Ed. Note. Erin Holcomb contributed to this story.
Wrapping up its 15th year this weekend in Manchester, Tennessee, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival is a feast for the senses. Incredible music, engaging stage shows, colorful people watching, frequent high-fiving and even an array of food choices. When it comes to the sights, however, one thing you won’t see on the festival grounds is trash. In its place is an army of blue-shirted volunteers, who not only pick up trash and chat with festival goers, but also dig into the labeled trash receptacles (compostables, recycling only, and trash only) to sort and make sure what’s in there is actually what it claims to be.
These volunteers are part of Clean Vibes, and organization that works with Bonnaroo and other festivals as part of its sustainability efforts, and helps divert 50-60% of the event’s trash from landfills.
“What Clean Vibes does is amazing, “ said Laura Sohn, sustainability coordinator at AC Entertainment, on Friday afternoon at the Festival. “They have been doing the festival since year one. They literally take bags of trash and sort it before it goes into the (onsite) compost pod.”
Clean Vibes also gets a lot of help from the festival’s patrons, who by now have grown accustomed to what the right thing is to do, and how to do it.
“We used to have another group of volunteers that used to stand by those receptacles and tell people where to put their trash,” adds Sohn. “We don’t have to do that anymore. People have become so aware of what they should be doing.”
Patrons are also incentivized to pick up trash themselves. At the Clean Vibes Trading Post, fans can collect trash and recyclables and trade it in for merchandise.
“They are so committed, it’s mind-boggling,” says Sohn. “If you go out early, you will see patrons picking up cigarette butts. I was out on the grounds yesterday, and there was this big clear bag of cans in front of the barn, and I was wondering who put it there, and this patron said, ‘I’m collecting that for the clean vibes trading post.’ He was walking around picking up trash. It’s a good example of what we do both operationally and how we get the fans to participate and engage as well.”
Working with Clean Vibes is only one facet of Bonnaroo’s sustainability efforts. The Festival has an onsite solar array, paid for with a fee added on to tickets, that generates energy and offsets the festival’s carbon footprint. Perfectly good food is collected from food vendors and donated to the Grundy County Food Bank and other local organizations. Patrons are encouraged to bring their own water bottles to fill up at refillable water stations pulling from both city and well water. Even beer drinkers can act more responsibly with the Refill Revolution limited edition beer cups. Buy it once filled with beer and refill it for a discount throughout the festival. All food vendors are also required to use only compostable plates and flatware.
Bonnaroo’s commitment to sustainability and community extends beyond environmentalism and includes partnering with numerous organizations “that coalesce around the theme of healthy and sustainable communities,” says Sohn. The centerpiece of that mission is on display at the festival at Planet Roo, a corridor of more than 20 nonprofit organizations than focus on mental health, the arts, food and more. Among the groups there were Nashville’s own Porch Writing Collective, which was leading writing workshops, and Global Zero, a DC-based organization with a mission to eliminate the world’s nuclear weapons.
According to Global Zero representative John Qua, the organization has dozen of volunteers fanned out across the festival educating festival goers about nuclear weapons.
“We reach thousand of young people, get them to sign up to volunteer and build chapters on their campuses, “ said Qua. “In past years, we’ve gotten 4-6,000 signups over the course of the event.”
Anna Sampson was there with We Are Neutral, an organization that works with cities, events, universities and more to offset their carbon footprint. Through a grant from the Bonnaroo Works Fund, We Are Neutral helped retrofit every HUD home in Manchester, providing energy efficient lightbulbs, insulating water pipes and educate residents.
“All of the utility savings that we provide turn into carbon offsets for Bonnaroo,” said Sampson. “We moved out to Grundy County last year and this year we did Woodbury and Tullahoma and are going to continue to spread out.”
Bob Fergusen, OxFam America’s manager of creative alliances and music outreach, has attended the festival for nine years with his organization.
“There is an incredible community here that wants to be helpful,” Fergusen said during the “Turning Your Passion into Advocacy” panel on Friday at the Solar Stage. “All the artists have a point of view. That really appeals to us.”
Like We Are Neutral, many of the organizations in Planet Roo receive funding through The Bonnaroo Works Fund. Created in 2009 and now administered by The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, the Works Fund hasn’t always gotten the visibility it deserved at the Festival. That changed last year with the creation of the Bonnaroo Works Fund Community Center, where patrons could bid on silent auction items and learn more about what the Fund does.
“We were having a little difficulty with making that connection (between the Festival and the Fund) because people are here for a music festival,” said Jeff Cuellar, vice president of strategic partnerships, AC Entertainment. “So pivoting off a little of what we were able to create with Planet Roo, we took that a step further and created the community center. It’s a great way for our fans to interact and have a deeper connection with us. Money off of every ticket goes to fund the Works Fund, so it’s an opportunity for us to showcase to fans where the dollars are going. We want to show them that we are doing amazing things, thinking and acting locally, and making sure that we are making that long lasting and positive impact.
“This is where we live work and play. We own the property. Great Stage Park is ours. We have to give back and think about the local community, how we can sustain it and keep it growing.”
Sohn believes that including nonprofits and making stronger connections between the Festival and its work in the community is working.
“Every year, more and more people interact with the groups and more people sign the petitions,” she says. “Our goal is that they take it home with them, or volunteer with a nonprofit that they have interacted with. And the groups themselves are getting more advanced in learning how to engage with the audiences. They’re are not just standing there with a clipboard.”
Sampson agrees. “People go to restaurants and support businesses that they know are environmentally conscious. I think it’s the same with festivals. I do believe it does make a difference.”
Bonnaroo Works Fund
Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee
We Are Neutral
Photos by Joe Pagetta and Erin Holcomb for NowPlayingNashville.com.