Bonnaroo: Creating a Sustainable City

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.

How did they improve?

How did they improve? Last year, there were relatively few recycling stations when compared to the number of trash cans, and those stations consisted of three barrels saddled with a piece of plywood with three holes cut out. A sign above explained which type of trash went where. This year, trash and recycling were grouped together in much more numerous and prominent stations. Instead of the saddle with three identical holes punched out, a volunteer Trash Talker manned each station and explained the layout to Bonnaroo-ers too hyped on getting to the next stage to stop and read instructions.

Bonnaroo also saw room for improvement in its use of resources. The site’s Solar Stage, powered entirely by a photovoltaic grid, began operation three years ago and showcased mostly obscure and local artists. A memory from 2008 etched into my brain is of a guitar-drum duo playing to an empty plot of grass at the foot of the stage, the guitarist taking time between songs to yell hopeful calls to environmental action to absolutely no one. This scene was not the exception. Though 2009’s Solar Stage had its share of down moments, it also hosted intimate solo performances and Q & A’s with activists and artists from the larger stages.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who as a leader in the National Resource Defense Council works to enact and enforce legislation protecting the environment and humans alike, talked of mountain top mining, the process by which 22-story machines called draglines literally lop the top off of mountains and root around inside for minerals and ore. This process is destroying the Appalachian Mountains, less than 150 miles from Manchester. “One of these machines costs half a billion dollars and practically dispenses with the need for human labor. Which indeed is the point,” Kennedy told a crowd of a few dozen people at the Solar Stage. At the surrounding tents where various non-profit organizations marketed their causes, people turned and listened for a minute or two before wandering off.

Will Sheff, whose band Okkervil River is working with bicycle advocacy groups and ride share sites to reduce the carbon footprint of their fans and make their tour 100% carbon neutral, played the Solar Stage and talked to a small crowd there, as did Danny Louis from Gov’t Mule, and Patterson Hood, primary frontman for the Drive-by Truckers. Earlier in the day, the Truckers had played at the 30,000-capacity Which Stage with Booker T. Jones of legendary Stax Records house band Booker T and the MGs. On his own before a small crowd, Hood ripped through the Truckers’ “Putting People on the Moon”, a bitter growl at the disinterested forces that crush a community’s spirit. “I grew up a couple of hours from where Bonnaroo takes place, on the Tennessee River, which gives our community its character and even its name,” he told me. “We have several nuclear power plants and a ton of other conglomerates emptying their waste into it. Any attempt at cleaning that up is met with resistance due to the potential loss of jobs that might result. It’s a bitter cycle.”

What had in years past been something of a novelty — a stage powered entirely by the sun — became a useful tool both to educate and entertain. Bonnaroo-ers who loved a particular artist so much and were willing to forego a main stage performance by various big names were treated to a more personal experience. The climate crisis and the ways environmental issues intersect with quality of life issues were given personal nuance. By expanding the contributions of individual artists and deepening fans’ understanding of artists they care about, Bonnaroo itself became a more intricate web of art and education and community. When I spoke with Shonna Tucker, bassist for the Truckers, she grinned while telling me about growing an organic garden with her father, how he’ll call her on the road to discuss whether or not to use treated lumber on a particular project. “We’re learning together,” she said. As for Bonnaroo, she said, “there’s a lot of people having a good time.” She laughed. “You know what I mean? Sometimes it’s easy to be irresponsible if you don’t have an option. When I joined the band five years ago, pretty much anywhere you went there was just a big steel drum and you throw your garbage in it, and that’s it, no questions.” She gestured at one of the recycling stations. “But they give you options now. It’s easier. Every year it gets better.” If she could say one thing to all Bonnaroo-ers? “Next year bring your own water bottle.”

Twenty yards from the Solar Stage, the beginnings of a small organic garden testified to the kind of options Tucker and her dad find so rewarding. A sign posted there told passersby that Victory Gardens grown by individual families during the Second World War met forty percent of the country’s food needs.

The grid powering the Solar Stage was double the size of last year’s, and solar capability is currently being developed on a scale large enough to power the entire festival, as well as to sell during the down season to the Tennessee Valley Authority. This couldn’t be timelier. Tennessee currently generates sixty percent of its electricity through coal, and last December a leak accidentally dumped gallons of poisonous slurry across 300 acres, where it now seeps into the state’s aquifers. As the coal industry’s “clean coal” disinformation campaign spreads across the country and buys executive and legislative political capital, solar-generated electricity that is clean and locally sourced can prove to Tennesseans that they need not choose between electricity, jobs, and their health.

And it just so happens that improving the way the American populace generates its power also improves the contents of its purse. When you factor in the extreme costs of cleaning up fossil-fuel disasters and mitigating the health disasters they create in the population, not to mention the costs of extracting fossil fuels from the earth, renewables like solar are inexpensive. So that’s money saved. And about money earned?

