Coachella Festival produces more than 100 tons of waste per day — here’s how it can be more sustainable.

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has reached almost mythical status in contemporary pop culture, for good reason. It’s one of the largest music festivals in the world, with more than 750,000 attendees[1] passing through the gates of the festival’s venue, the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio, Ca., over two weekends in 2017.

With hordes of music-lovers, however, comes trash — lots of it. According to a 2017 Indio Environmental Impact Report, Coachella fest alone produces 107 tons of waste per day, and the numbers for similar events at Empire Polo Grounds, including country music affair Stagecoach Festival and classic rock fete Desert Trip, are about the same[2]. Much of this festival detritus comes in the form of thousands of single-use plastic water bottles, which litter the grounds following each hot desert day of play.

Another of the festival’s major environmental impacts is not as visible: The massive amounts of energy required to power the screens, lights, and sound equipment that bring Coachella its joyful noise. Diesel generators provide the majority of that energy, and in the process release carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and other toxic gases[3].

Festival organizers are aware of Coachella’s sustainability issues, and efforts are being made to reduce the event’s impact. Attendees can offset both the post-fest litter quotient and the two-dollar price of plastic water bottles by collecting abandoned empties and trading them for water and festival swag (the exchange rate is 10 to one for a fresh drink, and more for bigger prizes). The festival also encourages ticket-holders to bring their reusable bottles and hydrate at free refilling stations, though “no steel, metal, aluminum, or glass bottles are allowed”[4] — a rule that excludes popular bottle models like influencer-favorite Hydroflasks.

There’s also recycling and composting initiatives designed to make garbage sorting easier and to ensure that bins can be quickly identified (however, “[i]f you’re not sure what goes where, toss your waste in one of our white cardboard waste bins to avoid contaminating the recycling and compost stream,” the festival website advises[5]), and an “energy playground”[6] gives attendees the chance to act as the generators as they see-saw their way to a fully charged cell phone. Despite all these efforts, only 20% of the festival’s waste ends up being recycled, a number that’s a full 10% below the already-disheartening national average.

Part of Coachella’s waste problem is organizers’ tendency to put the onus on ticket-holders to take care of it — sort their trash correctly, gather dropped bottles, and cart eco-friendly but often bulky alternatives with them through the gates — without much support or education from the festival itself. If the fest wants to get serious about dropping those 107 tons a day down to much less, they’ve got to work from the top down and consider the in ways in which it is possible to limit single-use plastic on the grounds.

While it’s unreasonable to expect Coachella to totally do away with convenience water options, especially in an area where April temperatures regularly graze 90 degrees Fahrenheit[7], there are alternatives to plastic. Take Boxed Water is Better, a cardboard-packed H2O company that prides itself on sourcing paper from sustainably managed forests and water from municipal sources. It is also shipped more efficiently, with unfilled boxes folding down to move more of them with fewer trucks[8]. When Coachella attendees fork over that two bucks, they should ideally find themselves with a more eco-friendly box in hand.

Additionally, the festival could expand the number of water refill stations available, since the typically long wait for water can be a deterrent for reusable bottle–bringers rushing between sets. Allowing metal and stainless-steel bottles (as other major festivals, including Electric Daisy Carnival[9] in Las Vegas and Lollapalooza[10] in Chicago, do) would also let more fest-goers tote the bottles they use every day.

As for the event’s generator jamboree, the sustainable solution seems obvious when considering Indio’s reputation for sunshine-filled days: solar power. It’s possible to rent or purchase generators that run on sun, and, moreover, with Indio committing to hosting the festival through 2030[11], there may be potential for more permanent solar power structures to be built near the site.

And though Coachella isn’t the only festival with a waste problem, the event can take cues from other large-scale music functions making strides toward sustainability. Weayaya festival in Alberta and the University of California, Berkley’s Sunstock festival both function on solar. Moreover, according to a 2014 Vice article on a now-defunct, solar-powered fest (a common occurrence in a profit- and publicity-driven events landscape where new festivals are continuously popping up and disappearing), rental costs for solar generators are nearly equal to those of diesel generators and, when factoring in fuel costs, can even save organizers money over time[12].

