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Bonnaroo Sets Standard For Sustainable Music Festivals

Music festivals are one of the best forms of live entertainment a person can experience. Events across the U.S., varying in popularity, size, and genres are working towards being more sustainable. Traditionally, large festivals are not known to be the most eco-friendly. 

Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee is a role model for other outdoor festivities, and the reason is simple: it’s been pioneering sustainability initiatives for over a decade. Recently celebrating its 20th anniversary, it has made massive strides to become as sustainable as possible, and the return of the festival in 2022 was one of its best efforts to date. 

Bonnaroo is about as close to a modern-day Woodstock as you can get. Located in the rural town of Manchester, TN, the grounds are converted farm pastures that serve as campsites, temporary music venues, and concession stands. Almost all attendees travel from other states, most of whom drive their vehicles packed with food and camping supplies. Cars are parked on the grass, causing soil erosion, and many patrons run their cars idly to charge devices before shows begin. It’s an issue that still needs work to solve, but since 2009, Bonnaroo has been practicing sustainable waste management and incentivizing patrons to join the cause.

The biggest hurdle for Bonnaroo’s eco-friendly mission is how to enforce sustainability at a festival that can reach attendances as high as 85,000 people. Much of it comes from the work of two nonprofits, Bonnaroo Works Fund and Clean Vibes. Bonnaroo Public Works is a charitable offshoot of the event, teaching the importance of sustainability to festival-goers. It even offers a locally-sourced four-course meal. During the shows, proceeds from ticket sales helped found the Works and its workshops at the Planet Roo stage. This year, the event planners set up a solar-powered charging station stand to cut back on car idling.

Photo Courtesy Jameson Scarsella

Clean Vibes does the dirty work at the festival, literally. This year, staff hovered around trash receptacles making sure the correct waste went into the right bin. They handled the sorting of any trash that ended up in the incorrect bins, wheeled pounds of compost, and picked up cigarette butts and trash around campsites. Patrons could even turn in cigarette butts for prizes. Since its partnership in 2009, Clean Vibes has diverted almost 4,000 tons of waste from landfills. While 2022 had less attendance than other years, it was still a daunting challenge serving as “the public works” of Bonnaroo. Yet, the results speak for themselves.

On top of Clean Vibes and the Works Fund, Bonnaroo has found a way to power the event independently. In 2013, the event planners built a solar panel array to power the farm during the rest of the year. It generates up to 20% of energy during the festival.

It’s a separate power source from the Tennessee Valley Authority, the electricity provider for most of Tennessee, and the strain on the grid is significantly reduced thanks to the array. In addition, the festival also started using compostable plates, cutlery, and cups from Eco-Products and has done so for about a decade. In 2019, it was reported that 180 tons of waste were saved from landfills thanks to composting

Photo Courtesy Jameson Scarsella

While Bonnaroo has always strived to be as environmentally conscious as possible, the situation is not the same for every festival. Clean Vibes work at several national outdoor events, but not all are on 700 acres of farmland. Urban areas still have trouble with waste management, with many only offering recycling and landfill bins. 

Bonnaroo has set a new standard for multi-day live events everywhere. It has made significant and beneficial choices by hiring Clean Vibes and building a solar array. The music festival is changing how festivals should limit their carbon footprint, and the work is far from over.

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