Bonnaroo: Creating a Sustainable City

Jason Leahey

In an age where the end of fossil fuel is firmly in sight, Bonnaroo is re-building the modern music festival, a 20th century beast fueled by the dirty technologies of that century, for the future.

The city of Manchester, Tennessee is halfway between Nashville and Chattanooga on I-24, just south and east of smack-dab-in-the-middle of the state. Its population is just over 10,000 and the city website boasts of “more than 1,000 motel rooms.” Google Maps notes one park, one library, seven hotels, and 37 cemeteries.

For four days every June over the past eight years, however, Manchester has swelled by an average of 80,000 people, 30,000 more than the total population of Coffee County, of which Manchester is the seat. Those people are the once-a-year residents of Bonnaroo, the definitive American music festival and namesake of this small city in the Tennessee Mountains. In 2008, the year festival organizers purchased the site, festival goers traveled from fifty states and 27 countries. In 2009, around 150 bands played on nine stages for seventeen hours a day. These are typical numbers. That all adds up to a lot of gasoline burned, a lot of electricity used, a lot of waste produced, a lot of amenities needed.

The thing is, Bonnaroo went carbon neutral in 2008. Superfly Productions and AC Entertainment, the festival’s organizers, hired the Clean Air Conservatory to assess the festival’s carbon footprint, from planning to breakdown, bands to fans, busses to trains to planes to cars. The CAC mapped the demographics of attendees according to region and derived the average emissions generated by their round-trip travel. They did the same for the bands, the vendors, themselves, everyone involved. Then they worked out the level of emissions generated by powering the amps, by cooling the talent trailers and the media tent, by charging the electric golf carts driven by staff.

Total emissions: 875 metric tons of CO2. They promptly retired that tonnage from the Chicago Climate Exchange, meaning that those carbon credits can never be traded again in the Cap and Trade system that Congress is in the process of instituting as law.

All of this has earned Bonnaroo an award of Outstanding from the Greener Festival organization, an achievement only five other festivals could claim last year. In an age where the end of fossil fuel is firmly in sight, Bonnaroo is re-building the modern music festival, a 20th century beast fueled by the dirty technologies of that century, for the future. In its operations, its spending, and its ongoing growth, Bonnaroo makes sustainability and its basis in local sourcing integral to its existence. And if you talk to the humans making all of this happen, they’ll tell you that it’s smart business.

In 2006, 1.5 million barrels of oil were used to make the single-use plastic water bottles consumed in the U.S. That’s enough to fuel 100,000 automobiles for one year. The average American citizen taking her daily eight glasses of water from the tap will spend about 49 cents annually. The same amount in bottled water costs an average of $1,400.

On the final Monday morning of 2008’s festival, hundreds of thousands of empty plastic water containers were being heaped into small mountains and dug up from where they had been crushed flat into the mud like ribbed, translucent beetles. Employees of Clean Vibes, an eco-minded waste and recycling company located just over the Great Smokey Mountains in North Carolina, trolled the fields in a giant truck, collecting the mess. Bonnaroo has provided free drinking water since its first year, but the stuff reeked of sulfur, and most Bonnaroo-ers purchased or packed-in cases of the bottled variety. Of the 378 tons of trash the festival recycled in 2008, roughly three tons were trashed, single-use water bottles. For 2009, Bonnaroo wanted to change that. Its desire happened to dovetail quite nicely with those of Stanley, a nearly hundred-year-old manufacturer of thermoses, lunch boxes, and other reusable’s.

“Bonnaroo recognized that they had a water challenge,” said JoAnne Anderson, the Consumer Marketing Manager for Stanley’s nineteen13 brand. “The water they were providing wasn’t optimal. And we’re in the reusable business, right? That’s our bread and butter. Disposable water bottles are just terrorizing the environment and we saw an opportunity.”

