Which music festivals are hitting all the right sustainability notes?

Environmentalism in music has been making headlines since Coldplay announced their eco-friendly tour. Music festivals are also making waves in trying to improve their sustainability, but which ones in the US, UK, and mainland Europe are doing their best?
August 30, 2023

Situating the festivals

Coachella in California and Summerfest in Milwaukee are two of the biggest music festivals in the United States. In 2022, about 750,000 people attended Coachella over six days.[i] 624,407 people attended Summerfest this year, although pre-pandemic in 2019, attendance was higher, with 718,144 turning up in 2019.[ii] Glastonbury Festival in Somerset is the UK’s biggest festival, with a capacity of 200,000 people[iii] across 900 acres[iv]. Glastonbury pitches itself as “passionately committed to creating a cleaner, more fair, sustainable future for all”.[v] Reading and Leeds Festival has a combined capacity of about 185,000 people, 105,000 at Reading[vi] and 80,000 at Leeds[vii]. 

Tomorrowland is an electronic dance music (EDM) festival in Boom, Belgium. Over 600,000 people attended Tomorrowland Festival in 2022.[viii] Sziget Festival is in northern Budapest. In 2022, it was estimated that around 450,000 people attended.[ix] Both Summerfest and Tomorrowland do not appear to have a sustainability policy or statement clearly displayed on their websites. Regarding the other festivals, it is important to remember that this data is self-reported. How data is presented and what is left out can be used to create a more positive picture than reality. Read more about greenwashing from ZCA here.

Waste not, want not

Source: Unsplash


Coachella is trying to reduce single-use plastic by replacing all drinks bottles sold inside the venue and campsite with aluminium packaging. Food vendors are required to provide recyclable cups and compostable service ware such as plates, cups, and utensils. Coachella created its Waste Gang team in 2018 to help increase recycling and composting. In 2022, Waste Gang helped to divert 141 tons of mixed recycling and 86 tons of compost. Left-over food from the catering vendors and campers is donated to Coachella Valley Rescue Mission and the Galilee Centre. Coachella donated 28 tons of food and materials in 2022.[x]

Glastonbury’s waste policy focuses on the terms “reuse” and “reduce”. No single-use plastic drink bottles are sold, and all crisps are sold in compostable packing. Crockery and plates at the festival are also reusable or compostable. Any inedible food waste is composted or sent to anaerobic digestion. Glastonbury has the UK’s largest on-site recycling plant for events. They ask festival goers to use the recycling bins provided and bring reusable water bottles and not to bring environmentally damaging items like disposable vapes and body glitter. Since 2019, 99% of all tents have been taken home.[xi]

Currently, over 100 million plastic cups are used annually at UK festivals and live events, most of which are incinerated or sent to landfills.[xii] Reading and Leeds Festival are reducing single-use plastic by supplying paper cups instead of plastic ones. A deposit return scheme for these cups has been in place since 2006, where every cup and bottle sold has a 10p deposit included in the price. By collecting ten bottles or cups and taking them to the recycling station, you can receive money back. Additionally, reverse vending machines at the Co-op store provide customers with a Co-op voucher for recycling their plastic bottles. The Pepsi Max bars don’t use plastic bottles by serving drinks in paper cups and offering refills. Bottled soft drinks and water are served in bottles made from at least 50% plastic. Since 2009, plastic cutlery and straws have been banned, and only compostable food containers are allowed. Food vendors need to use bulk condiment bottles rather than single-use sachets. There are composting, recycling and general waste bins around the venues. After the festival, charities and community groups are welcomed to the venue to salvage any reusable camping equipment that has been left behind.[xiii]

Sziget asks customers to refuse straws (only reusable ones will be provided), reuse their camping equipment or give it away at a designated collection point. Sziget is currently recycling 42.5% of the waste collected during the festival, and it aims to increase this to 50% in 2023. This is aided by 100 volunteers responsible for ensuring recycling is put into the correct bins. Sziget also saves around 1 million single-use cups every year due to their Re-cup program. To reduce cigarette littering, Sziget hands out around 30,000 pocket ashtrays during the festival. Compostable plates from three diners are composted in the Collective Composting Lab, which won the European Innovation Award in 2019. The humus material produced at the Lab is then used to recultivate Óbuda Island.[xiv]

Turning the off the tap

Source: Unsplash

Festival water policies tend to be quite simple and revolve around asking customers to bring refillable water bottles to top up at taps. In 2023, Coachella doubled the number of water spigots in the festival venue and campsite. Coachella is also starting to replace areas of grass with alternative landscapes to reduce the amount of water needed for irrigation.[xv] Glastonbury has taps across the site where reusable water bottles can be filled up. Festival goers are asked to turn off taps when not in use to help save water. Glastonbury also has WaterAid Kiosks around the site.[xvi] Reading and Leeds Festival asks customers to refill their water bottles at taps on site.[xvii] Sziget asks customers to refill their water bottles or tumblers at the assigned water taps, but they also ask customers to only push the water button in the shower three times to save water.[xviii] 

Clean and green energy

Source: Unsplash

Coachella’s renewable energy policy is minimal. However, Coachella does have an energy playground with the Global Inheritance Energy SeeSaw that helps you to power your phone.[xix] Glastonbury’s green energy policy is more robust. All generators on site are run on renewable palm-oil-free HVO fuel, which is made from waste cooking oil. Furthermore, all production areas are powered by renewable electricity or solar PV and battery hybrid systems. A temporary wind turbine, solar panels, and battery system provide the festival with up to 300kWh of energy per day, and this completely powers the food stalls in Williams Green. The Green Fields have been running on solar, wind, and pedal power since 1984. The festival offices are powered by a 250kWp solar PV array and an anaerobic digest, and a 125kVA biogas plant.[xx]

