Avril Stanley wants you to bring your stuff home. Yes your head hurts and you’ve had very little sleep, but please push that sleeping bag and tent back into their impossibly small bags. They will give you warmth and shelter another time — hopefully many other times.
I’m standing with Stanley and her colleague Áine May Hughes in the beautiful calm of the walled garden in Ballinlough Castle in Co Westmeath. All around us, birds are singing their hearts out. A flock of chocolate brown sheep have snuck away while we talk. “I hope to God I haven’t left anything open,” Stanley says. But all’s fine. They’re just investigating the fencing.
Next month, up to 5,000 people will be wandering around stalls, comedy, cabaret, trad sessions, yoga and massage stations dotted around the 120-acre estate for the Body & Soul Festival. It’s their most environmentally ambitious festival yet, a cultural event that wants to effect change by showcasing a less wasteful world for a few days.
We’d grown really big and it just felt like the bigger we got the more we had to compromise, and the more money was going into security companies, fencing, licensing, insurance, that side of things, and less and less was going into the creative process— Avril Stanley
Body & Soul was born with Stanley as director as a little sister of the Electric Picnic in 2004. It grew to 15,000 people at its height in 2019, and then the great pause happened. If they had a motto post-Covid, it would be to build back circular.
“We’ve gone back to 5,000 [attendees] which is a bit of a crazy thing to do,” Stanley explains. “We’d grown really big and it just felt like the bigger we got the more we had to compromise, and the more money was going into security companies, fencing, licensing, insurance, that side of things, and less and less was going into the creative process ... And even though it was more successful, there was more profit in it for us, it didn’t feel good any more.”
What has felt good has been changing festival culture. Hughes, Body & Soul sustainability manager, is part of a new generation of experts unapologetic about putting environmental integrity centre stage. In 2020, when she joined the team, “we joined a European Green Deal for Circular Festivals, with a commitment by 2025 we’ll reduce our impact by as much as possible”, she explains. Amsterdam’s docklands festival DGTL is the shining example of the kind of festival Body & Soul hopes to become.
“It just felt like a really good opportunity to strip everything right back,” Stanley says.
A circular festival avoids creating waste in the first place and then recycles properly whatever is wasted. Transport emissions are lowered or eliminated, and power is renewable. Leftover food becomes compost in a biodigester, and campsites are left with flattened grass patches rather than a sea of discarded tents and vomit-stained sleeping bags. When the stages and flagpoles and seating are taken down and packed away for another year, the environmental impact will have been minimal. It has the potential to be a living lab for the wider world. As Hughes explains, you can see the resources (a word she prefers instead of “waste”) flowing in — the food and materials brought in by caterers, the products sold by traders, the tents, sleeping bags, bottles, bags and stuff brought by the festival-goers.
So, it’s about making the idea of taking care of these resources cool?
“Yeah, making it cool but also making it convenient, accessible and giving people the opportunity to do the right thing and understand how they’re feeding into that. It can be challenging when something very small like having a reusable bottle or cup can feel like a very mundane thing in the face of the climate crisis, and in the face of what’s going on with big corporations and Governments around the world it can feel very small,” Hughes explains. “But what’s really amazing, and what you see at festivals, is that there are so many people here all doing it; the difference that makes right in that moment [is obvious] and that can be a lesson for wider society, how it feels when we all take good steps. It’s a collective.”
The figures are sobering. Body & Soul 2019 generated over 81 tonnes of waste; almost half of it, or nearly 37 tonnes, was sent for incineration
For Stanley, nudging this kind of caring collective into being has frequently felt thankless. She mimes rolling a giant boulder up a hill. “Trying to change the Irish psyche around taking your tent home? Not easy.” This year’s big leap is that the campsite will be fully designated “Leave no Trace.”
The idea started in 2014. “I gave people an option,” Stanley says. “Same price ticket, except for quicker entry and a few little perks.” Five hundred of the 6,500 attendees, or fewer than one in 10, chose the leave-no-trace option.
“This year we’re standing for being a leave no trace festival, so when you buy your ticket, one of the things it asks you is, are you committing to being a leave no trace citizen, and what that means around taking home what you brought. We give everybody bin bags. We’ve Earth Guardians in the campsite that are there to encourage people, advise them, chat to them, and on the get-out they’ll be like, ‘come on guys you can do this’, just to encourage, if it’s a bad Monday.
“How do you change the psyche of a nation around rubbish? Well, you do it very slowly, and you do it through choice because the power is in making the choice and in our experience that’s grown year on year.”
The figures are sobering. Body & Soul 2019 generated over 81 tonnes of waste; almost half of it, or nearly 37 tonnes, was sent for incineration. Last year that figure had dropped to 28 tonnes of waste, but so too had the attendance, so the average waste per person was similar, at around six kilos. But the big difference was that last year just four tonnes went for incineration. The rest was recycled or composted. There were fewer abandoned tents. Three out of four people last year chose the leave no trace campsite.
They banned single-use plastics in 2016. Last year all the bars served drinks in recycled hard plastic cups, which get washed and reused. The sight of a festival without a sea of discarded single use plastic cups was a happy one, Stanley says. “It was a really expensive thing to do, but it was so beautiful because there were no plastic cups on the ground anywhere. We were just removing 30,000 [single use] plastic cups from our impact.”