A 2006 study by the University of California at Berkeley estimates that a state law mandating the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 24% by 2020 will boost the state’s GDP by $76 million and create 400,000 new jobs. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, the nonpartisan organization comprised of the mayors of all cities with populations over 30,000, projects that a U.S. economy generating forty percent of its electricity from renewable fuels will generate 4.2 million associated jobs by 2038, including 53,450 in Knoxville, Tennessee. A thirty-year project to retrofit existing buildings to be more energy efficient would create 81,000 jobs according to the same study. Many of these jobs will be in traditional employment sectors like manufacturing, installation, sales and marketing, and construction, thus making use of skills citizens already possess.

Manchester, Tennessee is that part of America that quietly marches forth year after year. On Saturday morning, June 20, 2009, the Lions Club defeated Fann’s Auto for the Little League championship. I read this news in The Saturday Independent, which includes a regular column titled ‘Keeping the Faith,’ written by the Religion Editor. The paper also reported that a federal budget cut was soon to reduce the workforce at the locally based Aerospace Testing Alliance, the primary contractor for the Air Force’s Arnold Engineering Development Center flight test facility. An Alliance spokesperson stated that it would follow “a consistent and equitable method” of eliminating up to 220 jobs. Median household income in Manchester is just under $32,000 and eighteen percent of residents older than 25 have a college degree. There is a Wal-Mart, many gas stations, and the Duck River, which contains the greatest variety of aquatic critters in all of North America.

On a political party’s score card, the people of Manchester are not traditionally the type to be overly concerned with the environment, yet alone welcoming to a festival that began as a playground for the Jam Band set and which this year included Snoop Dogg amongst its performers. And yet that copy of The Saturday Independent included a story on green jobs in Tennessee.

Bonnaroo precipitated the story. Until this year, the festival powered itself on generators burning bio-diesel purchased from Tennessee producers. This year they tapped into the TVA grid to support other regional companies using green methods to generate electricity. Food vendors, including nationally based companies like Whole Foods, were given a list of recommended regional food purveyors to patronize. Manchester Mayor Betty Superstein tells a story about buying fruit from a small stand off Manchester’s town square. “Bonnaroo vendors contact her husband before Bonnaroo to see what he can get for them. They keep her bought out of all the fruit she can find, out of pineapples, peaches, bananas, cherries, apples.” The festival bought and milled all of its lumber locally as well, and rented their RVs and trailers from local businesses rather than the giant companies that dominate the industry.

In an age where so many of us buy products shipped from China to our local big-box store, Bonnaroo stakes its flag in local soil. The Pew Charitable Trust estimates that there were 15,000 Tennessee jobs in the renewable energy sector in 2007, and that between that year and 1998 those jobs grew at seven times the rate of the overall job market, meaning there are more jobs to come. And then there are all those projected Knoxville jobs noted above.

This will be the most profound effect of Bonnaroo, and one that points toward a future encompassing more than just the music festival community. Bonnaroo’s economic impact on Manchester and on greater Coffee County is significant in an immediate way — it contributed to the employment of at least 10,000 county residents in 2008 and generated $20 million for the county this year, ultimately preventing, according to County Mayor David Pennington, municipal layoffs and the cessation of a $40 million school construction program threatened by the recession — but it also creates a long-term demand for jobs and services that meet its sustainability requirements. As JoAnne Anderson from Stanley told me, “This is a capitalist system and in order for us to make a change it has to be profitable. And it is profitable to be green.” Demand creates supply, and by demanding that it evolves within the Tennessee community in a sustainable and responsible way, Bonnaroo promotes the emergence of regionally and locally-based companies and services that meet that demand. And this, like the green policies themselves, are almost afterthoughts. “One of the cool things about Bonnaroo is we’ve just been doing this,” Sustainability Coordinator Laura Sohn told me. “We don’t have a green publicist, no green PR firm, which means sometimes we haven’t done the best job of publicizing our sustainability. But our fans get more and more educated every year. Raising awareness is working, whether because of us or someone else, it doesn’t matter at all.”

The primary focus of Bonnaroo is to make money through staging live music. As a reporter for The Washington Times told me, “Where else are you going to find a festival this diverse and this well organized? You’re not. And this isn’t Woodstock. No one is losing any money.” Bonnaroo has integrated eco-education into its music and made its policy of sustainability as much of a given as selling tickets, making T-shirts, setting up the amplifiers. In that integration, Bonnaroo is a reflection of the real world at-large and a model for the way we can best face the climate crisis. Our relationship to the world around us is fundamental to everything. Everything is an environmental issue. Everything is integrated. And that means that this nascent city in the Tennessee Mountains might not just be the model for the music festival of the future, but for the future of American cities, period.