Summer is festival season, a time of fun things that are terrible for the planet. The mass exodus of cars, the diesel-powered stages and light shows and ferris wheels, the apocalyptic volume of trash, the generators burning around the clock for tens of thousands of people and their tens of thousands of plastic water bottles, the odds that you will have to listen to The Chainsmokers -- all bad. The good news is at least that with sustainability being increasingly mainstreamed, things are not entirely as shitty as they could be.
Burning Man, man
Burning Man emphasizes recycling and composting, and is widely known for its Leave No Trace policy -- you carry out everything you bring with you, trash included. The festival's organizers have suggested that the biggest environmental cost it incurs is from transportation. Whether or not that was a redirect from the rest of the issues it could stand to to work on is for another day, but transportation remains one of the biggest carbon footprints left by festivals across the board.
A lot of the bigger names have made nods toward mitigating this, if only to deflect bad PR. Coachella (not exactly a trailblazer in this space but less disastrous than it used to be, all things considered) has efforts like Carpoolchella, plus cutesy on-site features like phone chargers you power by riding a bike or a see-saw. Lollapalooza, among the most environmentally friendly of the larger festivals out there, has made a big push to establish biking as part of its brand.
Buy a ticket...and your carbon offset
One of the best growing trends among festival organizers is the purchasing of carbon offsets. Some, like Firefly Festival -- which offers shuttles and emphasizes recycling and clean energy -- allow you the option of buying your own individual carbon offset along with your ticket. (I've been twice, and if memory serves this purchase nets you a free reusable water bottle, which, hey.)
A number of them outsource the job to the expanding market of companies that will take care of the logistics for large events like these. Lollapalooza, for instance, has partnered with Green Mountain Energy Company, which has also done the carbon offsets for South by Southwest. Sasquatch, another festival that offers carpooling incentives, has worked out its offsets through Carbon Harmony.
Lightning in a Bottle, often touted as one of the more environmentally conscious festivals, offers not just carbon offsets and the like but sustainability workshops, as does Bonnaroo. Outside Lands has a number of sustainability and waste-reduction efforts under its umbrella Eco Lands program. Meanwhile, event-greening org Clean Vibes, which (among other things) helps organize and haul off recycling and residual waste, has by now worked with festivals like Firefly, High Sierra, Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, Governor's Ball, and Panorama.
Put on a festival, go green, get an award
There are even awards for festival sustainability, for which organizers must nominate themselves. There was a time when such branding might have been considered uncool, but now a large contingent of the nation's most popular festivals are eager to get green-certified in some capacity, lest they be caught on the wrong side of the public-relations tide. (See, for instance, Thailand's now-notoriously shitty Full Moon Festival, which has increasingly become the kind of thing you only attend if you are someone without a soul. This festival is not to be confused with NYC's Full Moon Fest, which at least puts $1 from each ticket purchased toward planting trees around the city.)
It's always good to know which organizers are doing what, but it's not like people decide their attendance based on these things. Festivals aren't exactly interchangeable. So the best thing you can do wherever you do end up is to make sure your own footprint isn't any larger than it has to be. This means the individual offsets if the festival offers them, and I assume you already don't litter because you are a nice person, but also bringing your own (empty, reusable) water bottles and biodegradable food.
Lots of festivals offer free water refills if you bring back your own bottles, which is a good idea that is still not as good as just not fucking having them in the first place (also, plastic water bottles at these things are so absurdly expensive that I dunno why you wouldn't just bring a reusable one even if you cared nothing for the planet). Coachella has the free-refill deal, and yet my memory of the chaotic mountains of empty bottles can still best be described as distressing.
To that end, try to see how much of your haul you can make not just recyclable, but biodegradable. The bummer with events on this scale is that a lot of what you think you're recycling will never actually get that far; there's too much contamination from the trash piles, plus organizers just aren't often equipped to handle the sheer volume.
Bonnaroo, another festival firmly in the top tier of sustainability, uses 100-percent compostable food-service items. It's a good move to model your own packing after this, and also to bring much of your own food as you comfortably can -- in addition to racking up more waste (and again, the prices, jeez) the Instagram-bait lobster rolls and whatnot you find at festivals these days aren't doing much for the planet either.
Carbon offsets are great, not least because at this scale they show developers that there's a demand for them in the market. But the best thing would be to, you know, not rack up so much damage in the first place; guidelines like Leave No Trace go only as far as people are willing to bother with them.
Festivals are wonderful, and there's no reason each of us can't work harder to make sure we're not paying for the magic by making the planet hotter and more garbage-y. I'll see you at Panorama, trying to soak up all the clean vibes.