Alicia Nicholls

Festivals, inclusive of carnivals, are a defining feature of the Caribbean entertainment and cultural landscape. Be it music, food, arts, film or fashion, there is a Caribbean festival for everyone. In Barbados, for instance, we just concluded our Crop Over Festival – a three-month long summer festival with a variety of music competitions and other cultural offerings which culminate with street revelers bedecked in colorful costumes dancing to Soca music on what we call Grand Kadooment Day – the first Monday of each August.

It is by now well-known that festivals make an important contribution to Caribbean economies and are among our countries’ biggest service exports. Festivals attract visitors from around the Caribbean and the world, generate foreign exchange inflows and other economic spillovers, and showcase our rich cultural and creative industries. Our biggest Barbadian superstar Rihanna is a well-known face among the revelers on Grand Kadooment Day.

But what is less ventilated is the impact of Caribbean festivals on our fragile environments and how we can make them not just profitable but planet-friendly. This article provides an initial discussion as part of my on-going research on this topic.

The environmental impact of festivals

All festivals have an environmental footprint. They utilize finite resources such as water, fuel and electricity. They generate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from patrons driving to and from festival venues, as well as create waste and noise pollution.

A significant amount of festival waste comes from single-use plastics. Thankfully, an increasing number of Caribbean countries have begun implementing bans on the importation, sale or use of single-use plastics which cuts down on the amount of waste generated from Styrofoam food containers, straws, plastic plates and cutlery. In Barbados, due to the recently implemented ban on single-use plastics, it was refreshing to see persons jumping on Kadooment Day with reusable cups in their hands instead of utilizing plastic cups.

But waste is not only generated from these easily identifiable plastics. Scientists warn that microbeads like glitter, a staple of many costumes and cosmetics, are an often overlooked form of microplastics which can be ingested by marine life and contaminate our food chains. Waste is also generated from paper used in the printing of promo flyers, printed tickets and programmes.

The literature on the environmental impact of festivals remains limited and is confined primarily to festivals in developed countries, such as the UK, Australia and the US. While I am unaware of any study which comprehensively measures the environmental impact of Caribbean festivals, a report by UK not-for-profit think tank Powerful Thinking studying the environmental impact of UK festivals may be instructive. While the UK festival experience might not be directly analogous to ours in the Caribbean as their major festivals often require patrons to travel and camp on-site, it still provides a useful point of departure for the environmental impacts festivals can have.

The Powerful Thinking Report found that the UK festival industry, which attracts over 3 million people per year, produces 23,500 tonnes of waste and is responsible for nearly 20,000 tonnes of on-site carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions annually. This latter statistic should give us pause given the impact which GHGs like carbon dioxide have on climate change which is one of the biggest threats facing Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like those in the Caribbean. The report, however, also found that 78% of festival organisers in the UK have an environmental policy. The Glastonbury Festival, for example, has green policies for waste, energy and water on its website.

How can our festivals go greener?

In the Caribbean many of our big-ticket festivals are organized by government-run entities, but others are private sector initiatives. While no festival can be completely carbon or environmentally neutral, it is incumbent on our festival planners and organizers to make environmental sustainability a priority in our festival planning efforts to minimize their environmental impact.

As previously noted, other festivals around the world are also grappling with how to make their festivals greener and are implementing policies to address this. The previously mentioned Powerful Thinking Report also offered several key recommendations to enable British festivals to meet the challenge of achieving a 50% reduction in emissions compared to 2014 by 2025. Some of these include local sourcing of food products, reducing food waste and segregating materials onsite.

Empirically studying the environmental and carbon impact of Caribbean festivals will assist in designing evidence-based environmental policies for our festivals that are tailored to our Caribbean realities.  Something as simple as ensuring there are enough strategically placed garbage receptables could help reduce the likelihood of litter, as well as using recycling to reduce the amount of waste to going to the landfill. Festival organisers can either provide reusable cups or encourage participants to walk with their own reusable cups instead of using plastic cups. Biodegradable glitter can be used to reduce the plastic waste generated. Paper waste can be reduced by going paperless and making greater of digital technologies, such as event apps and e-tickets. In Barbados, a number of events now have park and ride options which can go a long way in reducing the CO2 emissions from multiple cars going to and from events. As noise pollution from late-night fetes and other events can be bugbear for residents, policies must be instituted regulating the times and locations of events in order to minimise noise pollution.

Another option is international certification. The International Organization for Standardisation (ISO) has developed an International Standard for Sustainable Event Management (ISO 20121) that offers guidance and best practices for identifying, managing and mitigating the social, economic and environmental impacts of events. The ISO 20121 is not only for festivals, but other events such as conferences, concerts, sporting events and exhibitions. While the standard has not yet been widely adopted, some festivals, such as Spain’s Balelec Music Festival and Australia’s Sydney Festival, have opted to become ISO20121 certified in order to manage their environmental impact and enhance their image as part of their marketing efforts.

The Way Forward

Regrettably, many Caribbean countries do not publish extensive statistics, if any, on the economic impact of their festivals. Therefore, one recommendation would be that post-festival analyses be published and include an analysis of the environmental impact. This data would support the crafting of empirically sound greening policies and sensitise the public about the importance of environmentally-friendly practices even when they are, as we say in the Caribbean, ‘playing mas’.

As always, the elephant in the room is what impact these greening initiatives may have on festival organizers’ bottom lines and whether any added costs from greening initiatives will be passed on to consumers, affecting the profitability of the festivals concerned. There is, therefore, the need to consider cost-effective greening options wherever possible.

Greening our festivals should also not be seen as simply another cost imposition, but as an opportunity. Research has shown that millennials are more socially conscious than older generations and care much more about their carbon footprint. Millennials, therefore, are a ripe target market for festivals which are both fun, but also environmentally-friendly. Some UK festivals, like the Glastonbury Festival, use their environmental friendliness as part of their marketing strategies. Moreover, festival organizers’ demand for more environmentally friendly products could lead to start-ups specializing in such products.

Above all, the costs to our Caribbean environments in the long run due to inaction would be much higher than the cost of positive action. Environmentally unsustainable festivals can negatively impact our geographical landscapes, contaminate the food we eat through marine pollution, the air we breathe and our climate. It is in our own interests as festival goers and organisers to ensure that we have enjoyable but also environmentally-friendly and sustainable festivals.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed herein are her personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of any institution or entity with which she may be affiliated from time to time.

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