Denmark’s Roskilde Festival creates a city’s worth of rubbish. What are organizers and guests doing about it?

In one-and-a-half weeks from opening its doors to the last guest leaving, the Roskilde Festival produces 2,200 tonnes of trash. That is more than 10 percent of the annual waste production of the city of Roskilde.

Denmark’s Roskilde Festival creates a city's worth of rubbish. What are organizers and guests doing about it?
A toppled (probably by the wind) rubbish bin at the Roskilde Festival. Other areas are cleaner. Photo: Michael Barrett

Gusts of air blow across a recycling station in one of the Roskilde Festival’s camping zones, whipping newspapers and packaging from multipacks of beer high into the air.

A large container for plastic waste is piled to the brim with bits of broken tents, victims of a relentless wind that has blown throughout this year’s event.

Punctured blue air mattresses have been placed in a separate area and other containers are marked for metal waste and batteries.

It’s Wednesday afternoon and although the concert programme has barely begun, most of the guests have already camped in the area for several nights, following the tradition of days-long partying and warming up for the main event.

On their way to the festival area, some guests dart in behind the recycling containers to relieve themselves. Others take a discarded tent pole and use it to repair their own damaged setup.

This is the camping area known as ‘Clean Out Loud’, where guests are obliged to tidy their plots twice daily and take out rubbish and recycling.

Other camping areas do not have such rules, and trash piles up for days before the post-festival cleanup.

A recycling station in the Clean Out Loud area. Photo: Michael Barrett

Henrik Felby and Vincent Dall, two Danish festival guests who are camping in Clean Out Loud, pass by, bringing plastic sacks of refuse to add to the recycling pile.

“It’s important to minimize the impact on the environment that can come from a huge festival like this,” Felby says.

Sorting and managing waste is one of the biggest challenges faced by the Roskilde Festival, which has 130,000 guests and temporarily becomes Denmark’s fourth-largest city during its annual run.

The last three years have each seen over 2,000 tonnes of trash generated by guests.

Most of this waste is taken to incinerators post-festival after volunteers, who work in exchange for their tickets, clear the fields – right down to individual ring-pulls and bottle tops.

In 2018, a total of 296 tonnes of waste was re-used, a figure slightly down from the preceding two years.

Initiatives such as the Clean Out Loud camps have been introduced in an effort to change the festival’s culture on rubbish and recycling, says Sanne Stephansen, who is the programme leader for sustainability at Roskilde Festival.

“130,000 people at a site can be shown a lot of new things,” Stephansen says.

A big part of this is dialogue, she explains.

“(We can say) ‘bring your stuff here’, informing the audience of the consequences. Much of our sustainability programme is about behaviour,” she says.

Other initiatives to be trialed by the festival this year include an extended system for surcharging recyclable plastic cups, encouraging their return, and the introduction of a company, Gentræ, which specializes in collecting and reusing wood.

READ ALSO: Roskilde Festival 2019: New technology to play role as campers pitch tents

Getting guests to buy into reusing — taking things home after they have fulfilled their one-off festival purpose – is described by Stephansen as a “systemic” barrier to improving sustainability.

“When you can buy a package containing your ‘festival gear’ for 400 kroner, you don’t need to reuse it,” she says.

Evidence of this can be seen in the camping zones, where tents marked ‘2018’ – bought last year and brought back in 2019 as part of the festival’s sustainability drive — can be spotted, although they are few among the thousands of canvas roofs.

A 2018 Roskilde tent being reused. Photo: Michael Barrett

The camping zones, rather than the concert stages, are the hardest areas in which to effectively reuse and recycle, says Jakob Fallov, waste planner with Roskilde Municipality and the Roskilde Festival’s waste department.

“People mix (rubbish) together and don’t bring it to the right places,” says Fallov, who explains that over 10 percent of the city of Roskilde’s annual waste comes from its yearly music festival.