The only way for us to achieve compost toilets within the festival is if it’s a Government initiative where we’re supported to do it— Avril Stanley
Hughes and the team have been briefing traders and putting policies in place for them. “We don’t want plastic sachets anymore, we don’t want single-use salt sachets anymore.” Traders have been sharing information on where to get more environmentally friendly serving options.
Last year the festival toilets were almost all compost toilets. “And it was amazing,” Hughes says. Everyone using the toilets was asked to bring in a cup of sawdust to add to their deposit. Some people loved it, Stanley says. Others hated it.
“ We thought that by starting [the compost toilets] last year, hopefully, other festivals would pick up on it and support there being compost toilets in this country, because they had to come in from England ... [but] other events have not got behind it,” Stanley says. “Really, the only way for us to achieve compost toilets within the festival is if it’s a Government initiative where we’re supported to do it. We can audit it, document it, create the supports for other festivals, the A-Z that we’ve done it … And in time it’ll probably come down as a mandate, but we’re not there yet.”
On the 120-acre site, there is a lot of space between stages and tents and bars.
“People have a lot of space to move and they can find their own little quiet spot,” Stanley says. “There’s a tangible feeling when you go in and the place is not littered with plastic cups. You have to shut something off in yourself to be okay with tents everywhere and plastic cups everywhere. Here, we’re facilitating people to just be a little bit more open, a bit more connected, like we’re in it together. There’s that sense of, if someone trips, four people go over instead of stepping over them on their way to the bar. There’s a kindness that that cultivates and that’s worth a lot.”
On the transport front, there’ll be a Body & Soul train for the first time this year, getting people from all over the country to Mullingar with a shuttle transfer to Ballinlough. Bus Éireann will also service the route
Discounters and supermarkets “all have played a role in a culture that’s been created” around waste, she says. “They have made it so cheap that you can literally throw it away afterwards. I’d love the idea of a levy for the likes of the Lidls, the Aldis and the Dunnes and whoever else is doing it, where for every tent they sell they’ve to give a fiver to this Government fund that gets distributed to festivals who are dealing with the impact.”
“Throwaway culture is a big scary part of society,” Hughes agrees. “When something is reusable and it’s being marketed as a single use, that’s a kick in the teeth. But I think we’re moving away from that now, and we’re seeing people beginning to value their things, because we’re in a cost of living crisis.”
On the transport front, there’ll be a Body & Soul train for the first time this year, getting people from all over the country to Mullingar with a shuttle transfer to Ballinlough. Bus Éireann will also service the route.
“We love being a pioneer festival, figuring out how to do stuff and change things, building our own stages, creating our decor, and becoming circular. That’s where we get excited,” Stanley says.
“We try to reduce our impact, and still do something that’s creative and positive and fun, with joy injected into the belly of it.”
Playing their part: What other festivals are doing to combat waste
- In 2022, The Galway International Arts Festival included a festival garden, powered by solar.
- In 2022, Pride LGBTQ+ Festival in Dublin made the switch to 100 per cent biofuel across the festival site, saving an estimated 1.3 tonnes of CO2.
- In 2022, the Galway Christmas Market undertook an in-depth audit of all electrical equipment on site, to build a better, more detailed understanding of the energy requirements of individual trading units, and all other infrastructure. This information will inform a smart power plan for the market in 2023.
- Spraoi International Street Arts Festival in Waterford consulted with Waterford City and County Council, leading to the installation of national grid street connections around the city, providing power for festival activities without the use of diesel generators.
- The Dublin Horse Show, held annually in the RDS, works closely with Bus Éireann and Irish Rail to encourage people to take public transport to the event.
- Galway International Arts Festival (GIAF) promotes sustainable transport solutions during the festival period, including the use of public transport. In 2022, GIAF and its energy partner partnered with electric bike company Brite Mobility to offer free e-bikes to organisers, artists, accredited staff, and ticket holders, with 35 electric bikes based at five central locations.
- In 2022, Youghal Medieval Festival, with support from Cork County Council, implemented a refill mobile hydration station at the event, eliminating the sale of plastic bottled water onsite.
- In 2022, Clonakilty International Guitar Festival took a decision not to purchase any new T-shirt merchandise, selling the previous editions instead. Festival programmes were made available only in digital format. Implementing this for the first time brought about mixed reactions. Attendees expressed understanding but also disappointment in not having the physical programmes as they were seen as “something to bond over” in the lead-up to the festival. The town, however, felt the benefits of their absence as litter was greatly reduced as a result.
- In 2019, St Patrick’s Festival Dublin developed a Traders’ Sustainability Policy. This banned single-use plastic items and put rules in place around certified products including coffee, tea, sugar, tropical fruit, and chocolate, as well as procurement guidelines for meat, dairy and fish.
- Killarney’s Wander Wild Festival operates a food trail — highlighting locally sourced sustainable produce in collaboration with local restaurants.
- Sea Sessions Festival, held annually in Bundoran, Co Donegal, undertakes regular beach clean-ups with An Taisce.
- Féile Brian Ború, in Ballina, organises events as part of the festival programme with the aim of highlighting and creating awareness of local biodiversity, such as pond dipping, nature walks, and foraging. The festival also hosts horticulture workshops providing tips on how to grow produce and be more self-sufficient.
- In 2021, Pride LGBTQ+ Festival in Dublin published its ambitious climate action policy, making a public statement about its intentions to act — seeing climate justice as a human rights issue.