Partying for Sustainable Development: How Festivals are Going Green

Festivals all over the world regularly bring together thousands of people; few of them, however, are anywhere near as environmentally conscious as the Burning Man in Nevada, US, which leaves its desert venue even cleaner than it was before. Jürgen Forkel-Schubert, a senior expert on sustainable development at the Ministry for Urban Development and Environment of the City of Hamburg, explains how festivals can go green using Hamburg’s experience as an example.

Jürgen Forkel-Schubert

The city of Hamburg is well known for its festivals. Unfortunately, while they bring joy to some, they also bring noise, unpleasant smells, and traffic jams to others. For the longest time, the administration of Hamburg and various non-profit organizations have been trying to turn these festivals into events that promote sustainable and green development.

Hamburg’s biggest event of the year is a festival dedicated to the birthday of the city’s port. While the event itself lasts only 6 hours, it takes another 6 days to clean up the aftermath. A completely different example is that of Burning Man, the world-famous eight-day event held in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, US. Once the festival is over, the desert venue that was home to dozens of thousands of people ends up being cleaner than it was before the festival began. In fact, leaving no trace is one of the event’s 10 principles.

“Imagine an event where, once it’s over, you can’t even tell that anyone was there. That’s Burning Man. We got to thinking: how do we make festivals greener? How do we convince people it’s necessary? Pressuring them into it doesn’t work: they’re here to celebrate, and strict rules will be ignored. Still, there are quite a few clever ways to change people’s habits. Many festivals last for several days, and the guests’ phones are bound to run out of charge. If they want to charge them, why not offer them to produce their energy using a bicycle generator?” explains Jürgen Forkel-Schubert.

Burning Man. Credit: 34travel.me
Burning Man. Credit: 34travel.me

That is the exact idea of the Electric Hotel, a special festival venue where visitors can charge their electronic devices. There are two ways to do it: you can either pay 2 euros for access to an electric outlet, or grab a bike and start spinning the pedals until your phone is charged. This method has already been employed by several festivals.

Hamburg: the 2011 Green Capital of Europe

In 2011 Hamburg was named the Green Capital of Europe. With that title came the responsibilities of promoting green events, increasing public awareness of these events, showcasing various solutions, and ensuring the sustainability and popularity of Hamburg’s public events.

In that same year, the city issued a brochure with recommendations for organizers of festivals, but it did not seem to have a visible effect. The brochures were distributed in hotels, at festival venues, and among event managers. Later, one of the city’s major companies had initiated a study that aimed to outline concrete guidelines regarding the methods, standards, and organization of such events.

As a result, a set of guidelines was developed for event management in the context of Hamburg’s sustainable development, including the positive traits that festivals should exhibit and the negative traits they should avoid. Among the positives are the improvement of personal health, and the promotion of education and culture. Among the negatives are environmental pollution, the consumption of fossil fuels, greenhouse gas emissions, increased production of waste, and impeding the movement of local residents. This was the beginning of Hamburg’s sustainable development goals initiative for major public events.

Birthday of the Port of Hamburg. Credit: hamburg.com
Birthday of the Port of Hamburg. Credit: hamburg.com

The next step towards sustainability was taken in 2014, when all urban events were ranked according to their level of benefit or harm to their environment. This allowed scientists to indicate the most problematic events that required reworking.

“The city administration decided it was time to change things, and they began with the Altonale street festival. The changes included a new approach to optimal resource consumption (energy, water, and waste) in the lead-up to and during the festival, environment-focused initiatives, and seeking out eco-friendly sponsors. We also began to think about the possible uses of solar energy, switching to bicycles, and selling more eco-products. It was all preceded by a great deal of discussion and arrangement, but we managed to make a change,” says Mr. Forkel-Schubert.

Hamburg’s new format of large-scale public events demonstrated that it’s possible to reduce the carbon footprint, eliminate waste, and have fun in the meantime. An event visited by 5,000 people in May 2018 had the same effect on the environment, according to a later lifecycle analysis, as as small BBQ get-together: the visitors produced only 30 grams of waste per person and generated energy equivalent to 74 kilowatt of solar power and 4 kilowatt of alternative source power. Night-time noise levels were also noticeably reduced, and all food waste was subject to recycling.

Barcamp solutions

BarCamp is an international network of conferences organized by its members and held as training sessions, presentations, or reports. These conferences are open to every willing participant. Hamburg hosted three barcamp sessions that revolved around the topics of reducing the costs of green events (the aforementioned 2018 festival was sponsored entirely from the city budget), increasing the profit generated by green events, resource conservation and efficiency, social justice, and more.

Jürgen Forkel-Schubert at ITMO University
Jürgen Forkel-Schubert at ITMO University

Clubmob: green clubbing

The Clubmob initiative improves the environment by spending money earned through collecting entrance fees from visitors of clubs and spending it on eco-friendly lighting and food, alternatives to plastic, and reducing the noise and smoking levels, resulting in a friendlier, safer environment.

“The Clubmob concept centers on the idea that you get to have fun while contributing to the creation of a more sustainable system. I should note that the improvements are funded entirely by profits from these events. Clubs sign an agreement in advance stating that 100% of the profits will go towards improving the environmental balance. These parties are usually aimed at people who don’t like to party too late and are thus held between 7 and 11 PM,” explains Jürgen Forkel-Schubert.

Green Event Hamburg Network

The network is a transparent, active, and future-oriented network that serves as an information portal for event managers and others. Its members use the portal to exchange information, useful advice, and links for those in the event management industry. The website also hosts a database for service providers.

From “Hamburg is becoming green: ideas for sustainable development”, an open lecture delivered at ITMO University by Jürgen Forkel-Schubert on April 4, 2019 as part of the 16th German Week in St. Petersburg.

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