But there is some progress. Around 13 percent of waste, mostly consisting of metal and cardboard, is recycled. Plastic is more difficult because recyclable and unrecyclable materials are easily mixed together, Fallov says.

“But we are now able to recycle the metal from tents,” he says. “This year is the first time (for that).”

Clean Out Loud is gaining popularity, with 22,000 people staying in the zone in 2017 compared to 28,500 this year.

“But we can only walk at the same speed as the audience,” Fallov says.

And it’s not just down to cleaning and sorting, he points out, reiterating Stephansen’s remarks.

“We want them to take tents and sleeping bags (home) with them,” he says.

For Felby and Dall, the culture of cleaner living at festivals has potential to expand.

“Clean Out Loud should reach more people. If it becomes popular enough, the area could be extended so that more make an effort,” Felby says.

An old – perhaps outdated – festival argument is that being here, away from the real world for a while, is a way of freeing oneself of everyday responsibilities, including environmental ones. I put this to Dall and Felby.

“I think that’s bullshit. Being at a festival doesn’t mean you can throw out all your responsibilities. I’d argue it’s actually more important to take part in the cleaning-up effort,” Felby says.

Henrik Felby (L) and Vincent Dall, Roskilde guests at a recycling station. Photo: Michael Barrett

“Maybe a lot of people will say, ‘I come to my camp and leave it as though there’s been a tornado’, and you can’t persuade people like that to be different, so it’s important, as someone who can be persuaded, to make an effort for the collective,” he adds.

“Clean Out Loud shows it needn’t be boring or a pain in the arse to clear up. You can easily have a good time without going around in a pile of trash,” Dall says, adding:

“It makes such a difference, and we’re having such a great time, and we’re not swimming in cans.”

READ ALSO: 'I've worked in asylum centres, but have never tried anything like this before': Roskilde Festival volunteer

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Denmark’s summer music festival hopes fade

The possibility of large-scale music festivals taking place in Denmark this summer has been described as “unrealistic” following the publication of expert recommendations for coronavirus-safe events.

Denmark’s summer music festival hopes fade
The Roskilde Festival during the glorious summer of 2018. Photo: Sofie Mathiassen/Ritzau Scanpix

Music events such as the Roskilde Festival, the largest of its kind in northern Europe, would not be able to take place as normal and must be without overnight guests under the recommendations, submitted in report form by an expert advisory group to the government on Friday.

The group, appointed as part of the national reopening plan, was tasked with looking at how festivals and other large events can take place this summer.

The recommendations will provide the basis political discussions which will form an agreement over large events which will be integrated into the reopening plan.

READ ALSO: Denmark enters new phase of reopening plan: Here’s what changed on April 21st

Seven various scenarios, including one for outdoors, standing events, were considered by the expert group in forming its recommendations. Two phases have been set down for eased restrictions on large events, which are currently banned due to the public assembly limit.

In the final phase of the restrictions towards the end of the summer, a maximum of 10,000 people would be permitted to attend an event. All attendees would be required to present a valid corona passport, and audiences would be split into sections of 2,000.

Although that could provide a framework for some events to take place, Roskilde Festival, which normally has a total of around 130,000 guests and volunteers including sprawling camping areas, appears to be impossible in anything resembling its usual format.

The festival was also cancelled in 2020.

Roskilde Festival CEO Signe Lopdrup, who was part of the expert group, said the festival was unlikely to go ahead should it be required to follow the recommendations.

“Based on the recommendations, we find it very difficult to believe it is realistic to organise festivals in Denmark before the end of the summer,” Lopdrup said in a written comment to broadcaster DR.

The restrictions would mean “that it is not possible to go ahead with the Roskilde Festival. That’s completely unbearable. But that’s where we’ve ended,” she added.

The news is potentially less bleak for other types of event with fewer participants, with cultural and sporting events as well as conferences also included in the recommendations submitted by the group.

Parliament has previously approved a compensation scheme for major events forced to cancel due to coronavirus measures this summer.