Bonnaroo goes green

It’s possible that some of the biggest applause heard at last weekend’s Bonnaroo extravaganza was not for Lil’ Wayne or Mumford and Sons, Eminem or Dr. John, but for the phalanx of silver tankers that arrived once or twice a day slopping over with cool, fresh water to resupply the fest’s communal fountain/shower.

Each time a line of the half-dozen shiny trucks entered through the campgrounds, their big rolling tires generating even more dust, the crowds parted reverently to allow them access.

Even more than microbrews and vegetable samosas, drum circles and pot, umbrellas and sun block, fresh, clean water is the key to keeping the festival alive.

During its ten-year run, the mid-summer fest – this year’s version hosted 120 bands and more than 80,000 – has experienced all weathers, from downpour to heat wave. This year’s was the latter. Other than a few drops and some distant lightning near the onset of Buffalo Springfield’s reunion show late on Saturday night, the skies were clear and pale, dry and hot. Which meant those 160,000 feet scuffling around the 700-acre compound very quickly turned the place into a dust bowl. The stages were often masked by a fine scree of brown Tennessee dust hovering in the air 30 feet above ground.

Creating a sizable city, even if for just four days, requires massive logistics on top of selling and delivering all those computer-coded wristbands and organizing the arrival and departure of fleets of band-bearing tour buses. Most of life’s essentials – particularly water – have to be brought in from elsewhere. (Two deaths were reported over the weekend; heat exhaustion may have been in part responsible, though so could have overdose, genetics or freak accident. That number brings the total to have taken their last breaths at Bonnaroo at 10 in 10 years.)

%Gallery-126954%Thankfully there seemed to be plenty of water. While there were the ubiquitous long lines outside the occasionally overflowing porta potties, the lines to fill water bottles, Camelbacks and empty gallon milk jugs with drinking water were manageable (the drinking water was tested daily by the state’s Department of Health to make sure it stayed … drinkable). One of the most popular carry-ons at the fest was a Nalgene water bottle with their own misting fans. Surprisingly a big semi-circle of misting fans near the fountain seemed to be underused.

The fountain strategically built at Centeroo – big enough to shower 50 or 60 at a time – is the literal heart of the festival, especially when temps reached nearly triple digits, with some dropping by multiple times in a day to dust off.

Like several of the big summer fests, Bonnaroo has put lots of effort into greening its event, for obvious reasons: Anytime you create a small city in the middle of nowhere for several weeks (set-up begins months in advance, especially now that the show’s organizers own most of the land that hosts the festival) you’re going to have an impact: Think of all the air miles, buses, RVs spewing fossil fuels that deliver those 80,000+ and the garbage left behind. To its credit the festival has won a variety of awards for its efforts, based on self-evaluations and external audits.

Attendees, for example, have the option of adding any amount of money to their ticket purchase price to support the festival’s green efforts, like carbon offsets, a composting program, future plans for more solar power, which about half of ticket buyers pay into.

Last year’s event was about the same size and the North Carolina-based Clean Vibes company, which was hired to look after the leftovers, reportedly sorted 489 tons of garbage, diverting about a third of it to be recycled. That included carrying 101 tons of recyclables (81 tons of that was plastic bottles), plus 23 tons of cardboard, 21 tons of scrap metal, 45 tons of compost and 5 tons of cooking oil.

I talked with a bunch of the dedicated “Trash Talkers” – they are identified so by their t-shirts – who stand by each recycling drop and either advises on which bin to drop what (recyclable, compost, garbage) or stick plastic-gloved hands into the mess to personally re-sort. They’d gotten in for free, saving the couple hundred bucks on a weekend pass, and seemed happy to be there, despite a weekend of trash sorting. A 24-year-old from South Carolina standing near the Which stage said he’d organized his whole weekend work schedule around this one, Friday night posting, so that he’d have a good view of Primus.

Despite any touted green ethic, whether by organizers or attendees, there was trash… everywhere. I watched 40,000 people back off from the stage after Mumford & Sons played for 90 minutes and the ground was carpeted with plastic cups, plastic beer bottles, plates, wrappers, etc. People are people, essentially slobs, and it wouldn’t have mattered if the crowd had gathered for a jam band or a Nascar race, it was a mess. As it moved away, many heading for the main stage for a Black Keys set, even more volunteers moved in with plastic garbage bags to try and pick up and sort as much of the mess as possible. Convoys of electric ATVs piled high with plastic bags filled with garbage were even more ubiquitous than the water truck convoys.
Organizers clearly understand the link between clean water and life since several international non-profits focusing on water issues were featured at this year’s version, including its lead non-profit partner Challenge, as well as charity: water and Water for People.

Even post-fest, water was on people’s mind. This suggestion from a chat room posted minutes after the last act left the stage:

Ways to improve bonnaroo?

  1. Several more mist tents with a slightly higher output of water
  2. At least 5 more filtered water stations, with adequate water pressure
  3. MORE SHADE!! 1 tent the size of “This Tent”, without a stage, and without the sides. 40 cheap ceiling fans running at full blast would be a nice touch too.
  4. More / Better art installations
  5. More / Nicer / More frequently cleaned Portapotties

[flickr image via Jason Anfinsen]