk to public and environmental health.
- Incineration only feeds the corporate beast: Incineration plants are expensive and therefore can only be built by large corporations, who are unlikely to pass any profits on to local people. In contrast, the alternatives to incineration can be locally owned and operated, providing benefits to the community. For example, In Brescia, Italy, a $400 million incinerator created only 80 full-time jobs, while Nova Scotia rejected an incinerator and instead created over 3,000 jobs in less-costly recycling facilities.
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Spend a few days monitoring bins at a music festival and you quickly realize recycling is not as simple as it sounds. We’ve made recycling too complex -Bin companies all have different standards, symbols and colors to indicate what goes where.
Some agree to compost paper, some don’t; Some allow pizza boxes in their paper recycling, some don’t; and if a bag of recycling is ‘contaminated’ all its contents can end up in the trash heap.
It’s confusing enough to figure out which bin to put your recycling in when you’re sober let alone if you’ve enjoyed a few too many tins at a music festival.
Friends of the Earth’s Green Messengers waged a stoic battle against the bins at Electric Picnic. They sorted, re-sorted and policed their territory like true solders, but they were swimming against the tide. The rubbish out-numbered the Green Messengers by four tonnes to one person and without 24-hour monitoring of every bin, the amount of waste diverted to recycling would always be low.
Personally, I learned the battle against waste is just one big communication problem. We need to standardize our recycling rules, bins, symbols, and colors nationally and even internationally so that people hardly have to think when they sort their waste.
We need to start training kids in school about what goes where and what happens to their waste so that by the time they go to a music festival, this is intuitive. I was particularly impressed with efforts in the Be Your Environment campsite at Electric Picnic, where large illuminated, color coded Nifty Bins made recycling more straight forward. It’s only a pity those kind of bins weren’t at every campsite at the festival.
Keep fighting the good fight!