"Responsibility" and "cleanliness" might not be synonymous with the world's biggest music and culture festival, which turns a Tennessee farm into a four-day party for 70,000 hippies, hipsters, baby-boomers and even the occasional baby.
Sure -- and forgive the stereotype -- peace, love, caring are baked right in. But amidst all the good vibes, what of Bonnaroo's massive carbon footprint?
"They should do everything they can" to shrink it, folkster Andrew Bird told us before performing last week, "besides not having it exist."
Bonnaroo's organizers agree. Carbon heavy tour vans and fire-spewing sideshows aside, they've created one of the greenest festivals out there, and have big plans to get even more sustainable. Are the attendees and the rest of the music industry listening?
As we mentioned earlier, Bonnaroo, located in Manchester, Tennessee, mixes into the music and partying a healthy and robust slate of environmental initiatives, tackling everything from composting to auto emissions.
The efforts are easier to carry out than ever, says Laura Sohn, Bonnaroo's sustainability coordinator, because festival-goers get it. But the task is huge.
"That's the general problem with festivals," Sohn says. "You're already starting in a huge hole when you have people idling in their cars for two hours.
"Just to get a zero takes a lot of work."
Green My Ride
In years past, Bonnaroo's biggest scourge, environmental and otherwise, may have been the notoriously long lines of idling cars taking thousands into the campgrounds.
Thanks to simply improving traffic controls, Bonnaroo has turned was once an 18 hour ordeal into a 90 minute jaunt.
The festival also encourages carpooling by offering a chance to win VIP camping upgrades to vehicles with four or more people.
When it comes to lowering its on-site footprint, Bonnaroo's biggest asset is a simple economic one: unlike most festivals, the organizers own the land where the festival happens.
"Just by sheer virtue of the fact that we own our land, we can do so much more than other festivals," says Sohn. Owning the land gives the organizers a greater sense of stewardship, and a greater incentive to keep the festival sustainable year in and year out.
"We need to be able to use the land every year," Sohn says. "It doesn't make a fan experience happy to have a dirty campground. It has to be done, and we're commited to it being done properly."
A large waste-reduction effort, powered by the company Clean Vibes and an army of volunteers, aims to cut landfill waste in half. Alongside wells, this year's festival included a set of purified drinking water stations that sought to cut plastic bottle consumption by a staggering 1.5 million. And to ramp up the compost collection, the organizers have mandated that vendors provide biodegradable plates, cups and cutlery, all of which to be composted at the festival's new on-site compost pile.
But by Sunday, a good idea had been foiled in small ways. Some compost bins weren't emptied often enough, meaning that compostable materials was heading into garbage bins. And not all vendors seemed to have got the memo. Occasionally, vendors tossed biodegradable trash into garbage bins behind their booths, while some handed out cups and plates that were not biodegradable.
The compost pile could also use more attention, said Sohn. "We want to have a dedicated person monitoring the compost pad, someone who knows when it should be turned, topped of with mulch."
A smoke ring rises from one of the festival's resolutely non-green events: a metal fire-breathing monster. Flickr user Strebzilla
Amping Up For Solar
Between the towers of speakers, massive lights and the ferris wheel, the festival uses a considerable amount of power. But this year, the site was connected to the local Duck River electric grid for the first time, increasing efficiency and enabling the festival to cut its (largely biodiesel) generator use by 70 percent.
Hooking up to the grid also allows Bonnaroo to purchase green power credits directly from the Tennessee Valley Authority, which it does to offset all of its emissions. Attendees are also encouraged to buy renewable energy certificates when they purchase their tickets, offsetting emissions from their automotive travel.
Next year, the organizers plan their biggest energy gambit yet: a permanent solar array that will provide up to 22 kilowatts of electricity.
"It will feed into the Tennessee Valley Authority grid, and run throughout the year," said Sohn. By providing energy to the grid for 51 weeks each year, the array could effectively replace the electricity it needs for one week in June. "We would be the first festival in the world to do this."