Confessions of an eco-Glastoneer: how sustainable is it to be a green festival-goer?

Charlotte Lytton
Not bad on paper: environmentalists hope cardboard tents will help solve the problem of single-use plastic - Geoff Pugh

“Are you regretting your choices?” It is 27 degrees and, as sun floods Castle Cary station in south Somerset, where I am standing armed with the 1.5 x 1m sheet of cardboard I’m due to be sleeping in for the next four nights, the answer is, unequivocally, yes. While a paper tent is likely not the living quarters of choice for most festival-goers (this one included), it is the most planet-friendly way to pitch up at Glastonbury, the music behemoth that has been held on Worthy Farm more than 30 times since 1970 and is this year more determined than ever to bleed green.

For the first time, single-use plastic is out, which means revellers can only buy drinks in cans or cardboard packaging; ketchup sachets at food vans are verboten, with pumps to be used in their place and lanyards - previously handed to every attendee - have gone, too. It's compostable-only as far as vendors' crockery goes, while organisers have urged that non-biodegradable face wipes and glitter are left at home in a bid to more fully than ever embrace the festival's pledge to 'leave no trace.'

In its inaugural year the celebration, founded by Michael Eavis and now co-run by his daughter, Emily, released 1,500 tickets: now, that number equates to the volunteers who, having already bought their passes, officially signed up to assist with the clear-up when this patch of Somerset waves off its 200,000 visitors tomorrow [MONDAY]. There are hundreds more unofficially pitching in: at 7am on Friday, when the fields were all but empty, I found 42-year-old Aaron mid-litter pick, having grabbed a few refuse bags and got tidying.

“I’m just helping them out,” he explains, spurred on by the knowledge that “there are some festivals where it’s spotless after people leave, so it can be done if everyone pulls their weight.” This is his 22nd time at the festival; he has found some areas “messier” than in years prior - which he puts down to the juggernaut it has become.

Glastonbury is enormous, a sprawling 900-acre dairy farm with its own sewage system and hospital, as well as the largest temporary privately-owned recycling facility in Europe (while the festival runs). In 2017, the last time it took place, detritus produced by the five-day event included 1m plastic bottles and 45m cans; it leaves behind an estimated 2,000 tonnes of waste every time.

Tents are chief among the casualties: a quarter of a million are ditched at UK festivals annually, last year creating 875 tonnes of plastic waste - equivalent in weight to eight blue whales. “Any item that’s left here just to be thrown away is quite shameful,” remonstrates Alexia Loundras, part of Glastonbury’s sustainability team. “A tent should not be single use,” she adds, citing that budget supermarket options (a four-man tent can be purchased for less than £30) mean people are more willing than ever to leave them for landfill. “We have this disposable culture we’re wrapped up in,” Loundras continues, which is “not acceptable. Our planet cannot take it.”

Previously, the green folk of Glastonbury made hay in the Healing Fields or Stone Circle, away from the main hubbub: that has changed this year, says Extinction Rebellion co-ordinator Josie Holt, following a gathering of thousands at one of the bigger stages on Thursday afternoon, which culminated in a mass formation of the campaign group’s hourglass symbol. “There’s a definite shift,” she says of what she believes is much-increased awareness around the demands being made on natural resources. “It’s not nearly enough, but it’s just the beginning.”

Thirty seven year-old Anna is newly on board. Face flecked with biodegradable glitter, she recently attended an Extinction Rebellion meeting after watching a David Attenborough documentary on the state of the planet. “Climate scientists are saying one in nine people could be displaced from their homes if we don’t do anything,” she says, adding that while this year’s switch to refillable bottles is a good move, festival organisers still have work to do to smooth the transition. In some areas of the campsite, attendees - dozens of whom have been treated for heatstroke - were waiting 20 minutes or longer to get water from the 850 on-site taps.

