Whatever you do, Don’t Tell Your Audience “Left Tents Will be Re-used”.

This article was first published in Standout Magazine’s Green Column, March 2019 Issue

Apocalyptic scenes of campsites strewn with left tents and waste have been hitting the summer headlines for years. It’s a bad look, and a persistent problem, costing event organisers tens, even hundreds of thousands to clear up. One in six tents were reported as left behind in an Association of Independent Festivals survey in 2011. In a survey of Reading and Leeds festivalgoers in 2014, 32% of people admitted to leaving their tent behind.

Perhaps less often considered are the environmental impacts of abandoned tents. According to Julies Bicycle, the average footprint of a single-use tent is 14.62 KgC02e per person, with a quarter of this from manufacture. If we apply this to the whole UK festival sector – with 3.7 million adult festival goers, and an average 30% of tents being left – that’s a staggering 16,000 tonnes of emissions. And that’s without considering any after-life impacts, such as plastics ending up in landfill. Estimates of campsite waste vary form 35% – 86% as a percentage of total festival waste, and tents tend not to go to incineration due to their low calorific value and risk of damage to machinery

Research is conclusive that the main group leaving their kit are younger people who buy tents that are so cheap – often less than £20 – that they consider them to be disposable. Other reasons include not being able to get pop-up tents back into the bag[i], revelers being too tired to cope with even existing at the end of the festival, let alone packing up their tent, groups sharing tents leaving no-one feeling responsible, the terrible phenomenon of ‘toilet tents’, tents having been wrecked in the campsite shenanigans, long walks to car parks and to top it off, it’s common for punters to consider that their ticket money gives them the right to leave stuff; they have effectively paid for someone else to clean up.

There is also the problem of the industry’s own making. In Festival Republic’s 2017 customer survey that went out to 7 festivals, the top reason for people leaving their tent behind was that they believed it would be donated to charity (39%). Many festivals, aiming to do the right thing, have invited groups to salvage tents for those who need them, such as refugee camps. The problem is, they haven’t a hope of salvaging the volume left over. The result? More tents are left by people who would otherwise have taken them home, because they think they are going to a good cause.

Left tents is essentially a problem of scale and cost – huge amounts of mixed materials that need to be separated to be recycled. The sheer volumes make this task almost impossible and cost-prohibitive in the timescales set by the event license for organisers to clear the sites. There is also little value in the materials to either help fund this work, or to create an incentive for third parties and waste companies to get involved. Yet again, the economics of the waste market are stacked against doing the right thing.

So what can organisers do? Essentially options boil down to several approaches; 1) changing behaviour through appealing to people’s altruistic nature (e.g. Leave No Trace initiatives), 2) incentivisation through benefits, i.e. make it cheaper or better, 3) acceptance and innovating to reduce the impact of ‘disposable’ tents or 4) require people to behave differently – terms and conditions. Or better still, all of them at once, with a campaign message tailored perfectly to your audience, like, say, ‘Take Back Control Of Your Tents’. 

There have been several notable attempts by festival organisers to try to persuade punters to change their behaviour; the most well known being the longstanding Leave No Trace campaign, and the more direct approach of Shangri-La’s 2017 theme and slogan – “Take your shit home”. This is a major challenge and the festival culture certainly plays a part; surveys have shown that festival goers are more likely to leave their tent behind at some festivals rather than others and a third of younger people state they are unlikely to change their behaviour whatever.  But that leaves two thirds to play for, and we know peer pressure plays a big role. 

Shambala have experimented with identifying the influencers in groups and finding ways to motivate them. Using a dedicated team of ‘eco-rangers’ they encourage festivalgoers face-to-face to recycle and take tents home, and have seen left tents reducing as a result. They also found in audience surveys that people who claimed they would not leave their tent at Shambala ‘would leave their tent at other festivals’ hinting at the influence of the culture of an event, suggesting that the actions of a festival can make a difference.

Solving problems by offering audiences a different and preferably better option or experience is a well-trodden approach. Many events are offering low cost pre-pitched options, with some, such as Camplight, using the salvaged tents as their stock. The premise of this is to create a convenient option at a price point similar or better than buying a tent.

The Love Your Tent ‘Respect’ campsite has had great successes at the Isle Of Wight festival with green camping areas with superior facilities and tent deposits. Other festivals have eco campsites or similar – places where campers make a commitment to take everything home in return for better facilities. Download Festival opened an Eco-Camp in 2018 and Roskilde Festival has a long-running clean campsite, where campers are reserved space in return for pledging to be tidy. There is plenty of take-up of such initiatives where on offer, with reports of campsites increasing in size year on year. The theory is that over time only a minority will be left looking over the fence at the other people living the good life, and want to join them. I believe this is, and would be partially effective for many events, but not reach certain demographics. But this isn’t s solution for every festival – Rock Amring festival in Germany put in place an ambitious green campsite in 2012 with so many benefits that it actually created an angry response with an anti-green campsite Facebook group and hostility onsite. This is very much the exception however.

The Love Your Tent campaign and various festivals have experimented with the idea of adding value to people’s tents so they choose to keep them. In the absence of Banksy roaming campsites with a stencil, punters have been offered limited edition ‘tags’ of festival logo’s and the like, spray painted on tents. There are signs that fewer tents with tags are left over, but it is tricky to administer, with difficulties meeting festivalgoers at their tents to obtain their permission. However, I believe there is mileage in this approach, and it deserves more exploration. I can imagine youngsters having many years tags on their tents, and the latest must-have being re-proofer.

Alongside trying to change individuals collective behavior there is an argument for accepting it and making it less impactful. If someone wants to leave their tent, make it have the least impact it can have. At the Showman’s Show this year an exhibitor showcased a flat-packable modular living pod concept, made from recycled plastic waste, a neat concept and the kind of imagination-capturing circular thinking that may help society innovate. Kartent have also designed a cardboard tent that can be repurposed into cardboard boxes or recycled. 

As part of an Innovate UK funded project involving Festival Republic, a start-up called Comp-a-tent designed a 2 material tent, also using circularity principles of designing with the end-of-life in mind. If recyclable tents can compete on performance and price on the high street, we could meet the problem half way by recycling rather than landfilling. It’s a solution for events to an extent, but not a solution to resource use and environmental impact associated with single use.

Terms and conditions is generally the easiest method of solving problems – what I affectionately call the ‘legislative’ option – but generally reserved for health and safety and protecting income. With tents it is simply not deemed acceptable to tell people to use or bring a certain tent, or easy to enforce they take it home.

There have also been pilot projects that aim to encourage festivalgoers to leave the gate with their tent, even if they dump them there. This way, at least some of the work is done, and tents more easily re-purposed. But the yield has been low, as it is the packing up itself and carrying that the young’uns identify as the barrier. 

Innovations such as deposits payable by those with tents on entry are deemed too complex and unwelcome, and experiments to entice festivalgoers with washing and packing help have failed to engage.

Ultimately I believe this issue is so intractable, that the best way to achieve significant progress is to effect a major cultural shift in behaviour in the festival sector as a whole, with a coordinated campaign. To manage this we need a critical mass of festivals across the industry working together with an underlying strong poignant and relevant message that it is no longer acceptable to leave tents. With society switched on to environmental issues through the plastic crisis, a message based on plastic, waste and the world’s ecology might be more effective now than any message would have been a few years ago. From this as a springbord, each festival knows best how to deliver the message to their audience. 

My final word on the topic…salvage as many tents as possible for reuse, but don’t, under any circumstances tell your audience this is happening, and brief your partners accordingly.