Aiming for zero-waste at festivals

Bluegrass & green strategies at Telluride’s music and film festivals

(This was originally published in the Jan. 19 issue of Mountain Town News. Please inquire about subscriptions).

by Allen Best

Now in its 44th year, Telluride Bluegrass attracts 10,000 to 11,000 people. Inevitably, they leave mountains of trash. But thanks to an aggressive recycling program in Telluride, 50 to 60 percent of that trash is diverted from landfills.

Credit goes to the festival organizers, who have made it a goal, and execution by a local non-profit called EcoAction Partners.

EcoAction has been applying the same effort to the other festivals that inhabit Telluride’s summer schedule from Memorial Day into September.

The bundle of energy behind much of this is Kris Holstrom, a long-time resident of Telluride who began working 13 years ago with festival organizers.

EcoAction estimates that 80 percent of waste from the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival was diverted from the landfill by recycling and composting.Photo/Allen Best

EcoAction estimates that 80 percent of waste from the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival was diverted from the landfill by recycling and composting.
Photo/Allen Best

“I had already been doing composting behind the scenes at the Bluegrass Festival for a couple of years before our organization started,” says Holstrom, who is sustainability coordinator for EcoAction Partners, a group founded in 2007 and funded by four municipalities, two counties, and one foundation in the San Juan Mountains.

A major step was when festival organizers decided to use compostable materials and also began requiring the same of vendors.

Composting is not the easiest thing to do for a community. It helps when you have mass demand, such as at festivals. Holstrom and her team say communities just beginning to tackle waste-stream diversion from festivals should keep several things in mind:

Volunteers are essential to staff the waste stations, because people are unfamiliar with what can be composted. Even when told, they tend not to believe. “And at some point, they don’t care,” she says.

Education is a vital part of what volunteers do. They can help festival-goers understand why agriculture-based products are better than petrochemical products. They can also explain why this matters, both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, landfill space and use of raw materials altogether.

“Most people, 99 percent, are very happy we are there, and they want to do the right thing, even though they’re in the festival setting,” says Holstrom. Her group marshals 40 volunteers for Bluegrass.

You need infrastructure to compost and recycle. For Telluride and Mountain Village, composting and recycling are done a few miles down-valley, at Illium. A $145,000 grant from the state government allowed EcoAction to purchase a bundler for recycling products.

Telluride is also among the few Colorado mountain towns with its own commercial blender, for composting of corn-based forks and knives, for example.

“You need a very hot and well-tended pile, and generally speaking, for those products, you need to shred them or top them somehow,” says Holstrom. “Think of what a fork feels like. It takes a lot of heat to do that (cause it to decompose into organic material).”

Consider how to communicate your message. In their messaging, Holstrom and Walter Wright, the zero-waste coordinator at EcoAction, stress that waste reduction involves more than just reduce, reuse/repurpose and recycle. They also stress two more R’s: rethink and refuse. If much detested, Wal-Mart has used its buying power to get suppliers to rethink their packaging. The company had said it just won’t accept products that are excessively packaged.

You need a baseline of hard numbers by which to measure your progress or see where you’re lagging.

You also need volumes and weights of waste from the waste haulers. Telluride and Mountain Village require the two companies that service the towns to provide these data.

Telluride’s greatest success comes on Memorial Day weekend, at the Mountainfilm Festival. Three years ago, organizers decided to fully invest in waste reduction by using only compostable or recyclable items for food service. Festival-goers were advised in advance they needed to take their own coffee cups to the morning sessions.

Last May, 80 percent of waste generated at the four-day festival was diverted from the landfill.
Mouintainfilm banner

“It’s not that hard. People get it, especially with our crowd,” says Peter Kenworthy, executive director of Mountainfilm. “Our audience is already predisposed to that message. It’s a little bit of messaging. It’s a little bit of giving people a head’s up. The first year, we had to have things on hand.”

Mountainfilm’s rapid success can be partly attributed to its relatively small size, 3,500 people, and to the environmental theme of the sessions. Too, says Holstrom, eliminating single-use products is “very easy to do when you’re in control of everything.”

So far, composting and recycling are entirely voluntary at festivals. EcoAction, however, plans to appeal to the local town councils to make it a requirement of all festivals.

Wright says composting at festivals should be seen as an element in climate-action plans, because compostables, in theory, reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite these successes, recycling altogether remains a difficult proposition in even urban communities, and the isolation of Telluride makes some products even more difficult.

Glass, for example, is hauled to metropolitan Denver, where it can be ground up and made into containers for MolsonCoors products. But the cost of transportation is greater than the cost received for the bottles. To solve that problem, Holstrom and her team wonder if a grass-crusher would be in order. After all, glass ground up is nothing more than sand —which is imported into the Telluride community.

But even Telluride, which is probably a leader among Rocky Mountain states, has a ways to go. At the last inventory, for 2010, the community had a waste reduction of little more than 30 percent. Wright expects that diversion rate to be substantially higher when 2012 numbers are tallied early next year.

That said, Telluride probably lags most Canadian communities, and Canada lags Europe.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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