Reading and Leeds Festival has committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 50% by 2030. They report that most of their on-site emissions now come from powering the festival. In 2022, 98% of the festival was powered by HVO biofuel, which reduces emissions between 75-90%. However, there are some negative implications of biofuel, particularly regarding food security. In the future, Reading and Leeds are hoping to be fully electric.[xxi]

Last year, technical production at Sziget used 379.96 kWh of energy. 100% of Sziget’s energy comes from the grid. Sziget does not have many energy-saving initiatives, but it has stopped its office air-conditioning and switched to LED lighting. If caterers use more than a basic energy supply, they are required to pay extra.[xxii]

Sustainable Travel Options

Source: Unsplash 

Coachella asks visitors to camp, carpool or use the shuttle bus to reduce transport emissions. If you carpool with four or more friends and decorate your car with the word ‘Carpoolchella’, you could win a range of prizes. Up to 60,000 visitors use the festival’s shuttle every day of the festival, and 35,000 people camp on site each weekend.[xxiii] 

80% of UK festivals’ carbon footprints are made up of travel to the festival.[xxiv] Every year, over 40,000 visitors use Glastonbury’s travel initiatives to get to the festival by bike or public transport. These initiatives help contribute to 40% of festival goers using public transport to get to Glastonbury. Crew and artists have access to a fleet of electric and hybrid vehicles.[xxv] Reading and Leeds Festival have partnered with Big Green Coach, whose services are carbon neutral. There are 35 pick-up locations available for the Big Green Coach for Reading festival and 40 for Leeds. Reading and Leeds also explain how you can get to the festival by train, shuttle bus, or car sharing. For anyone travelling by car to Leeds Festival, £1 will be donated to Trees to Cities, which funds local tree-planting projects.[xxvi] 

80% of Sziget’s emissions come from aeroplane travel. Sziget asks that anyone travelling by plane takes part in their carbon compensation programme. Sziget also encourages visitors to use sustainable travel options like buses or trains to reach the festival. Its central location means that the festival is easy to get to by train, and the website provides links to recommended train travel services. Sziget is also a bike-friendly festival. It provides free bike storage, an on-site repair facility and rental services.[xxvii]

Which festivals are going the extra mile?

There are a range of other unique sustainability measures used by these festivals. For example, Glastonbury has a long history of engaging its visitors with climate activism and is partnered with Greenpeace, Oxfam, and WaterAid. Coachella has a range of engagement areas where artists and visitors can create works of art using recycled materials and create concept art to advocate for climate change solutions. Sziget has really gone the extra mile in terms of reporting its sustainability. You can read their 2022 sustainability report here. Sziget has also partnered with Green Deal Circular Festivals to transition the festival towards a circular economy.[xxviii] 

Multiple festivals also mention the sustainability of their food choices. All Coachella food vendors must provide a vegetarian option, and many have vegan dishes available[xxix]. Sziget is also encouraging food vendors to reduce red meat and provide more vegetarian and vegan options, and all caterers need to buy in-season fruit and vegetables from a centralised Hungarian retailer[xxx].


[i] HITC- How many people are there at Coachella Festival 2022?

[ii] On Milwaukee- Summerfest announces 40 percent jump in attendance for 2023, dates for 2024

[iii] Visit Britain- Music and Festivals

[iv] Glastonbury Festival- An Introduction to Glastonbury Festival

[v] Glastonbury Festival- Our Green Policies

[vi] Berkshire Live- Reading Festival 2022 Capacity- how many people go and how big is the site?

[vii] Yorkshire Evening Post- Leeds Festival 2022: what is the capacity, age limit, alcohol policy, line-up and are tickets still on sale?

[viii] Pilot Plans- Tomorrowland [2023]: Essential info on the world’s #1 festival!

[ix] Daily News Hungary- Budapest Sziget Festival was a huge success – number of visitors revealed

[x] Coachella- 2023 For Our Planet

[xi] Glastonbury Festival- Our Green Policies

[xii] Sziget Festival- Green Sziget

[xiii] Reading Festival- Staying Green & Leeds Festival- Staying Green

[xiv] Sziget Festival- Green Sziget

[xv] Coachella- 2023 For Our Planet

[xvi] Glastonbury Festival- Our Green Policies

[xvii] Reading Festival- Staying Green & Leeds Festival- Staying Green

[xviii] Sziget Festival- Green Sziget

[xix] Coachella- 2023 For Our Planet

[xx] Glastonbury Festival- Our Green Policies

[xxi] Reading Festival- Staying Green & Leeds Festival- Staying Green

[xxii] Sziget- Sustainability Report 2022

[xxiii] Coachella- 2023 For Our Planet

[xxiv] Vision 2025- The Show Must Go On

[xxv] Glastonbury Festival- Our Green Policies

[xxvi] Reading Festival- Staying Green & Leeds Festival- Staying Green

[xxvii] Sziget Festival- Green Sziget

[xxviii] Ibid

[xxix] Coachella- 2023 For Our Planet

[xxx] Sziget Festival- Green Sziget

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Gemma Drake
Research Analyst

Gemma recently graduated with a degree in International Development. She is currently studying for an MSc in Sustainable Urbanism, which examines urban planning and urban design through a sustainability lens. “I’m passionate about addressing sustainability challenges in a holistic and pragmatic way. Zero Carbon Academy's diverse range of services targets many of the areas that need support if we are to transition to a liveable future. I’m excited to see the impact that the Academy makes.”

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