Rubbish is a reality of any festival. No-one’s arguing with that. But whether a volunteer crew spends one afternoon or one week remediating a site comes down to one thing: The minds and actions of those who have made that site their home.
Madeleine Radke found a passion for waste management at festivals after she realised it is a tangible way to contribute to a community she’s grown to love over the years.
While making her way down to work on the waste at Rainbow Serpent this year, Madeleine took time out of her road trip to speak with Dreamland about how Australia’s counter-culture festival community can make steps toward bringing its actions in line with its environmental values.
D: Madeleine, a lot of us go to festivals but you’ve found yourself playing a vital role at them through your work with waste. How did that happen?
M: A few things led me to it but basically I’d moved to Brisbane at 17 and just found this community that I was growing a special connection with. Meanwhile, in the “real world” I had ended up managing a venue and getting into the idea of putting on events and creating spaces where people could express themselves.
After reading Sustainable Event Management by Meegan Jones, a textbook that I’d come across, I guess you could say I had a ‘lightbulb moment’ where I decided I really wanted to be involved in improving recycling at these festivals that I love so deeply.
D: Had you already worked out at that point that there was a need to improve waste management at festivals?
M: Well, to be honest, I first got involved pre-2009 and I had mainly helped with SEQ events where everything was still pretty small. I remember it being a time when everyone was actually really clean. Often, there’d be people who would stay after an event and do a litter pick. People were really good.
It was when I moved to Melbourne in 2009/2010 that I became involved in bigger events where there was a stronger need for better waste practices. I guess I figured I could combine partying with an environmental issue that was really important too.
D: Over the years, have you seen festival attendees improving their waste habits? Or, do you find that the festival environment itself too easily lends itself to people being slack, despite their initial good intentions?
M: That’s a good question and I can tell you that it directly relates to the crux of my ideology on all of this, which is that when people enter a social context, such as a festival, they respond to their environment and the cues around them.
They respond to physical cues, subliminal cues, as well as overt social cues. I’ve worked at a lot of festivals and when an organiser decides they want to communicate to their patrons and ask them to meet a certain standard – with regard to anything – then people respond to that. Now, if we fail to tell them clearly what we want, then they just follow the next available cue and we get results that aren’t the best for everyone involved. But I’ve absolutely seen huge improvements in people’s behaviors at the events where the festival invests in communicating their expectation of good waste habits, through promotion, signage, performance and face-to-face education and messaging. It’s astounding how quickly people can respond and change. It’s about communication and understanding between the festival and the community.
D: That’s interesting, a lot of people wouldn’t have thought of it like that and instead assume a greater emphasis would be on the waste habits of individuals?
M: Of course both are significant factors when it comes to behavior. However, when you’re at a festival, you’re creating a social space that is very communication-based.
At an event, programming occurs – not just for music, or workshops or food – but almost everything. How we program and design an event has a huge influence on what we do.
As a whole, people come to a festival willing to do what you want them to do. They come, they’re ready, they’re happy. They come in a very open state of mind. This is really important and if you don’t harness it and tell people clearly what you want and say “hey, this particular behavior really helps our community, please do things like this” then an opportunity for improvement has been missed.
I feel that putting on a festival is a communication tool itself and a lot of people don’t realise the level of influence that thoughtfully programming and designing an event can have.
I could clean up after people forever and nothing’s going to change. The important part is to break this expectation that someone else is going to come and do it. People don’t even think about that consciously – it’s just something that they do habitually. So we need to be breaking that habit and saying ‘hey you there, you have rubbish, you created that rubbish… so what are you going do it with it?”.
D: Can you think of any particularly successful events where engaging people in waste management like that has worked well?
M: One major example that comes to mind was at the Eclipse Festival up in Cairns that took place a bit over a year ago.
That event was a bit of a logistical nightmare for us. The key part of the story is that we only had about 20% of our volunteers show up for their shifts over the 6 days…we were very, very short staffed.
As part of the waste management team, we originally had this plan that we would send our team out and have everything spotless by the morning but because of our circumstances, we just didn’t have the people to possibly do it like that.
So instead, we had to go to the festival goers themselves at 7 am and we had to say “hey, this is our situation and it means we need your help, we need you to help us clear this dance floor”. I’m pleased to say that everybody responded really well.
