Two festival attendees walk down vendor row

Two festival attendees walk down vendor row at Roots N Blues on Sept. 25 at Stephens Lake Park in Columbia.

Aluminum beer cans. Paper plates covered in barbecue sauce. Half-full plastic cups.

The Roots N Blues music festival was back in Columbia last month, and like every year, it produced several tons of waste – not all of it recyclable. The annual event draws thousands of guests and produces as much as 10 tons of refuse and 5 tons of recyclables over its three days. By comparison, the city of Columbia produced an average of 628 tons of trash daily in 2017, according to the most recent figures available.

But these days, such mass gatherings are drawing more scrutiny than ever from environmentalists. The reason: The U.S. is in the biggest recycling crisis of all time.

The problem is a recycling bottleneck, experts say. For decades, the U.S. sold and shipped its recyclables to Asia, primarily China. In 2018, however, China announced it would stop buying recyclables from the U.S. and Europe. Mass gatherings such as Roots N Blues only exacerbate such bottlenecks.

“When China stopped buying, it kind of flooded the U.S. market,” said Matthew Nestor, the city’s Utilities Department information specialist.

Festivals around the globe have been forced to adapt, experimenting with everything from solar power to performance stages made from recycled materials.

Take Flow Festival in Helsinki, Finland, for instance, which is known as one of the most sustainable music events in the world. The festival boasts cafes with biodegradable tableware, bottles and cans can be returned to the bar for a partial refund, and the remaining waste is sorted into categories for recycling. It also provides free parking for bicyclists to encourage visitors to use more sustainable vehicles.

In the U.S., environmentalists cite Black Rock City, Nevada’s Burning Man, as the most environmentally-conscious music festival. Guided by its “Leaving No Trace” motto, Burning Man encourages festivalgoers to preserve the natural landscape by minimizing waste and composting, with a restoration team that scours the area in the days after the event for “matter out of place.”

To be sure, Roots N Blues has taken steps towards sustainability in recent years. The festival encourages recycling as well as biodegradable materials from its vendors, provides stations at which to refill reusable water bottles, incentivizes volunteers to collect trash on the festival grounds and prohibits plastic foam.

But given the landscape of recycling in Columbia and the U.S. as a whole, in conjunction with the urgency of the climate crisis, environmentally conscious attendees would like to see more sustainable measures. Victoria Foushee, 23, a repeat festivalgoer says: “We are all part of a larger system, and as much as we should be taking responsibility, humans sometimes don’t.” Organizers of the festival did not respond to requests for comment regarding their plans to reduce or eliminate waste.

Festival attendee S. David Mitchell, 52, said while festivals themselves should be making efforts to be more sustainable, ultimately, the real responsibility rests on music lovers.

“You have to set up the framework for recycling to occur, but if folks dismiss it or don’t care, then I think that’s a problem.”

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