Which is a little bit of a sticking point, as most of us are willing to make the requisite lifestyle changes - provided they aren't more trouble than they’re worth. And going the full vegan hog is hard here, as my own mission to (possibly) go where no eco-Glastoneer has before has been proving. Sleeping in a newly launched REELtent, ‘the only truly plastic-free’ one of its kind, according to its creators, is hardly the epitome of - or even remotely adjacent to - comfort: it's sturdier than you might think, and less of an insect-magnet than plastic kinds (though perhaps flies turning their nose up is a warning sign), but takes myself and three quasi-willing helpers to decipher the instructions.

Once understood, they are fairly simple, but I'm not sure that this or Kartent, another cardboard tent company hoping to go mainstream by next festival season, can appeal to anyone beyond the most die-hard eco warriors. It weighs 12kg: lugging it from the train to the shuttle to the campsite itself, I lose track of the raised eyebrows en route: "have you been to IKEA?," one steward chips in, while fellow campers opt for variations of "It's a tent? Made of cardboard? How weird." REELtent have sold 1,000 of their one-man options (price dependent on whether you get it customised) and will soon have one twice the size for sale: it's a far cry from the other options available at Glastonbury like the Pop-Up hotel, the 'ultimate in glamping accommodation' with double beds, a hot tub and room service which costs up to £25,000 for four over the festival weekend.

No such add-ons in my cardboard palace, which I kit out with an organic sleeping bag, the Nordisk Almond +10 (farmed from pesticide-free cotton), a rucksack from Original Mountain Marathon, who advise national parks on how to responsibly use wild spaces in the UK, and am carting water around in a reusable bottle from S’well, the ‘original hydration accessory’ brand seeking to stop the use of 100m plastic bottles by 2020. Julia Roberts and Ellen deGeneres use them; my Veja eco-sneakers, made from recycled plastic and wild rubber, are equally beloved by the A-list, worn by everyone from the Duchess of Cambridge to Emma Watson.

Along with those I try walking boots by VIVOBAREFOOT, whose goal is to create shoes that have 'zero impact on the planet', clothes from the eco-conscious lines of high street shops H&M and Weekday alongside those from smaller ethical brands including Know the Origin and Iden. My toiletries come from Full Circle, who this year began making a specially designed festival kit due to growing demand, which includes a bamboo toothbrush and recycled loo paper; 2,000 sets have been purchased by Glastonbury attendees. 

Preparation here is key: many of these producers are the antithesis to fast fashion, sourcing materials locally and sustainably. Which means they are small operators, unable to contend with the demands of journalists searching for biodegradable garb at very short notice. But for customers willing to navigate the biggest challenge most of us have in going green - convenience - I quite quickly learn that some swaps are fairly simple (namely clothes and shoes) while the tents and toiletries take more getting used to. As does the wooden cutlery, as I learn to my cost when an inopportune gust of wind whips my fork out of my vegan dinner with such force that an optimistically-worn pair of (organic) white shorts are immediately ruined.

Vegan fare is on offer at plenty of the festival's 400 stands, but it’s not as if the offerings from Somerset Hog Roast, Sausage and Crepe hut or the Seafood Shack are going unloved: Sam, a 36 year old stage hand, has been trying to cut his meat consumption down of late, encouraged by others around him's recent disaffection for the effects of animal farming on our atmosphere. Yet I find him in a shady spot, merrily scoffing a burger between acts on the basis that “I like the taste of meat too much,” he says with a grin.

Sales have slowed at the milk stand, but that's not down to veganism, says 72-year-old Maurice, who is in charge today, but rather because making non-plastic packaging as the festival organisers stipulated this year “turned out to be a very expensive exercise," and prices have had to be pushed up to cover costs. Customers been asking, he explains, why they can’t buy milk in plastic bottles: he tells them “it’s Emily’s way of trying to promote the plastic-free universe.” Which “people do appreciate, I think,” he mulls for a moment. “Sales will pick up.”