Is Outside Lands the Future of the Sustainable Music Festival?

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It’s not surprising that Outside Lands, a three-day music festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, wants to bill itself as being “green”. After all, the fest takes place in one of the country’s most beautiful parks. But does the festival, now in it’s second year, succeed in its aspirations of sustainability? Read below to find out.

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Upon entering the festival grounds, I was immediately impressed by the plentiful garbage, compost, and recycling receptacles. The festival organizers required all vendors to use compostable cutlery, plates, and cups, so nearly everything except plastic bags could be tossed in the compost or recycling bins. And amazingly, most people complied–the regular trash bins were far more empty than the other two, in no small part thanks to Outside Lands’ colorful signage explaining which items belong in what bin.

But while compost bins aren’t new to many festivals, the Outside Lands focus on local foods is by far the most impressive effort I’ve seen at any music festival. SF Weekly, in fact, went so far as to say the festival was more about the food than the music. I wouldn’t go that far, but Outside Lands did an excellent job of keeping things local by featuring (almost) only vendors from Bay Area restaurants.

In addition to the food love spread throughout the festival, Outside Lands also has an entire area devoted to environmental awareness, dubbed “Eco Lands”. It’s a cheesy name, but Eco Lands deserves its title–the entire section of the festival, featuring a stage, food and clothing vendors, and local nonprofits was juiced up by a cluster of jumbo solar panels. The panels also powered a solar cell phone charging booth provided by local energy company PG&E. As expected, the booth was a hit with festivalgoers panicking over a lack of outlets on the grounds–all the while sneaking in a lesson about the power of solar energy.

There were a number of other impressive elements of Eco Lands, including a recycling store that offered prizes in exchange for plastic bottles (one example: a VIP pass to next year’s Outside Lands festival), a wind turbine, and a mini farmers market.

Overall, the festival was a model for other large events to follow. I ran into just one problem: Outside Lands encouraged festivalgoers to bring their own water bottles, but upon entering I was asked to dump out my water. Once inside, I had the choice of paying $1 to refill my bottle, buy a regular plastic water bottle, or buy a reusable Outside Lands water bottle and get free refills. Upon asking about the Outside Lands water bottle on the second day of the festival, I was informed that all vendors on the ground were sold out. Next year, Outside Lands might consider letting music-lovers bring in their own water or at least stocking up on reusable water bottles.

But these are minor nitpicks that could be addressed to almost every music festival I’ve ever attended. In most other respects, Outside Lands is well on its way to becoming a truly sustainable event.

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