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How Bonnaroo is adapting to climate change and keeping its party green

Two people dance underneath a multicolored fountain at Bonnarroo Music Festival.
Image Credit: Bonnarroo

Since its first event in 2002, the Tennessee-based music and arts Bonnaroo has tried to keep sustainability front and center.

Summer music festivals like Lollapalooza, Coachella and others can generate a lot of waste.

According to an environmental impact report on Coachella and other festivals held on the Indio grounds by event organizer Goldenvoice, events like these generate an estimated 1,612 tons of solid waste annually, which is about 107 tons per festival day.

And only 20 percent of that waste is recycled. That means about 644,800 pounds of refuse like leftover tents, plastic cups, and other waste is thrown into landfills. Add that to the skyrocketing energy usage of these festivals, and a large festival can leave a pretty big footprint on the environment.

Bonnarroo, for its part, has tried to change that.

“We were the first festival to have a permanent solar array on-site and a permanent compost pad on-site,” Kelsey Dewald told Associate Press.

Dewald is with the Bonnaroo Works Fund, the charitable arm of the festival that operates multiple community and social programs. “We have an amazing food recovery program to ensure that there's not significant food waste and it's actually going where it can be utilized in the community for those that need it,” Dewald continued.

Speaker towers stand tall over a landscape of tents pitched by concertgoers to the Bonnarroo music festival.
Image Credit: Bonnarroo

By investing in solar energy, composting, recycling, and other improvements, Bonnaroo has become one of the greenest music festivals in the country.

However, in recent years, the festival’s organizers have had to adapt to changing climate conditions.

Last August, Tennessee received the highest 24-hour rainfall ever recorded in a non-coastal state. The result was fatal flash flooding, which took the lives of 22 people. Subsequently, leftover rain from Hurricane Ida torrented the area over the next few days. As reported by AP, Bonnaroo campgrounds were waterlogged and roads impassable, forcing organizers to cancel.

While Tennessee, like most southeastern states, has experienced little overall warming over the beginning 20th century, experts predict that historical, unprecedented warming will ensue in the coming decades, according to the 2022 NOAA Climate Summary.

The summary also projects that future, naturally occurring droughts are expected to be more intense due to higher temperatures leading to a rapid depletion of soil moisture during dry spells. Another key message is the increasing intensity of extreme heat and precipitation events, like the flooding that deluged Tennessee last year, and has continued in its most recent spring.

Bonnaroo is unique for a lot of reasons, but the most idiosyncratic might be that its organizers bought the farmland where the festival takes place several years ago, allowing them to make permanent changes to the site to improve sustainability and efficiency and make it more adaptable to weather.

This is why when floods hit Tennessee last year, they were able to respond by expanding and paving roads, beginning work on drainage infrastructure, and relocating some campgrounds and parking lots.

“In 2021, Mother Nature delivered an unprecedented amount of rain in the week leading up to the festival, and the hurricane arrived just hours prior to load in time for campers,” organizers said in a statement. “The Farm does not generally flood, but when given significant precipitation, it may take longer to drain or dry out. Given its timing, the hurricane created a situation we could not overcome.”

The festival stayed dry this year, but Tennessee got a serving of extreme heat as record-breaking heatwaves sprawled across the U.S. Leading up to the festival, the state spent several days in the highs of the upper 90s.

The same week as Bonnaroo, The Tennessee Valley Authority, the federal utility that serves Tennessee and parts of six surrounding states, set two records for June power demand, AP reports.

In response, TVA and local utilities asked residents to conserve power, especially during peak times during the day.

Bonnaroo was able to do just that.

“Having that option to be less on the grid is a better choice for us,” Dewald said of the festival’s solar panels. Installed in 2013, the solar panels provide about 20 percent of the energy for the festival.

The Bonnaroo Works Fund doesn’t end at making Bonnaroo more sustainable. It also pays for energy improvements in low-income housing in the city of Manchester, where the festival is located. Volunteers go into people’s homes and replace light bulbs, do pipe fittings, upgrade faucets, and do other weatherization projects.

Nevertheless, Andrew Joyner, the Tennessee state climatologist, told AP that Tennessee needs higher quality weather data to help prepare for extreme and damaging storms, drought, and heat.

“If you had 6 inches over one day, that’s a lot of rain,” said Joyner. “If all those 6 inches fell in one hour, you’re going to have campsites flooded. You’re going to have people in danger.”

Higher quality data would aid cities, counties, emergency management offices, and big outdoor live events like Bonnaroo, CMA Fest in Nashville, and NASCAR races in Bristol, Tennessee, to plan and react to unpredictable weather.

“It’s hard to say whether Bonnaroo is going to be more affected going into the future by extreme flood events,” said Joyner. “It’s definitely vulnerable to it. I think that’s something that’s pretty well recognized.”

Music festivals can’t completely eliminate their impact on the environment, but as Bonnaroo has shown, it’s possible to drastically mitigate it. One way Bonnaroo has exhibited this is through waste management.

Held on a 700-acre site, the four-day festival is enjoyed by a maximum of 85,000 fans. Many travel from out of state and set up camp in Manchester, Tennessee where the festival is located. Although most attendees drive, there is a shuttle service to the festival from Nashville, about 70 miles away, for those without vehicles.

“The reality is that this is a not insignificantly sized city,” Anna Borofsky told AP. Borofsky is the co-founder of Clean Vibes, a company that manages waste at festivals and events across the country, including Bonnaroo. “We are basically the public works department for a temporary city,” she said

While thousands of fans rocked out to headliners like Stevie Nicks, J. Cole, 21 Savage, Tool, and The Chicks at this year’s festival, the Clean Vibes team combed through smelly piles of trash, sundering what would be tossed into vast compost piles and what can be recycled. They got down to the nitty-gritty, even picking out tiny cigarette butts.

Food waste that ends up in landfills emits methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to warming temperatures.

Clean Vibes has a goal of diverting at least 50 percent of the festival’s waste from landfills. And so far, the organization has achieved that. Between 2002 and 2019, more than 4,000 tons of waste have avoided the landfill fate. A big contribution to this goal is restrictions placed on food vendors, who can only use compostable plates and utensils or recyclable and reusable cups. At the festival, Clean Vibes crew members stood beside the bins and instructed people where to toss their leftovers.

Another way the festival mitigates waste is through incentives. Jordan Alvernia, from Orlando, brought a bag full of recyclables that he collected at his campsite to a Clean Vibes trading post, where he got a voucher for free food, AP reports.

“It’s not just for the incentives of course,” Alvernia told AP. Alvernia has been coming to Bonnaroo for years and collecting trash for vouchers and other merchandise every time, “I do it because I love all things Earth,” he told AP while flaunting a “Save the Animals” tattoo on his arm.

“Obviously, what we’re doing at this one event for one weekend isn’t changing the world. We don’t have any delusions about that,” Borofsky told AP. “But proving that we can provide such a comprehensive waste diversion system here is evidence that it can be done on a larger scale and in other applications.”


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