You’ve worked with Bonnaroo since the beginning, which was 16 years ago now. Now that music festivals are way more heightened in entertainment culture than they were back then, has your perspective on cleaning up these events and your clean-up process changed in any way? I know that in 2008, [Bonnaroo] started to do the on-site composting. What’s it like having to work with that now and now that the crowds are bigger and it gets crazier?
I would say there’s more that stays the same than has changed. The on-site composting was actually really great how it came about. We had worked with a facility based in Knoxville for a couple of years that took our compost, so we had already been composting but we were hauling it to a facility. About a month before Bonnaroo, that facility told us that they made their permanent change and they could only take yard waste, they couldn’t take food waste, so we were left with scrambling to think, “Okay, how can we not take a big step back in our diversion plan?” And luckily it was the time when Bonnaroo bought the property and we were able to have no issues with composting on-site and that’s just become a great solution and really ensured that the footprint of that is somewhat smaller than even just having to take it off-site to a different compost facility.
And you’re definitely showing that it’s working. You mentioned the raffle to encourage concert-goers to help out as well. What are you guys planning for this year’s Bonnaroo raffle?
Since 2008, we’ve had what’s called the Clean Vibes Trading Post and we’ve had that at Bonnaroo, at Firefly, at Outside Lands, Forecastle, we’ll have it at Curveball this year. And what that is is that’s our non-profit arm. It started off as the Clean Vibes Raffle at the Phish festivals and early Bonnaroos, and then we realized that the American way is that you need instant gratification—not just a chance to win—and so we turned it into the Trading Post and received our 501c3 status and basically what that is, is that cans and bottles, compostable cups, and little baggies of cigarette butts will sometimes become the only currency that’s accepted at that booth. So we have companies that donate their goods, we have artist merchandise, festival merchandise, vendor vouchers, ferris wheel tickets, all the good things that are of value to your festival goers, and basically you turn in a bag of recycling or a bag of cigarettes butts and that has a point value to it. And the great thing is we see a couple of hundred people who spent 15 to 20 minutes, they pick up a bag, they get engaged. And then you have a couple of dozen people that that really dominates their weekend and they get so into it and so passionate and they’re out there picking out 50, 60 bags of recycling. They just get totally pumped and it obviously catches on, it’s contagious, and people see them doing it and they help participate and we like to say that it’s our way of incentivizing folks to be doing what they should be doing anyways, because in an ideal world everyone is cleaning up after themselves. But sometimes we have to reward people for doing that.
Which festivals give you the biggest mess? And which ones are the most rewarding when it comes to the amount of waste recycled?
In terms of the amount of waste overall, a camping festival is always gonna have a totally different level of quantity of waste. We did at a camping festival, typically 75% of waste is from the campgrounds, because we figure it’s not just people showing up drinking beer, eating their food and then leaving—it’s everything that they need to live for five days. So, understandably, the quantity there. Bonnaroo is always amazing to me especially because now that we have an army of over 500 volunteers, we clean 800 acres in less than two days. And even though I see it every year, it still blows my mind what we can accomplish. It’s the true definition of “many hands make light work,” that we can line up kids who have been partying intensely for four days and have them walk the fields and they’re spotless afterwards. In terms of the waste diversion side of it, Outside Lands is always our shining star of that. For the past two years, we’ve diverted 91% of the festival waste from the landfill, and that’s an enormous undertaking, obviously. The city of San Francisco helps facilitate that because the festival is so waste-diversion driven. There’s food donation components, pallet donation components, there’s about nine different places that the waste goes, only some of those being city provided, to ensure that we can really make sure that everything that isn’t landfill waste goes somewhere other than the landfill.
Right, and that festival is in Golden Gate Park. That’s a massive park, so it’s understandable that that would be the most rewarding. Is that one of the reasons why Clean Vibes decided to have a West Coast hub in San Francisco?
Yeah, we worked in California since 2001 with High Sierra Music Festival. But [in] 2007 we went out there and worked Power to the Peaceful and Treasure Island and then 2008 was the first Outside Lands. And we really saw that the city’s values for waste diversion were very much aligned with ours and saw a lot of potential with that. That was the main motivation for starting our West Coast branch, This is our 5th year of the West Coast branch and it’s really taking off and it’s a different model because we’re just working a lot of non-festival events. We work all of the events at the Fort Mason Center, we work all the off the grid food truck markets—which are basically like solar powered food trucks and other vending booths markets where people can go and have a picnic and check out all the amazing food vendors here—and lots of other small-scale events with a different model, but our West Coast branch manager has really taken the concept and ran with it out there and able to provide that with diversion to all kinds of different events.
Was branching out to those non-music events something of intention, did that happen along the way as you were branching out to different locations, or, were you approached by these companies to do this work?
It’s always been part of the vision. When we started, there weren’t nearly as many [music festivals]. We had no idea that the context of music festivals would grow exponentially, like it has, but it was always in the back of our heads that if we could create a model for having a solid clean up plan and waste diversion for outdoor events there’s no reason it couldn’t apply to other types of outdoor events. So it’s always been there, and it’s been slow growth to expand in that way, but we really see it happening especially on the West Coast.
What do you think would be the overall motto for Clean Vibes?
Most of these events, they’re not happening at stadiums and amphitheaters, they’re happening in a field, or in a state park, and we’re creating a city and we’re showing people that within that city that we just created in a field that we can divert a huge amount of waste and that it is a simple, manageable thing to achieve.
I know that Dean had asked you this back in 2002 but I’m wondering if it’s changed for you. What are the best and worst things you’ve found while sorting through festival trash?
[Laughs] Well, the best, which I guess you wouldn’t truly say “sorting through,” but at the [Camp] Oswego Phish show in 1999, there was a 9 month-old dog that was abandoned at the festival. He wouldn’t come to anybody, animal control came, tried get him, and I decided that part of our responsibility for cleaning up the festival was also making sure that he got off the property safely. And he eventually came to me and was the best dog that we ever had. Lived until 2012 and will forever be the best ground score there could ever be.
Yes, Mr. Oz. Absolutely.
What kind of dog was he?
He was a rottweiler/lab mix. He was never quite right because he spent that weekend at a Phish festival [laughs], but to everyone he loved he was the best dog in the world.
Anything else you’d like to say for people considering volunteering with Clean Vibes?
For folks, whether they’re festival veterans or festival noobs, experiencing a festival through Clean Vibes is a great way to feel involved, to take that added take away from it and also to really connect with a group of like-minded folks. People joke that there could be Clean Vibes sitcoms, reality shows, because the community of people that have been formed through working and volunteering with us is just amazing.