Electronic music fest DGTL in Amsterdam offers attendees 3D-printed cupholders to allow them to keep reusable cups close at hand — and the plastic, paper, aluminum, and glass that do make their way into waste bins are sorted and recycled onsite and transformed into resources for current and upcoming festival use. DGTL also employs leftover heat from biogas energy-generation processes to keep temps comfortable for fest-goers and reduce the shindig’s CO2 emissions in one fell swoop[13].

At concert venues such as California’s Santa Barbara Bowl, alcoholic beverages are served in reusable cups instead of single-use plastic. The stadium solves the potential cost and loss issue by charging consumers an extra two bucks at the time of purchase, but handing back the cash when the cups are turned in (and, up to a certain limit, they will even pay good Samaritans for turning in others’ left-behind steins).

Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee offers a similar program, selling Bonnaroo-branded, stainless-steel pint glasses and water bottles and reusable bamboo cutlery and providing discounts, like money off draft beer, to purchasers[14].

Because reduced-plastic options like boxed water can (and should) still be recycled, and other forms of waste, such as food scraps, can be composted, Coachella Festival organizers may also extend resources toward ensuring that waste is properly sorted. Coachella might find the key to this by looking toward a neighboring event: Joshua Tree Music Festival, held less than an hour from Indio in Joshua Tree National Park. A recent article by The New York Times details the efforts of “waste management specialists” the Trash Pirates, who are hired by the festival to collect and sort garbage and educate attendees (a far cry from the Coachella policy of leaving out marked bins and hoping for the best).

Rather than scooping up detritus post-fest and sending it all to the landfill, the Trash Pirates ensure that different kinds of waste are disposed of in the most sustainable way possible, even if that means more work separating items; cigarette butts, for example, head to a company that transform butts into plastic palettes and compost the tobacco[15]. A decision by Coachella higher-ups to hire the Trash Pirates or a similar group would ensure that the physical waste that was produced would sail off to the right places, without relying solely on attendees’ ability to sort correctly.

Sure, trading ‘Chella sweatshirts for swaths of discarded bottles may be a decent first step towards taking a drop out of the festival’s annual sea of trash. But real, organizer-supported efforts to make the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival more green? Well, that’s music to an environmentalist’s ears.

[1] George Varga, “Coachella 2018 preview: Beyoncé, Eminem, The Weeknd, new food court, drones and a new emoji,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, April 12, 2018. music/sd-et-music-coachella-20180412-story.html.
[2] Corrine S. Kennedy, “Coachella generates 107 tons of waste each day,” The Desert Sun, April 21, 2017.
[3] Hannah Sonberg, “Environmental Cost for Coachella,” USD Student Media, April 25, 2019.
[4] “Sustainability,” Coachella.
[5] “No Impact at Coachella,” Coachella.
[6] “Energy Playground,” Coachella.
[7] “Climate Indio – California,” U.S. climate data, 2019.
[8] Kriston Capps, “Is boxed water actually better?,” Citylab, February 6, 2015.
[9] “Acceptable Items,” EDC Las Vegas.
[10] “Information,” Lollapalooza.
[11] Todd Martens, “Indio OKs plan to hold, expand Coachella festival through 2030,” Los Angeles Times, April 3, 2013.
[12] DJ Pangburn, “How to Build a Greener, Solar-Powered Music Festival,” Vice, June 3, 2014.
[13] “Sustainability Projects 2019,” DGTL, March 12, 2019.
[14] “Sustainability,” Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival.
[15] Penelope Green, “They Love Trash,” The New York Times, November 16, 2019. 11/16/style/trash-pirates-festivals.html?action=click&module=Editors%20Picks&pgtype=Homepage.