Green shoots: The Greenbelt Festival

In our Green Shoots series, we feature businesses and projects that demonstrate a fairer, more sustainable future. This time we look at how the Greenbelt Festival lives up to its environmental principles and shares its learning with the wider sector. 

It’s a warm summer evening, the light beginning to fade into a late August chill. The sky is orange and pink overhead as we walk through an avenue of trees, strung with white lights. There’s a happy chatter on the path as people come and go, volunteers checking wristbands. There is music ahead. We reach the gate, step between the trees and into the glade. Queues form at the food stalls to the right, chalkboard menus out and hot-plates sizzling. Ahead of us is the big top, the silhouettes of the crowd against the stage lights. To the left a curve of brightly coloured flags stretches round the perimeter, flapping gently. Welcome to Greenbelt.

Now well past its 40th birthday and going strong, Greenbelt is a festival of arts, faith and social justice. It’s a recurring August Bank holiday event for many Green Christian members, who pack their tents and descend on Boughton Hall, Northamptonshire. With over 10,000 other people, they will enjoy a varied programme of musicians, speakers, poets, activists and entertainment for all ages. They will need water, toilets, food, and much else besides before they leave, tired but inspired – and hopefully still mostly dry – on Tuesday morning.

With social justice and ethics at its heart, it’s important to Greenbelt that all of this happens as sustainably as possible. This has been something of a journey, and every year the festival raises its ambitions. Take those strings of lights in the trees. There were over 4,000 festoon lights strung throughout the site in 2018, marking paths and keeping campers safe while moving about at night. They are high efficiency LED bulbs, recently arrived on the festival market in Britain. Another first is the solar tower lights in the car park, again available to Greenbelt for the first time.

Because the festival is in the countryside, generators are used to provide venues with light and sound. “At our previous festival site at Cheltenham racecourse, it was all on grid” says Greenbelt’s events director Mary Corfield. “It was easier to use 100% renewable energy suppliers. At Boughton it all comes in, as there’s no infrastructure on site. We moved from all mains to all diesel. Ultimately the goal is to use 100% sustainable energy, but the events industry is behind the curve on these things. It’s getting better every year but it’s not as simple as some people might think. As technologies become available we can use them.”

One of those new technologies is hybrid generators, essentially battery banks working at mains voltage. There were very few of them in the country until recently, and those that were on the market were all on contract to another festival. Greenbelt was able to use them in 2018. Powering smaller venues, they can run quietly until needing a charge from the generators. One more remote part of the site ran entirely on a hybrid unit with a small solar array. “We’ve reduced our fuel use for three years in a row, by 16%, 16% and then 20%” says Mary. “The festival has been growing in that time, so I’m really proud of those fuel reductions.”

Energy specialist and Green Christian member Dave Barton, this year with statistician wife Sheila, has been volunteering with Greenbelt to help them reduce their energy use and carbon impact further. They have been monitoring and analysing diesel consumption and power loads. “Typically engineers tend to oversize generators because no-one wants the lights to go out if there is a big demand for power” Dave explains. “That has the downside of inefficient running much of the time. The tedious task of gathering data from smelly generators has its rewards – understanding energy demand and peak loads allows us to reduce our carbon impact for the next year. Further gains will come from better zoning of venues, automatic sequencing of generator banks, as well as more solar hybrid set-ups.”

“There will shortly come a point when it will be difficult to reduce diesel consumption further and we’d need hard-to-find biodiesel or vegetable-oil generators to further reduce ecological impact.” That long term goal to use 100% renewable energy will be difficult, but as Dave says, the team is up for the challenge. “It’s been very encouraging working with Greenbelt and their contractors, with their willingness to find ecological solutions.”

Waste is another focus for the festival. Every person in the queue at the curry trailer will need to take their meal away in a container, and then dispose of it afterwards. In 2017 Greenbelt introduced a rule for all their caterers, stipulating that all packaging had to be fully compostable. Caterers on site are chosen because they share the festival ethos, and they were happy to comply. Unfortunately, the results from that first year were disappointing. Mary blames the festival-goers – not because they don’t care, but because they do:

“Compostable packaging looks so good these days that our festival-goers looked at it and thought ‘that’s not compostable’, and put it in the general waste bin. At the end of the festival our composting rate had hardly gone up. We know that Greenbelters, by and large, care about the planet. They know that it’s easy to contaminate the waste stream by putting something in the wrong bin, so they were trying to do the right thing.”

There was clearly some education to do, and in 2018 a handful of measures were brought in to nudge people in the right direction. Every catering van had a sign saying ‘smile, all my packaging is compostable’. Volunteers dressed as ‘bin fairies’ were doing the rounds telling people about what went in which bin. “It was still a problem at first” says Mary. “I was having a look at the bins on the Friday night and there was still lots of packaging in the general bin, but by Saturday night there was almost none. It was just a matter of getting used to the idea.”

Another new rule for 2018 was a ban on single use plastics, with no water bottles on site. It’s important to keep artists and crew hydrated, so they were all offered a reusable metal bottle. Greenbelt staff have reported seeing those branded bottles in use at other events, reflecting the way that modelling a small change can have a ripple effect.

“One of the things I’m most passionate about is influencing other festivals” says Mary. Greenbelt has won the Greener Festival award, and Mary is a guest panellist at the Showman’s Show, the big annual industry event. If trade magazines want to talk about sustainability, it’s often Greenbelt that they call. “Most years there are people from other festivals who want to come along and see what we’re doing, and we always do our best to show them around” says Mary. “We always try to be encouraging, not telling them off for not doing it right. My message is always that if little Greenbelt can do it, with our modest budgets, then you can too.”

Article first published in Green Christian magazine. Photo by Greenbelt.

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