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Festival Season In New Orleans Means Music, Food - And A Lot Of Trash

Jessica Rosgaard
French Quarter Fest introduced a recycling program for the first time this year, along with a reusable go-cup to help reduce waste.

As New Orleans heads into the second weekend of Jazz Fest, hundreds of thousands of people are looking forward to listening to local music, and eating and drinking at the fairgrounds. But all of those people create a lot of waste. So what are our festivals doing to cut back on their trash?

As the last band wraps up their set on the main French Quarter Fest stage along the Mississippi River, the crowd streams away leaving a field of trash in their wake. Litter-strewn lawns are a common sight at the end of the day during festival season in New Orleans.

Emily Madero is trying to change that. She’s the president of French Quarter Festivals Inc.

“We love our music festivals, and we love the food and the beverage and enjoying Louisiana culture,” Madero says. “We also recognize with that comes a lot of single use products.”

Plastic products like utensils, cups and bottles.

And it adds up - the international non-profit “A Greener Festival” estimates every festival-goer produces about a pound of trash per day. A record 800-thousand people attended French Quarter Fest this year. More people - means more trash. An estimated 400 TONS of it.

Madero knows that’s a problem - so her team launched a recycling program this year. But it came with a hefty price tag for the free festival: $50-thousand dollars.

“As a nonprofit that's a massive fundraising hurdle for something that you know isn’t very sexy to get a sponsorship for, for example.”

So Madero says the Festival put out recycling bins, and hired contractors to haul it away. To offset the cost, they sold a reusable go-cup - with discounted beer refills.

The cups were successful - almost 10-thousand were ordered and sold out in two days. The recycling program - not so much.

The goal was to divert 40-thousand tons of trash from landfills. In the end, French Quarter Fest estimates only 6 tons - half a garbage truck - of plastics, aluminum and cardboard were collected.

Festival organizers say people put their recycling in the right bins, they just didn’t always seek them out.

“We're gonna take away from this year insights and learnings that we can apply to next year to improve the experience and hopefully expand it,” says Madero.

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has expanded its recycling program this year - plastic bottles and aluminum cans can be tossed at one of 10 recycling stations throughout the fairgrounds - more than double last year.

But if festivals want to be more sustainable, recycling might not be enough. Experts say it’s not that effective. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates only 9% of all plastic waste is ACTUALLY recycled.

“Our challenge in New Orleans is actually much more about preventing waste,” says Jane Patton, the Director of No Waste NOLA. The group works to reduce single-use plastics.

Patton says selling a reusable cup is a step in the right direction, but it’s still plastic. “I would love the idea of festivals promoting a refill of your own thing without having to buy anything new.”

Festivals leave it up to individual vendors to decide what to serve their food and drinks in - like styrofoam, plastic or paper. Biodegradable and compostable go-containers tend to cost more than plastic, affecting a vendor’s bottom line. And Emily Madero says her non-profit Festival can’t risk alienating vendors by demanding they use sustainable materials.

“We don't operate the food booths but we want to provide a platform for local restaurants and chefs to be able to serve their food,” Madero says. “So we've tried to encourage them to adopt single use products that might have a smaller ecological footprint.”

Jane Patton says the responsibility for reducing waste at festivals falls too much on the consumer - reusing a go-cup and separating your recycling from trash requires personal buy-in. Patton wants to see change from the top down.

“What we are actually advocating for is for large events like festivals to adopt reusable and refillable infrastructure and to avoid plastic wherever possible,” says Patton. “So to compost as much as they can both food and food service ware like plates or cutlery.”

Ultimately, Patton says, the responsibility for reducing waste at large events is shared by participants and organizers.

“I think there's a particular responsibility that we have to think about how do we make sure that we are maximizing fun and mitigating harm and that's the responsibility that I ask all the festivals to bring in.”

So if you’re heading out to Jazz Fest this weekend, Patton says toss a fork - and maybe a reusable straw in your bag along with your blanket and sunscreen.

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