What happened was that over the next four days, we saw that behavior spread. So after four days, I didn’t have actually have to send anyone to do the litter picking. It was very cool to see that by sharing this behavior with a few people, it was then shared with others and we ended up with a really nice outcome of people taking responsibility for their space.
D: That’s really cool and sounds almost like a ‘viral’ phenomenon in a way?
M: Yeah, what it showed was that people want to be involved. And what the experience also told me was that by clearing the festival area of rubbish by dawn, we were actually depriving people of the opportunity to participate and take pride in their festival.
D: A positive insight into humanity indeed….it’s especially nice to hear as I’ve recently discovered how heinous waste culture can be at mainstream festivals in Europe, like Glastonbury for example. It’s disappointing to learn how many people intentionally purchase and then abandon tents over there, mostly out of sheer laziness. What are some of the vices you’ve discovered about doofers in Australia?
M: You’re absolutely right about tent abandonment and I’m glad it hasn’t become a part of our community’s subculture. I worked at one festival in the UK and when it came to the tents left behind, I got a figure in tonnes. I remember working out from that figure that if each tent weighed about 3.5kg on average, it meant there were about 40,000 tents abandoned at that festival! That’s one tent per two people.
Among the problems we have in our own community are items like couches. For some reason, people that bring couches to festival seem to think that the festival is going to use them. This is absolutely not true and they’re actually really expensive to dispose of.
Other logistical things include people who bring glass to events where glass is prohibited. Glass might be recyclable but it also poses a lot of issues that people fail to realise. It’s a fire risk because it can amplify light in a way that can ignite a bushfire. A lot of people also don’t factor in how heavy glass is which means it costs a lot to deal with, which could be money used for other things. The other major aspect of glass is also that broken glass can injure farm animals and native wildlife, and that can really jeopardise our relationships with land and property holders.
D: What direction would you like to see festivals go in the future of waste minimisation?
M: Some things I’ve personally noticed over the years include initiatives like compulsory compostable cutlery or recycling bag tokens.
I really think that building and maintaining good waste habit culture is what will make the biggest difference in the future.
Woodford Folk Festival is a really good example of how developing good waste culture, and pride in a site can evolve. Over 25 years, Woodford has grown a culture of involvement with their site, Woodfordia. The site has street names and people feel a connection with it like its a second home to them. They also have extra events like “The Planting” which mean people can come and contribute to it as well.
To put things into perspective, Woodford has over 20,000 campers and about an extra 10,000 non-campers at it per day. That’s a lot of people. Yet the clean up of the Woodford campground sometimes only takes two days. Compare this to events with around 15,000 people that take about a week to clean up and you can see the importance of developing a positive waste culture.
By investing in ensuring there’s a returning population and building a sense of pride and ownership, a community-based festival can increasingly take care of itself. Both organisers and attendees have a role to play in creating this culture and it is mainly through good communication.
D: Thanks for your insights today Madeleine, it has been great hearing some of your waste wisdom.
M: Thank you too! At the end of the day, I pick up a lot of litter at some festivals which can be pretty demoralising. But humans have a great capacity to change and I have seen great progress over the last four years and that really keeps me inspired.
– Interview & article by Bugs Tobin
Top 11 Tips for Waste Conscious Campers
Minimise the amount of packaging on foods you bring and consider bringing foods with “natural packaging”, i.e. bananas, boiled eggs in their shells, avocados, etc.
When you first set up your camp, establish clearly marked “recycling” and “landfill waste” bins. Don’t just hang plastic bags up as this inevitably leads to ineffective recycling.
Support food stalls that you notice utilise organic cutlery, straws and serving plates, or promote a “BYO cup” policy
Don’t let yourself get complacent about small waste items that are easily dropped such as lids, plastic straw wrappers, etc.
Don’t be afraid to mention something to a person you see littering, or using the wrong bin (remember to smile when you say it though!)
Learn ahead of time what type of waste facilities will be available at an event and plan accordingly (i.e. take your compostables home with you if you can)
When packing down, be careful not to accidentally miss tent pegs and other small items
Utilising your esky can be a great way to bring rubbish back home
Buy durable products, refillable bottles and rechargeable batteries
Consider volunteering as a waste worker at a festival to gain a greater understanding of the debris people leave behind
When in doubt, live by the “leave no trace” policy