Stanley approached Bonnaroo with the offer to fund the construction of four new wells and attached filtered-water stations in exchange for the opportunity to sell stainless steel drinking bottles to the festival masses. The 24-once bottles were painted gunmetal blue and branded with the Bonnaroo logo and a baby-blue swirl of wings cupping a kind of Stanley family crest. They looked cool, and were sold for $22, with one dollar of each sale going to Global Water Challenge, an international coalition working to improve the availability of sanitary drinking water around the world. Because Bonnaroo makes a point of having partners rather than sponsors, the collaborative Less-Bottled Water Program set up shop under an open-air tent a few yards from the pyramid-shaped art projects branded with the two facts noted above. Over the festival’s four days, the program staged blind taste tests between bottled water and Bonnaroo’s new-and-improved free variety. Of the 1,800 participants, only twenty could tell the difference.

On one level, Bonnaroo’s decision to partner with Stanley was a pragmatic one; any reduction of those three tons of used water bottles meant less time and money devoted to digging them out of the dirt and transporting them to be recycled, and the partnership solved their sulfur problem too. But water sales are traditionally a source of significant income for festivals and other large events. By not having free, drinkable water, organizers can create a serious need that only they are in the position to fill. Anyone who has ever attended a professional sporting match and paid eight bucks for twelve ounces of Miller Lite can attest to this fact. “It was only a few years ago that no festivals provided water,” Sarah Haynes, the founder of the sustainability-focused production agency Spitfire, told me behind the Less-Bottled Water tent. Haynes, who founded industry notable OnBoard Entertainment before selling it to devote herself to Spitfire, read Bonnaroo’s 2009 environmental agenda, which included reducing water waste and educating Bonnaroo-ers about global water issues, and came on board to help Stanley market the program.

“I admired that they were willing to lose one of their biggest sources of income because they saw a need for improvement. After Woodstock ’99, festivals started putting water trucks in the furthest back corner, just so they could say they did it. But nobody could get to them, the lines were six miles long, and the water was hot and coming out of one tap.” So why not the same with Bonnaroo? Haynes cited Woodstock ’99 because the criminally high cost of drinking water is widely considered a major contributor to the rioting that tainted the festival and ended its comeback. Bonnaroo wants its community to feel fairly treated because happy customers are repeat customers. Repeat customers form communities that are invested in their own growth and the health of the catalyst, in this case the festival, that sustains them. Bonnaroo is dedicated to long-term environmental sustainability because it wants to be sustainable in the long-term itself. “Environmental values,” AC Productions’ Sustainability Coordinator Laura Sohn told me, “are engrained in our people.”

At the current rate, Earth’s population will reach nine billion by 2050, requiring three-times as much energy as we use now. At the moment, the average person in India uses 1,000 watts of energy every hour, the average Western European uses 6,000 watts an hour, and the average American and Canadian uses 12,000 watts an hour. America’s buildings account for 48% of our energy use. A bill just passed on Capital Hill provides $2.5 billion to states to retrofit existing buildings, which will reduce national energy consumption by twenty percent and reduce long-tern energy expenditures by many times greater than the initial investment.

Bonnaroo isn’t the greenest festival in the United States. That honor probably belongs to Rothbury, a festival staged in the woods alongside a river in pastoral Michigan, who hired Sarah Haynes to be its Green Chief. According to Haynes, Rothbury diverts 94% of its materials from the landfill. That means that 94% of everything, from the concession plates to the abandoned lawn chairs to the single, sole-less sandal abandoned in a field, is saved from the trash and turned into something else. That’s a hard benchmark to meet. Rothbury is much smaller than Bonnaroo, however, making such an achievement easier to achieve. And 2009 was only its second year. The music world does not look to Rothbury to set the standard in the same way it does Bonnaroo.

Though Bonnaroo does not set the bar when it comes to the statistics, it does when it comes to building momentum and learning from its past. Stanley estimates that its sales of those festival canteens saved 132,000 single-use bottles from the trash. In 2008, Tennessee-based company WastAway recycled 377 tons of trash, up from 47 recycled the previous year, and ten tons of that was kept in-house and deposited at Bonnaroo’s on-site composting pad. In 2009, that pad composted thirty tons, the entirety of compostable waste from the festival, out of a total of 487 tons recycled.

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